Dave Victor, the farm director at Garden City Harvest’s Orchard Gardens Neighborhood Farm and a new father, has a bushy red beard and a straw sunhat. His hands are tanned and calloused. His trusty companion, Sly Dog, pads through the garden alongside him, finally resting under his special picnic table turned dog house –a saving grace in the summer heat. This plot of land seems to radiate calm even though one of the busiest roads in Missoula swarms with traffic just yards away.
For three seasons Victor has been managing Orchard Gardens, one of a handful of small farms under the umbrella of Garden City Harvest, a nonprofit organization in Missoula, Montana, which, among other things, grows produce for their community. Orchard Gardens alone produces over twenty thousand pounds of food per season, five thousand pounds of which goes to the Missoula Food Bank. Orchard Gardens also offers 38 CSA shares and pays their volunteers with veggies.
After studying seed saving as part of his Master’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Montana, Victor took up farming and has been with Garden City Harvest for eight years. He took the lead in saving seed and teaching Garden City Harvest’s other farm staff how to save seed.
“We have seen a trend in the last hundred years or so of fewer farmers growing seed, fewer varieties on the market, and a loss of seed saving know-how,” says Victor. He feels this work is “an essential action in protecting our food system.”
Victor has learned a thing or two about saving seeds from his harvests. Not all farmers practice seed saving. When space is at a premium, it is hard to sacrifice soil that could grow lucrative crops. Victor and his team grow seed crops in order to preserve the best seeds from a vast selection of plants.
“I appreciate the fact that as a seed saver we are not simply multiplying seed,” he explains. “We are actively working toward improving varieties by selecting them for increased resiliency.”
Victor learned to save seeds through his own trials and errors: “When I started saving my own seeds, I knew very little about the process. So I dove into the literature and found a few key books, spoke with a few local farmers who were already saving seed, and most importantly, started learning by doing.” Victor also credits Organic Seed Alliance for providing useful resources and workshops and says that he’s still learning new things every day on the farm.
Even with years of experience, it can be tricky to harvest seeds on such a small plot of land. Orchard Gardens spans a mere two acres, with just half an acre in production. On selecting which seeds to save each season, Victor says, “We have to pick and choose what we can do within the confines of our system while still prioritizing vegetable production.” The seeds Victor saves range from beans, peas, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, carrots, beets, and parsnips.
The figuring is part of the fun. Victor finds it brings joy to his work: “Saving seed is like solving a puzzle. Figuring out where to grow a seed crop so that it doesn’t get crossed by another variety, learning when exactly to harvest the seed for highest quality, experimenting with how to efficiently clean the seed — these are all challenges to growing seed but the challenge is part of the fun.”
Working on a small, sustainable farm has its challenges, but Victor, and those who work at Garden City Harvest, believe it is incredibly important to care about your food and what goes into it.
“Organic to me means that you’re taking care of the soil, you’re taking care of the surrounding environment that the farm belongs to, and that includes the rivers and the creeks and any wildland areas that you have,” Victor says as he surveys his crops, some of which are just about ready to harvest. “It means fostering biodiversity, creating habitat on the farm…not just looking at the farm as an agricultural product, end-all, be-all sort of deal but recognizing that to have a holistic agricultural system we need to work with nature best we can. It also means being careful with the organically-approved chemicals you apply.”
Victor carefully selects seeds every year for saving and donates them to the Five Valleys Seed Library which is based out of the Missoula Library. He also plants much of Orchard Gardens Neighborhood Farm with saved seed. Since becoming farm director for Orchard Gardens, Victor has helped to boost CSA shares and expand the seed saving projects to three of the four major farms run by Garden City Harvest.
Victor brings his son to work with him several times a week, a gurgling seven month old who naps in the barn and can often be seen strapped to his father’s chest in the fields as Victor weeds, harvests, and plants. It is easy to see the need for resilience when the next generation is smiling up at you.
About our guest contributor: Heide Borgonovo is currently working as a marketing and outreach intern for Garden City Harvest. Originally from San Francisco, Heide moved to Missoula to study Journalism at the University of Montana, with a focus on audio and social media. She grew up attending a Waldorf school so gardening and outdoor play were essential parts of her childhood. With one year left in her studies, Heide is excited to try new things and to get her feet wet in the professional world, especially with nonprofits. In her free time she enjoys learning to cook, exploring Missoula’s many local businesses and reading a good mystery novel.
This project is possible with funding from the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.