The same goes for our soil: the greater variety of foods we grow, the richer and more regenerative our soil.
Nature provides us with the possibility of seemingly unending bounty but because of economics, efficiency, and society’s focus elsewhere, the variety of seeds we actively cultivate continues to narrow. Of course, part of this has to do with familiarity – growing the things we have always grown, buying the things we have always bought – but if we want to farm healthy soil, we must grow diversely. This not only means what we grow but how, because the more dynamic our systems, the more diverse our foodshed and the closer to mimicking nature we become.
“We don’t want to see rows when we look out at farms, we want to see forests full of food.”
Conventional perennial farms, and even commercial organic farms, are too simplistic in their patterning. The diversity of crops is slim, with only annual row crops and a maximum of 12 varietals across a 26-acre field. It’s not that we need hundreds of options on a small farm, but 12 crops are not enough for our diet. Unfortunately, most of the decision-making around what is grown on a farm comes from an economic standing. In other words: yield. As a result, more often than not, it’s the less exciting and more conventional varietals that are planted because farms can plan on them. Growing risky crops may mean a greater yield, but it also means a higher potential for lost dollars. They’re looking for the safest, easiest to ship, highest yielding, and, often, lowest flavor, with the most palatable texture.
Traditionally, farmers and gardeners were always seed savers. We would grow the varieties that grow best in our backyards and our farms, for our soils and our climate, and we grew foods that had the most nutrition, the most beautiful colors, that had the greatest textures and had a diversity of harvesting times. Therefore, we would grow a variety of foods so that we could harvest throughout the season, with hyper-specific purposes for each.
Today, there are some leaders truly celebrating diversity, like the Baker Creek Seed Company. If you open up one of their catalogs, you can see thousands of things we simply are not growing. It’s inspiring to see every variety of rainbow-colored seeds, every shape, and size, every vegetable. Seeing this reminds us how abundant agriculture can be, yet still, we grow just a few things. Take, for example, Peru. Today, Peru is widely known for its Quinoa, yet in The Lost Crops of the Inca, we are reminded how many unique food crops are in this one region, and Westerners know nothing about them. Over the last 15 years, Quinoa has landed on the culinary map and when it was mainly only grown in the Andes, as it had been for potentially thousands of years. When it first came to the US market, it was a straw-colored grain, very predictable in that it fits in the color pattern with most other grains. But in the rural regions and agricultural communities of Peru, you can attend seed saving festivals where you’ll see that this one seed we’ve come to know as straw-colored actually exists in every color of the rainbow: pink, purple, orange, green, red.
“Eating a variety of foods is good for the environment, our diet, and the economy.”
Simultaneously, there are so many other crops from that one part of the world that we have no idea about. We do know about the potato but we grow just a couple varieties of potato – the Russet primarily for french fries and others that have very little to no nutrition. We grow a couple of other red and yellow potatoes, but there are actually over 2,000 varieties of potatoes and they all have a different color, shape, texture, nutritional value, and climate. Depending on your elevation, your sun exposure, and a variety of other factors, you should be growing hyper-specific crops, not general crops.
Beyond potatoes, there are many other root crops that we don’t know of – like the Uyuco, Oca, Mashua, Yacon – all these different types of tubors that have incredible economic opportunity but still live in the seed banks of the Andes.
“Try buying a different type of vegetable each time you shop. So if you got a butternut squash last time, get an acorn squash this time, and a kabocha next time.”
We have barely begun to tap the potential of food diversity in the world and the variety and diversity of nutrition out there are mind-boggling. One of the only ways to really tap into it is to start growing our own.
It’s inspiring to consider the wide variety of flavors ahead of us that we have never tried. Our gardens and farms can match the color of the rainbow and that’s delicious.