Chelsea Green Publishing

The Seed Underground

Pages:240 pages
Size: 6 x 9 inch
Publisher:Chelsea Green Publishing
Paperback: 9781603583060
Pub. Date July 06, 2012

The Seed Underground

A Growing Revolution to Save Food

Availability: In Stock


Available Date:
July 06, 2012


There is no despair in a seed. There's only life, waiting for the right conditions-sun and water, warmth and soil-to be set free. Everyday, millions upon millions of seeds lift their two green wings.

At no time in our history have Americans been more obsessed with food. Options- including those for local, sustainable, and organic food-seem limitless. And yet, our food supply is profoundly at risk. Farmers and gardeners a century ago had five times the possibilities of what to plant than farmers and gardeners do today; we are losing untold numbers of plant varieties to genetically modified industrial monocultures. In her latest work of literary nonfiction, award-winning author and activist Janisse Ray argues that if we are to secure the future of food, we first must understand where it all begins: the seed.

The Seed Underground is a journey to the frontier of seed-saving. It is driven by stories, both the author's own and those from people who are waging a lush and quiet revolution in thousands of gardens across America to preserve our traditional cornucopia of food by simply growing old varieties and eating them. The Seed Underground pays tribute to time-honored and threatened varieties, deconstructs the politics and genetics of seeds, and reveals the astonishing characters who grow, study, and save them.


Foreword Reviews-

At the center of most of the world’s most enduring epics, myths, and legends are spellbinding tales of plants that offer immortality, grasses and flowers that offer sustenance for humans and other animals, fruit that contains the knowledge of good and evil, and seeds that when sown across a barren land flower into apple trees. As environmental activist and poet Ray reminds us in her own mesmerizing tale, the history of civilization is the history of seeds, and she fiercely and lovingly gathers the stories of individuals committed to saving seeds, not only to preserve the legacy of certain plants but also to ensure plant biodiversity in an agricultural environment where large corporations encourage monoculture.


As a young child, Ray delightfully learned the value of saving seeds, watching the stunning plants that grew from those she sowed. She warmly recalls her grandmother giving her some Jack bean seeds one summer, and from that moment “I got crazy about seeds because I was crazy about plants because long ago I realized that the safest place I could be was in the plant kingdom—where things made sense … where nothing was going to eat you.” Throughout high school—when other girls were dating or playing sports—Ray was ordering seeds, planting, watching, and exhorting them to grow.

Because of her love of seeds and her practices of saving and planting them to keep crops alive for future generations, Ray discovers organizations and scores of other individuals devoted to saving our food in the same way. With her typically forceful passion, Ray points to the ways in which the system is broken: our food is going extinct (by 2005, 75 percent of the world’s garden vegetables had been lost), and it is hazardous to our health, harming the earth, annihilating pollinators, and nutritionally impotent.

Ray tells the stories of these many men and women making a difference in their own corners of America, such as Will Bonsall, a “Noah” who’s juggling several hundred varieties of potatoes, peas, and radishes as he saves their seeds, or Sylvia Davatz, who is trying to develop a supply of locally grown seeds as the underpinning of a regional food supply. Encouraged by the overwhelming commitment to the seed revolution, Ray fervently proclaims that we can protect what’s left of our seeds and in our revolutionary gardens, develop the heirlooms of the future. She urges us to begin now.

Never content simply to weave charming and compelling stories, Janisse Ray offers a long list of what each of us can do—eat real food, buy organic, grow a garden, try to grow as much food as you consume, save your own seeds—to develop a sustainable lifestyle that fosters biodiversity and a richer and more fruitful relationship between humans and nature. Ray provides a helpful list of organizations and resources to help her readers get started.

“Saving seeds isn’t just good science; it’s a subtler war against the loss of our stories, our history, our connections with each other: ‘Where we live and what we live with is who we are.’ Add to that, what we eat. And share. For readers eager to get started, several how-to chapters offer basic seed-saving tips and lessons on hand-pollinating and controlling the purity of certain seeds. The Seed Underground [is] not a seed-saving manual, but Ray recommends several reliable guides in the resource section at the end of the book. The effect she hopes to have on readers, Ray claims, is modest: ‘My goal is simply to plant a seed. In you.’  But a poet knows full well the power of words, and if a rally could be contained in the pages of a book, The Seed Underground is one, its language by turns incantatory, pleading, rabble-rousing, a challenge to rise to the occasion, to ‘man up or lie there and bleed.’  From the stirring call to reclaim our seeds — ‘developed by our ancestors, grown by them and by us, and collected for use by our citizenry’ — to their irresistible names, like Little White Lady pea, Speckled Cut Short Cornfield bean, Purple Blossom Brown-Striped Half-runner bean and Blue Java pea, Ray boldly seduces us into joining this critical and much-needed revolution.”--Atlanta Journal Constitution

"What a dream of a book-my favorite poet writing about my favorite topic (seeds) and the remarkable underground network of growers who are keeping diversity alive on the face of this earth while putting delicious food on our tables! If books can move you to love, this one does."--Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Chasing Chiles and Restoring America's Food Traditions

"Traveling about the country to introduce us to some of her devoted fellow seed savers, Janisse Ray teaches us more than we thought we needed to know about seeds: how remarkable they are, why they need saving, how to save them, and how many of them-each holding the future of some particular plant-have been lost and are being lost to our indifference. But in a world where everything we love-including seeds-seems to be under threat, Ray ultimately offers us hope. 'Everything the seed has needed to know is encoded within it,' she assures us, 'and as the world changes, so it will discover everything it yet needs to know.' A poetic, and always hopeful, book."--Joan Gussow, author of Growing, Older and This Organic Life

"This is an important book that should be required reading for everyone who eats. Big biotech companies are patenting and privatizing seeds, making it illegal for farmers to retain their own crops for replanting. In a series of engaging and lyrical profiles, Ray shows that by the simple and pleasurable act of saving seeds we can wrest our food system from corporate control."--Barry Estabrook author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

"If I get to feeling a little blue about our prospects, I'm liable to reach down one of Janisse Ray's books just so I can hear her calm, wise, strong voice. This one's my new favorite; a world with her in it is going to do the right thing, I think."--Bill McKibben, founder of

"This is an unmatched treasure trove of information... The Seed Underground is an excellent choice for readers seeking a depiction of the current critical situation in farming all in one, easy-to-read book."--Gene Logsdon, author of A Sanctuary of Trees and Holy Shit

Midwest Book Review-
The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food offers stories of ordinary gardeners who try to save open-pollinated varieties of old-time seeds, and blends their stories with that of Janisse Ray, who watched her grandmother save squash seed and who herself cultivated a garden rich in heirloom varieties and local strengths. It's a story of not just gardening, but harvesting and preserving vintage varieties of food, and will appeal to gardening and culinary collections alike with its powerful account of saving seeds and old varieties on the verge of vanishing.

Nature writer and advocate Ray continues her thoughtful exploration of rural life with this timely look at heirloom seeds. After sharing some startling statistics (in the last 100 years, 94 percent of seed varieties available in America have been lost), she delves into why and how we have become so dependent upon such a small group of seeds and why this lack of diversity poses such a threat. Ray wisely buttresses facts with personal experiences, recounting the development of her own seed-saving habits, then introducing farmers and gardeners across the country who share their often generations-spanning histories of seed preservation. These personal perspectives of homespun habits stand in stark contrast to industrial agriculture, and support Ray’s argument that the American food system is broken and these are the sorts of people who can show us how to fix it. She succeeds beautifully on all counts, evincing a firm grip on science, history, politics, and culture as she addresses matters of great significance to all of us.

The Bookwatch-
The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food
offers stories of ordinary gardeners who try to save open-pollinated varieties of old-time seeds, and blends their stories with that of Janisse Ray, who watched her grandmother save squash seed and who herself cultivated a garden rich in heirloom varieties and local strengths. It's a story of not just gardening, but harvesting and preserving vintage varieties of food, and will appeal to gardening and culinary collections alike with its powerful account of saving seeds and old varieties on the verge of vanishing.

Kirkus Reviews-
A naturalist's rally for the preservation of heirloom seeds amid the agricultural industry's increasing monoculture.  Ray (Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River, 2011, etc.) unabashedly proclaims that seeds are "miracles in tiny packages.” Through accounts of her own journey in saving them, as well as facts and anecdotes, she urges readers to consider the practice, in order to avoid genetic erosion, to improve health, to work against a system that determines and limits availability, and more. Without stridence, Ray forthrightly presents her case, advocating for small organic farmers and less corporate dependence. In her most persuasive chapters, she recounts her travels in Georgia, Vermont, Iowa and North Carolina to meet others involved in saving specific varieties. She emphasizes the importance of diversity and also the ways in which preservation becomes a cultural resource; each seed bears a singular history that is often not only regional, but familial. Readers new to the topic will find that Ray's impassioned descriptions skillfully combine discussions on plant genetics and the metaphorical potential of seeds. Alternating between science and personal stories of finding her own farm, attending a Seed Savers Exchange convention, and increasing activism, the author also includes a brief section on basic seed saving and concludes with chapters that confront the idea of the homegrown as merely idyllic. With a nod toward Wendell Berry, this work emphasizes the importance of individuals working as a community. Recommended for experienced gardeners—guerrilla or otherwise—and novices searching for alternatives to processed, corporatized food.

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review-
In this enchanting narrative—part memoir, part botany primer, part political manifesto—Ray, author of the acclaimed Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and lately returning to her childhood obsession with farming, has a mission: to inspire us with her own life to “understand food at its most elemental... the most hopeful thing in the world. It is a seed. In the era of dying, it is all life.” Ray is inspired by the eccentric, impassioned, generous characters she visits and interviews, gardeners and farmers who populate the quietly radical world of seed savers, from Vermonter Sylvia Davatz, self-proclaimed ‘Imelda Marcos of seeds,’ to the more phlegmatic Bill Keener of Rabin Gap, Ga., who gives Ray two 20-inch cobs of Keener corn, grown by his family for generations, as well as Greasy Back beans and some rotten Box Car Willy tomatoes to save for seed. Despite the book’s occasional tendency toward polemic, avid gardeners will relish recognizing their idiosyncratic, revolutionary sides in its pages, and it’s likely to strike a spark in gardening novices. Even couch potatoes will be enthralled by Ray’s intimate, poetically conversational stories of her encounters with the "lovely, whimsical, and soulful things [that] happen in a garden, leaving a gardener giddy.


  • Winner - Nautilus Gold Book Award : Green Living Category - 2013


Janisse Ray

Writer, naturalist, and activist Janisse Ray is a seed-saver, seed-exchanger, and seed-banker, and has gardened for twenty-five years. She is the author of several books, including The Seed Underground, Pinhook and Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a New York Times Notable Book. Ray is on the faculty of Chatham University's low-residency MFA program, and is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She has won a Southern Booksellers Award for Poetry, a Southeastern Booksellers Award for Nonfiction, an American Book Award, the Southern Environmental Law Center Award for Outstanding Writing, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She attempts to live a simple, sustainable life on a farm in southern Georgia with her husband, Raven Waters.


January 23, 2016

Janisse Ray at 2016 Growing Local Conference

Reidsville, GA | Janisse Ray
Janisse Ray will be presenting on January 23rd at the 2016 Growing Local Conference, which will be taking place in Reidsville, GA. More details to come.

See all Events by this Author




By Janisse Ray

Janisse Ray, award-winning author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt, writes an evocative paean to wildness and wilderness restoration with an extraordinary journey into southern Georgia's Pinhook Swamp.

Pinhook Swamp acts as a vital watershed and wildlife corridor, a link between the great southern wildernesses of Okefenokee Swamp and Osceola National Forest. Together Okefenokee, Osceola, and Pinhook form one of the largest expanse of protected wild land east of the Mississippi River. This is one of America's last truly wild places, and Pinhook takes us into its heart.

Ray comes to know Pinhook intimately as she joins the fight to protect it, spending the night in the swamp, tasting honey made from its flowers, tracking wildlife, and talking to others about their relationship with the swamp. Ray sees Pinhook through the eyes of the people who live there--naturalists, beekeepers, homesteaders, hunters, and locals at the country store. In lyrical, down-home prose, she draws together the swamp's need for restoration and the human desire for wholeness and wildness in our own lives and landscapes.

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Market Farming Success

Market Farming Success

By Lynn Byczynski

An insider's guide to market gardening and farming for those in the business of growing and selling food, flowers, herbs, or plants.
Market Farming Success identifies the key areas that usually trip up beginners—and shows how to avoid those obstacles. This book will help the aspiring or beginning farmer advance quickly and confidently through the inevitable learning curve of starting a new business.
Written by the editor of Growing for Market, a respected trade journal for market farmers, Market Farming Success condenses decades of growing experience from every part of the United States and Canada. It focuses on the factors that are common to market gardeners everywhere and offers professional advice that includes:
•    How much you'll need to spend to start a market farming business;
•    How much you can expect to earn;
•    Which crops bring in the most money—and whether you should grow them;
•    The essential tools and equipment you will need;
•    The best places to sell your products;
•    How to keep records to maximize profits and minimize taxes;
•    Tricks of the trade that will make you more efficient in the greenhouse, field, and market.

This new Chelsea Green edition of a 2006 classic is greatly updated and expanded, and includes full-color photos, charts, and graphs, plus many inspiring and instructive profiles of successful market-farming pioneers.

Available in: Paperback

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The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer

By Joel Salatin

Foodies and environmentally minded folks often struggle to understand and articulate the fundamental differences between the farming and food systems they endorse and those promoted by Monsanto and friends. With visceral stories and humor from Salatin's half-century as a "lunatic" farmer, Salatin contrasts the differences on many levels: practical, spiritual, social, economic, ecological, political, and nutritional.

In today's conventional food-production paradigm, any farm that is open-sourced, compost-fertilized, pasture-based, portably-infrastructured, solar-driven, multi-speciated, heavily peopled, and soil-building must be operated by a lunatic. Modern, normal, reasonable farmers erect "No Trespassing" signs, deplete soil, worship annuals, apply petroleum-based chemicals, produce only one commodity, erect Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and discourage young people from farming.

Anyone looking for ammunition to defend a more localized, solar-driven, diversified food system will find an entire arsenal in these pages. With wit and humor honed during countless hours working on the farm he loves, and then interacting with conventional naysayers, Salatin brings the land to life, farming to sacredness, and food to ministry.

Divided into four main sections, the first deals with principles to nurture the earth, an idea mainline farming has never really endorsed. The second section describes food and fiber production, including the notion that most farmers don't care about nutrient density or taste because all they want is shipability and volume. The third section, titled "Respect for Life," presents an apologetic for food sacredness and farming as a healing ministry. Only lunatics would want less machinery and pathogenicity. Oh, the ecstasy of not using drugs or paying bankers. How sad. The final section deals with promoting community, including the notion that more farmers would be a good thing.

Available in: Paperback

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The Lean Farm

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By Ben Hartman

A practical, systems-based approach for a more sustainable farming operation

To many people today, using the words “factory” and “farm” in the same sentence is nothing short of sacrilege. In many cases, though, the same sound business practices apply whether you are producing cars or carrots. Author Ben Hartman and other young farmers are increasingly finding that incorporating the best new ideas from business into their farming can drastically cut their wastes and increase their profits, making their farms more environmentally and economically sustainable. By explaining the lean system for identifying and eliminating waste and introducing efficiency in every aspect of the farm operation, The Lean Farm makes the case that small-scale farming can be an attractive career option for young people who are interested in growing food for their community. Working smarter, not harder, also prevents the kind of burnout that start-up farmers often encounter in the face of long, hard, backbreaking labor.

Lean principles grew out of the Japanese automotive industry, but they are now being followed on progressive farms around the world. Using examples from his own family’s one-acre community-supported farm in Indiana, Hartman clearly instructs other small farmers in how to incorporate lean practices in each step of their production chain, from starting a farm and harvesting crops to training employees and selling goods. While the intended audience for this book is small-scale farmers who are part of the growing local food movement, Hartman’s prescriptions for high-value, low-cost production apply to farms and businesses of almost any size or scale that hope to harness the power of lean in their production processes.

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By Ross Conrad

Today's beekeepers face unprecedented challenges, a fact that is now front-page news with the spread of "colony collapse disorder." Newly introduced pests like varroa and tracheal mites have made chemical treatment of hives standard practice, but pest resistance is building, which in turn creates demand for new and even more toxic chemicals. In fact, there is evidence that chemical treatments are making matters worse.

It's time for a new approach. In this set, which includes the new, full-color, Natural Beekeping, Revised and Expanded Edition, and a DVD workshop, Ross Conrad brings together the best "do no harm" strategies for keeping honeybees healthy and productive, all of which are covered in a thoughtful, matter-of-fact way.

About Natural Beekeeping, Revised and Expanded Edition:

Now revised and updated with new resources and including full-color photos throughout, Natural Beekeeping offers all the latest information in a book that has already proven invaluable for organic beekeepers. The new edition offers the same holistic, sensible alternative to conventional chemical practices with a program of natural hive management, but offers new sections on a wide range of subjects, including:

  • The basics of bee biology and anatomy;
  • Urban beekeeping;
  • Identifying and working with queens;
  • Parasitic mite control; and
  • Hive diseases.

Also, a completely new chapter on marketing provides valuable advice for anyone who intends to sell a wide range of hive products.

Natural Beekeeping covers nontoxic methods of controlling mites; eliminating American foulbrood disease without the use of antibiotics; selective breeding for naturally resistant bees; and many other detailed management techniques, which are covered in a thoughtful, matter-of-fact way.

Whether you are a novice looking to get started with bees, an experienced apiculturist looking for ideas to develop an integrated pest-management approach, or someone who wants to sell honey at a premium price, this is the book you've been waiting for.

About Natural Beekeeping with Ross Conrad (DVD):

In this filmed workshop, Ross Conrad flips the script on traditional approaches by proposing a program of selective breeding and natural hive management. The video presents a comprehensive survey of natural beekeeping methods and challenges, including segments filmed in thefield. It offers practical information that every aspiring beekeeper needs to know—everything from basic hive equipment to working with your bees to harvesting and processing honey.

Available in: Mixed media product

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