Photo by Getty Images/Clement Peiffer
It was a frigid, foggy April morning in the Rhodope Mountains of Greece. Thousands of eager seed savers and gardeners stood awaiting the opening of what’s believed to be the world’s largest seed swap: the Peliti Seed Festival. This seed exchange is an annual event that takes place in the small mountain village of Paranesti, situated in northern Greece near the Bulgarian border. The Peliti team, a group of dedicated seed savers that grow and distribute traditional Greek seeds to the public, considers this generous giveaway a living seed bank. For one weekend each year in late April, Paranesti is swept into a frenzy of gardening enthusiasm as thousands make the journey to receive free seeds from the team of seed savers.
This epic seed swap is just one element in a larger event called The Olympic Seed Festival, which is part celebration and part conference, with the goal of fighting for the future of heirloom seeds in Europe. Each year, activists, farmers, and policymakers converge for a small, private conference to discuss the heirloom seed security. Afterward, the festival culminates into the Peliti Seed Festival, which is open to the public.
Events like this are critically important to the future of heirloom cultivars. Agricultural industrialization during the past century has exerted immense pressure on the regional food systems that once safeguarded these treasures. The festival gives policymakers and activists a chance to work together for seed freedom. The superhero seed savers from the Peliti team have stepped up to save these endangered heirlooms and share them with fellow gardeners.
I first learned about the Olympic Seed Festival as a seed researcher for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, when I was tasked to find international seed exchanges in order to connect with a diverse range of seed savers and growers. I decided to partake in the conference as an American heirloom seed delegate, and I also planned to swap seeds at the Peliti festival. Enraptured by the romantic idea of reviving heirlooms in peril, I flew to Europe in 2017 to see this heirloom rescue in person.
On the Road to Peliti
I arrived in Europe in early April, allowing myself two indulgent weeks of heirloom seed sightseeing with my cousin before the big event, which only solidified the importance of heirlooms and enriched the seed festival experience. We began by searching for rare bulbs in the Netherlands; the Technicolor fields of the Bollenstreek didn’t disappoint! We cycled through the famously vibrant patchwork, eventually finding a collector of rare specimens, Eric Breed, who grows and preserves thousands of rare bulbs. He’s traveled extensively in search of the unusual and arcane. His passion for preservation was impressive. Our next stop was Brno, Czech Republic. There, we visited the monastery garden where Gregor Mendel, father of plant breeding and modern genetics, grew his famous peas.
We took a wild ride through the Moravian Karst region of the Czech Republic into Austria and visited a picturesque village with a small castle and a famous seed bank called ARCHE NOAH. This seed bank contains over 5,000 heirloom cultivars from across the globe. Seed banks like ARCHE NOAH are another important piece of the seed-saving puzzle, and the Peliti Seed Festival team is one of many seed-saving organizations that works with it. Rather than safeguard samples like a traditional seed bank, a seed exchange will put endangered cultivars into the hands of gardeners in hopes of keeping them alive. The two models work together to ensure a more secure seed supply.
After our whirlwind European seed tour, we flew to northern Greece, where Paranesti is located. We arrived early in order to participate in the seed sovereignty summit that was held in the days prior to the Peliti Seed Festival. We joined the other participants of the conference at the festival’s campground, where dozens of Greek seed savers, activists, and policymakers camped out in cabins on a hillside overlooking the village.
Meeting Fellow Seed Savers
As we arrived at the campsite, we were warmly greeted with big hugs by Panagiotis Sainatoudis, the founder of the Peliti Seed Festival. Sainatoudis has dedicated his career to saving and proliferating seeds. He began drumming up our excitement, regaling us with statistics about how many thousands of people would come to receive seeds, and the impressive amount of seed produced by the Peliti team each year. He informed us that this was the 17th annual seed exchange, and that the event has grown exponentially each year. We learned that the seed swap is more of a seed giveaway, where regional teams of gardening pals will grow a seed crop and bring the bounty, packaged in small samples, to share with gardeners. Sainatoudis also introduced us to the diverse group of Peliti seed savers, the seed lovers who trekked to the mountains early to help set up and to participate in the seed sovereignty conference.
Photo by Shannon McCabe
We immediately felt like members of the Peliti family. This dedicated group of farmers and gardeners work all year to grow and share their favorite traditional cultivars, and they welcomed us as fellow seed savers from across the pond. Representing an incredibly diverse array of the population, this eclectic crowd gathers for one common goal and embodies the beauty of the seed exchange. Farmers from the agriculture belt in central Greece shared seed-saving tips with urban guerrilla gardeners. We met Peliti members from small villages, big cities, and even a seed-saving Greek Orthodox priest from a very small island off the coast of Turkey. Each member of Peliti donates endless hours to make this exchange happen; it’s a completely nonprofit event, but the rewards are priceless.
Several members of Peliti mentioned a sense of pride in preserving Greece’s seed culture. They feel that the future of the rich biodiversity of Greece is in jeopardy. Sainatoudis explained that he began to share traditional heirloom cultivars in hopes of fostering independence for Greek farmers and gardeners. He believes that saving seeds is more sustainable and affordable than buying new seeds each year. Indeed, his event has saved thousands of gardeners from purchasing seed. He has also created an invaluable network of seed stewards.
A Spirited Seed Summit
Before the Peliti Seed Festival began, early arrivals to the swap, including myself, participated in a seed conference. This event brings together delegates from over 15 countries to discuss the future of heirloom seeds. This year, the summit hosted environmental and social activists, as well as legislative members of the European Union. The conference was even attended by the Greek Alternate Minister of Agriculture. We heard from a lawyer from Brussels, who’s dedicated her career to fighting for Europeans’ right to sell heirloom seeds.
European law requires that seeds for sale be highly regulated and registered with the agricultural commission. Cultivars must be uniform and stable, and they must prove to be improved and of high quality. Traditional heirloom cultivars are typically less uniform; they’re selected for traits, such as flavor and beauty, over commercial qualities, such as uniformity and shipping quality. This law was enacted to protect the consumer from being sold poor-quality seed, but it has effectively made the sale of heirlooms in Europe illegal.
As an American delegate, I explained the role that for-profit seed companies, such as Baker Creek, play in proliferating rare and endangered cultivars. All members of the delegation discussed how to affect change in Europe’s current seed regulations in order to make an exception for the sale of traditional, open-pollinated cultivars. With this in mind, the Peliti Seed Festival following this summit was all the more valued as an important swap that helps keep heirlooms alive in the midst of fighting for their sale on the market.
Seeds for All
On the morning of the Peliti Seed Festival, a massive crowd began to form outside the entrance. Everyone, from small children to older adults, patiently waited for the gates to open. The members of the Peliti team, who come from multiple locations around the country, manned several market stalls, each with a sign proudly bearing the team’s location in Greece. When the opening bell rang, the massive throng of excited gardeners poured through the gates to receive free, hand-packaged seeds. As they distributed the packets, the team members shared growing tips and historical and cultural information about the seeds.
Photo by Shannon McCabe
The sound of excited festival attendees grew to such an extent that, when I approached a stall run by a group of nuns, I had to lean in closely as one sister described how she and the other nuns grow a seed garden at their convent on a remote Greek mountain. I continued along the stalls, chatting with gardeners from across Greece, from large-scale farmers who live in the agricultural regions, to urban gardeners in Athens, all of them dedicated to the community of seed sharing.
The market stalls remained crowded all day as grateful gardeners of all ages and backgrounds mingled, asking questions and sharing recipes or personal histories of certain traditional cultivars. Though the Peliti team was from Greece, attendees came from multiple countries, and a symphony of different languages could be heard through the market stalls. Seed stories were often relayed through hand gestures and charades. Attendees could also eat a free, garden-fresh meal in between gathering seeds. Underneath all these voices and activities, a traditional Greek band could be heard playing throughout the entire event.
By sundown, every last seed packet had been passed out. The crowd dwindled toward dusk, until just the Peliti seed savers and the seed conference participants were left. We all joined hands for the closing ceremony and shared messages of gratitude. To finish the event, we participated in a traditional northern Greek war dance. We left the event as invigorated gardeners, our hands full of seeds and our hearts full of stories.
Farmer Shannon McCabe helps write the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog and has traveled internationally as a seed researcher for the company. Find her work at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, or on Instagram @SeedScavenger.