Have you ever wondered where your food comes from? How some foods at the farmers’ markets can taste so much fresher and more flavorful than those from the grocery store? Or, maybe you are on the lookout for more affordable organic food options?
For folks who reside in urban environments, growing their own plants and foods can be difficult with limited green space. However, in Philadelphia, we are seeing an emergence of shared community gardens that allow people to produce and access locally grown organics, as well as to further enhance the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
Owen Taylor, founder of TrueLove Seeds and the Philadelphia Seed Exchange, has spent year after year “bringing in the old country” through collaborative seed saving organizations, and sharing his gardening techniques.
What is seed saving?
Seed saving is a type of “breeding” that promotes genetic preservation and uses more traditional plant and food growing techniques. Through seed keeping, we are able to collect and store seeds that have been home-grown in a specific community, state or country for perennial growth. With these practices, gardeners and growers are able to keep the seed strain pure and prevent extinction of purebred herbs, plants, vegetables, fruits, grains and flowers annually.
More importantly, the gardening techniques used by local farmers contribute to the annual distribution of organic foods seen at farmers’ markets. The demand to know where seeds originate and how foods are harvested, helps to support local organizations that work diligently to enrich the health of each individual.
TrueLove Seeds is located on one acre of land on Mill Hollow Farm in Newtown Square and is approaching its one year anniversary. Their mission of sustainable agriculture provides higher quality foods for communities in Philadelphia neighborhoods by implementing safer methods of planting and harvesting seeds.
Their organization works with farms that are also practicing positive gardening methods to produce certified organic foods, which is accomplished by not using chemical pesticides or fertilizers, in addition to not tilling the land. Avoiding tilling methods is another example of how TrueLove makes a conscious effort to farm and live through practices that have a less negative impact on the environment.
Taylor explains that tilling the land is a common practice for mass-production, and it eliminates stored nutrients and limits the input breeding. By producing non-genetically modified seeds and foods for each region, TrueLove Seeds is able to spread its mission of promoting food sovereignty, provide support for adequate nutrition, and foster access to healthy and sustainable foods for all.
The story is in the seed
Owen Taylor began his seed journey fifteen years ago. He grew up in rural Connecticut where he began planting vegetable gardens at a young age. He’s lived in metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and New York before planting his roots in Philadelphia. City-living raised the challenge of urban agriculture, thus, enhancing his work with farming organizations on the East and West Coasts.
While residing in New York, he was associated with Just Food, an organization engaging in community food education. After moving to Philadelphia, he received mentorship through William Woys Weaver’s historic Roughwood Seed Collection, where he became manager for four years before developing the TrueLove Seeds organization.
Through TrueLove Seeds, Taylor continues to offer garden-growing training, farm mentorship and develops education and resource programs to provide the public with the tools needed to sustain local food production. He is passionate in sharing solutions for the challenges of urban agriculture. For instance, taking on mother nature can be a major challenge for long-term sustainability in different regions. “[Climate change] makes a huge impact on our food system and those growing crops. It is unpredictable and makes it hard to plan. Farmers end up losing crops. Because of this, some people are trying to breed seeds that are adaptable to changing climates,” says Taylor.
Despite the cold blasts we faced this past spring, Taylor has been able to prepare for the planting season in his communal garden. In fact, this season, they have expanded. “The public interest has really grown in one year,” he says. The organization has over 20 volunteers ranging from college students to retirees who collaborate for a variety of interests, like learning general gardening, seed keeping, or to give back to their community.
History plays an important role in Taylor’s vision for community gardening. He feels through seed saving, we are able to rediscover the culture of our ancestors. He’s even derived the name of the organization from his great, great-grandmother, TrueLove.
He asks every farmer he works with, “What seed tells your story?” Through his experiences learning directly from different farming communities and cultures, he’s found certain regional foods are based heavily on ancestry or on the community’s healing work. “The last things we can hang on to within our cultures are language, music, and food, but [with seed saving] it happens through the lens of seeds.”
To honor and connect to his ancestry, Taylor focuses on Italian and Irish seeds, and offers an entire Italian seed category on trueloveseeds.com. This includes his favorite, the Italian Borlotto Bean, a bean that traces its origin to Southern Italy. Other Italian vegetables listed are broccoli rabe and eggplant. Along with the Italian seeds, there are over 85 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers to choose from. TrueLove Seeds supports the farmers who grow the seeds by giving 50% of sales back to them.
Supporting community farming
Taylor’s role has an impact not only in the farming and gardening community in Philadelphia, but throughout the country as he mentors contributors. While he grows and tends to the garden at Mill Hollow Farm and manages TrueLove Seeds, he is also the founder of the Philadelphia Seed Exchange, which offers free exchange events for sharing locally produced seeds in Philadelphia.
The main mission of his work, however, is the focus on mentorship and support with other farmers growing locally, and to “help people who are doing really important work in their communities with seed saving.” For Taylor, it is about supporting change at the community level in agriculture, and highlighting farms he feels are doing important work in providing food to their neighborhoods.
His mission is to support food justice, which fights for the access to healthy and sustainable foods for all members of society. TrueLove Seeds works year round, with five other leading community farming organizations in Philadelphia, to implement change in our neighborhoods that allows access to better nutrition through its gardens and collaborative efforts for environmentally conscious farming practices.