Many Islanders are making a positive difference in the world way beyond our salty shores. This time of year, with the growing season fading, and preparations for iconic autumn events like Fall Fair and Apple Festival in full swing, gardens are on many people’s minds.
There are many bold, quixotic and industrious farmers and gardeners on Salt Spring. One visit to the prize winning vegetable barn at the Fall Fair testifies to this fact but only Dan Jason has profoundly changed how gardening is done elsewhere.
Dan ships about 80,0000 packets of seeds from Salt Spring Island to locations around the planet every year. He has eight growers on Salt Spring working cooperatively to produce hundreds of varieties of seeds, many of them old, unusual or endangered. His seeds are tried and true, tested for countless generations and adapted to the regions they grow in. Dan’s business, aptly named Salt Spring Seeds, is successful and vibrant.
However, Dan is more concerned about empowering people to grow their own food than he is in growing his businesses’ bottom line. He is the founder of a non-profit Canadian seed and plant sanctuary whose aim is to sustain heritage seeds, through wise selection and safe storage, so that they are around for future generations.
Dan’s passion for plants and gardening sprouted in an unlikely environment. When he was thirteen, his baffled parents succumbed to years of lobbying, and gave him permission to dig up a small sunless patch of their lawn and plant vegetables. Dan grew his first crop of carrots and potatoes under a back porch in suburban Montreal.
After high school, Dan attended the University of McGill, completing a degree in anthropology and psychology. Upon graduation he moved to British Columbia and a friend hooked him up with a small research grant in rural technology. He traveled the province studying edible and medicinal plants and then wrote a book. Seven editions of this small tome with the innocuous title of Some Useful Wild Plants were printed during the 1970s. To this day, it is one of the best selling books on this topic in the province.
His wanderlust satisfied, Dan moved to Salt Spring Island in 1976 and put down roots in a garden of his own. His insatiable curiosity about plants had fully blossomed and he set about challenging prevailing west coast gardening assumptions. His garden was destined to be much more then your average island vegetable patch.
Dan successfully grows a large variety of plants not usually found on Vancouver Island or the Gulf Islands. For instance, he harvests beans, barley, oats, rye, and a heritage variety of wheat called emmer, as well as a hot weather grain from South America called amaranth.
Dan has demonstrated that protein crops don’t always need to be farmed on a large scale. He says, “Grains are easier to grow than vegetables because they are hardy and drought resistant. Homegrown beans cook up faster and digest more easily.” He’s passionate about the importance of growing protein crops on the west coast because he believes they are an essential component in attaining local food security.
Thanks to Dan’s efforts the small-scale production of protein rich crops is catching on. His seed packet sales testify to this reality. Dan attributes his success to a growing public concern about local food production. He states, “We export fava beans, lentils and chickpeas. In other countries these foods are highly esteemed yet we don’t eat them. Instead we import rice. It would be better to eat what we grow. How are we going to eat if we cannot import food?”
Dan works hard to enable others to save and protect seeds. People send him seeds from all over the world, some of which are very old and unique. He works to keep these seeds going and prevent them from becoming extinct. Someone recently sent him some thousand-year-old tobacco seeds found in an urn excavated from a First Nations burial site near the Great Lakes. Dan was asked to grow out the seeds. He says, “It was an amazing plant very unlike modern tobacco, short with big leaves.” He has since sent these seeds to hundreds of First Nations people.
Dan procured the seeds for one of his favorite tomato plants from a stranger named Andy Pollock in Houston BC. Andy grew and made selections from these seeds for thirty-five years and as a result they are hardy in cold weather and produce prolific fruit in a short growing season.
The concept is a simple one – you need good seeds to grow food and diversity is key. It is critical that protecting seeds becomes a global trend. Dan says, “Humans have changed the environment and climate so drastically that we cannot count on the weather. We must save seeds and store them so that we have a backup plan when climate change causes crop failures. It is important that this happens in every community in every country.”
Dan imagines a future where local food production is a ubiquitous characteristic of urban and rural environments-where lawns are replaced by vegetable gardens and decorative shrubs by fruit and nut trees. He envisions communities working together, one property owner planting tomatoes in their sunny garden while another plants peas in the shade behind their porch and then sharing the bounty between them. He promotes gardens on rooftops and decks. He says, “We need to open our minds and realize that nature has an amazing ability to provide what we need.”
Dan’s island garden has transformed the landscape well beyond the shores of Salt Spring Island. His innovative approach to west coast gardening is likely to continue as long as Dan can turn dirt.
Written by Jill Thomas.