World’s Largest Seed Swap

Join a passionate researcher on a seed-centric European trip to what may be the world’s largest seed swap.

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.

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