The Troy Howard Middle School Seed Co. has a brightly-colored display rack at the Belfast Co-op. Last year, the middle school students, who save seeds from the plants they grow, sold 400 seed packets at the co-op. This year, they expect to sell 800 packets. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Last spring, as food shortages caused by the pandemic caused grocery store shelves to empty out across the country, it seemed that just about everyone in Maine wanted to start a garden.

But seeds were hard to come by, as suppliers coped with unprecedented demand.

That was true at the Belfast Co-op, where stands of organic seed packets from national suppliers are right next to a vibrant display from the Troy Howard Middle School Seed Company. Students save and sell seeds from the vegetables and flowers they grow in the school’s garden project.

But in May, when garden project coordinator David Wessels called the co-op to see if they needed a restock, he found that the middle school seed company was the only one that still had seeds to sell.

All the other display stands were empty.

“The middle school was the only seed supplier,” he said last week.

Ladonna Bruce, the produce manager at the co-op, remembers selling out of seeds from other suppliers last spring, and foresees that it could happen again this year. In times of shortage, it’s great to have a local producer such as the middle school, she said.

“The kids are doing something very significant right now, and we appreciate them,” she said.

Students from the Troy Howard Middle School grow plants, save seeds, and even make the art for the seed packets they sell at the Belfast Co-op. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

And with more demand, Wessels said he and the students are doubling their supply.

“This year, we went a little bigger,” he said. “It’s fun to see more seeds going out.”

It’s much more than just fun to him and, he hopes, his students. Seed saving is a practice that dates back thousands of years and which is essential to the survival of the human race. To some, it may sound like growing a plant, harvesting the seeds and then tucking them away for safekeeping — at an extreme, somewhere like the so-called “Doomsday” Global Seed Vault in Norway.

But that’s not how it sounds to Wessels.

“When you talk about seed saving, you’re not just putting them in a shoebox. It’s actually a relationship with a plant,” he said. “Saving seeds and growing them again. The thing I like to impress upon the kids is that it’s an unbroken chain. For any one of these varieties, you can trace that seed back for thousands of years. Through multiple cultures, some of which don’t still exist. Back to a wild plant that was domesticated.”

In every generation, someone planted that seed, cared for it and saved it. Along the way, they would have selected for different traits and adapted it to various climates.

Now, as his students head to the garden behind the school to tend their many varieties of heirloom tomatoes and beans, unusual greens, flowers and more, they are part of that chain.

Students from the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project work on saving seeds from sunflowers they grew last fall. Credit: Courtesy of David Wessels

“It’s so amazing,” Wessels said. “It feels an honor to be a part of.”

It does to his students, too.

“It’s really fun,” Katience Parenteau, 13, of Belfast said. “I like being involved in something that will continue on, hopefully forever.”

Even though school was different this year because of the pandemic, the rhythms of seed saving were not. In the fall, when the students harvested tomatoes, they would slice them, squish the seeds into jars and let them ferment for a few days so they would be more viable. For beans, Wessels said, they clip the stalks and pile them in the greenhouse until the harvest slows down and they have more time to clean them.

In November and December, they take the stalks and thrash and beat them — “which kids love to do,” Wessels said — and then shell the beans. That can lead to special moments.

“When kids are sitting and shelling beans together, everyone tells stories,” he said. “It’s so cool to sit at the picnic tables and shell beans. The kids talk in a way they don’t normally. There’s something about seeds.”

They also winnow the seeds, an ancient farming practice of separating seeds from bugs and chaff. Then, by January, most of the seeds will be in jars, ready to be packed. But the work isn’t done. Students make the art for the seed packets in art class, and also germination test the seed by counting some out and putting them in a wet paper towel to make sure they will grow. They do that in math class, so they can figure percentages.

“I tell the kids, each seed is literally alive. It’s breathing,” Wessels said. “If we’re going to pass it along to someone else, we want to make sure it’s viable.”

Troy Howard Middle School students pose last fall with the sunflowers they grew. They save seeds from sunflowers and other plants, and sell them at the Belfast Co-op. Credit: Courtesy of David Wessels

Then, in the spring, he brings the brightly-colored packets of seeds to the co-op, where local gardeners will buy them and start the growing cycle again. Last year, they sold all of the roughly 400 seed packets they had prepared. This year, he expects the students will sell all 800 seed packets they’ve produced. All proceeds from the seed sales go back to the garden project, which raises its whole budget for tools, seeds, supplies, infrastructure and maintenance by selling produce, seedlings and seeds.

Jamie Cermak, the marketing manager at the Belfast Co-op, said that the garden project’s seed saving mission resonates with the store’s customers and members.

“Knowing that here we have home-grown resiliency built into our school system is amazing,” he said. “It’s not just about solving today’s problem. It’s about solving a problem that’s forever.”

Student Greta Graf, 12, of Searsmont, likes the idea that the seeds she has helped save will live on in someone else’s garden.

“It’s nice to know that we’re helping out the community,” she said.

It’s helping out the students, too, Wessels said. In a world where fewer and fewer people are saving seeds, he is happy to be bucking that trend.

“If you become a seed saver, you enter into a relationship with a plant that will change both of you,” he said. “It’s going to go both ways. You don’t know how it will change you, or the plant. It’s a way different way of looking at it than ‘I’m preserving this seed,’ but that’s the truth.”