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
eBook: 9781603583077
Pub. Date July 06, 2012

The Seed Underground

A Growing Revolution to Save Food

Availability: In Stock


Available Date:
July 06, 2012


Availability: In Stock


Available Date:
July 06, 2012

$17.95 $14.36

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.


October 09, 2015

Janisse Ray at Forest and Field Writing Workshop

895 Catherine T. Sanders Road, Reidsville, GA, 30453 | Janisse Ray
Join Janisse Ray for a long weekend workshop at Red Earth Farm in Reidsville, Georgia from October 9-11. Here’s a chance to write and study writing on a beautiful and authentic farm. Days begin with a country breakfast and proceed into classes on literary nonfiction, metaphor, scenes, and publishing. Includes field trips and all food. Cost to attend ranges with a sliding scale of $275-350.

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.

Available in: Paperback, eBook

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Paperback $15.95


The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray book trailer

Interview with Janisse Ray

Janisse Ray Speaks at Upper Valley Land Trust Celebration!

This I Believe- Janisse Ray

This I Believe- Janisse Ray


The Small-Scale Cheese Business

The Small-Scale Cheese Business

By Gianaclis Caldwell

There has never been a better time to be making and selling great cheese. People worldwide are consuming more high-quality, handmade cheese than ever before. The number of artisan cheesemakers has doubled in recent years, and many of the industry’s newcomers are “farmstead” producers–those who work only with the milk of their own animals. Today, more than ever before, the people who choose to become farmer-cheesemakers need access to the knowledge of established cheese artisans who can help them build their dream.

Few career choices lead to such extremes of labor, emotion, and monetary challenge. In The Small-Scale Cheese Business (originally published in 2010 as The Farmstead Creamery Advisor), respected cheesemaker, instructor, and speaker Gianaclis Caldwell walks would-be producers through the many, and often confusing, steps and decisions they will face when considering a career in this burgeoning cottage industry. This book fills the gap that exists between the pasture and cheese plate. It goes far beyond issues of caring for livestock and basic cheesemaking, explaining business issues such as:

    * Analyzing your suitability for the career;
    * Designing and building the cheese facility;
    * Sizing up the market;
    * Negotiating day-to-day obstacles;
    * Ensuring maximum safety and efficiency.

Drawing from her own and other cheesemakers’ experiences, Caldwell brings to life the story of creating a successful cheesemaking business in a practical, organized manner. Absolutely essential for anyone interested in becoming a licensed artisan cheesemaker, The Small-Scale Cheese Business will also appeal to the many small and hobby-farm owners who already have milking animals and who wish to improve their home dairy practices and facilities.

Available in: Paperback

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The Small-Scale Cheese Business

Gianaclis Caldwell

Paperback $34.95



By Diane Ott Whealy

Daughter of Iowa farmers, Missouri homesteader, and mother of five, Diane Ott Whealy never anticipated that one day she would become a leader in a grass-roots movement to preserve our agricultural biodiversity. The love for the land and the respect for heirloom seeds that Diane shared with her husband, Kent Whealy, led to their starting Seed Savers Exchange in 1975.

Seed Savers Exchange, the nation's premier nonprofit seed-saving organization, began humbly as a simple exchange of seeds among passionate gardeners who sought to preserve the rich gardening heritage their ancestors had brought to this country. Seeds that Ott Whealy herself inherited from her paternal grandparents were the impetus for the formation of Seed Savers Exchange, whose membership has grown from a small coterie to more than thirteen thousand. Its influence has been felt in gardens across America.

Ott Whealy's down-to-earth narrative traces her fascinating journey from Oregon to Kansas to Missouri then back home to Iowa where, in 1986, Heritage Farm became the permanent home of Seed Savers Exchange. Her heartwarming story captures what is best in the American spirit: the ability to dream and, through hard work and perseverance, inspire others to contribute their efforts to a cause. Thus was created one of the nation's most admired nonprofits in the field of genetic preservation.

Available in: Hardcover

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Hardcover $25.00

The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm

The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm

By Josh Trought

With practical examples of alternative building, renewable energy, holistic forestry, no-till gardening, hospitality management, community outreach, and more

The Community-Scale Permaculture Farm describes not only the history of the D Acres project, but its evolving principles and practices that are rooted in the land, its inhabitants, and the joy inherent in collective empowerment.

For almost twenty years, D Acres of New Hampshire has challenged and expanded the common definition of a farm. As an educational center that researches, applies, and teaches skills of sustainable living and small-scale organic farming, D Acres serves more than just a single function to its community. By turns it is a hostel for travelers to northern New England, a training center for everything from metal- and woodworking to cob building and seasonal cooking, a gathering place for music, poetry, joke-telling, and potluck meals, and much more.

While this book provides a wide spectrum of practical information on the physical systems designed into a community-scale homestead, Trought also reviews the economics and organizational particulars that D Acres has experimented with over the years.

The D Acres model envisions a way to devise a sustainable future by building a localized economy that provides more than seasonal produce, a handful of eggs, and green appliances. With the goal of perennial viability for humanity within their ecosystem, D Acres is attempting an approach to sustainability that encompasses practical, spiritual, and ethical components. In short: They are trying to create a rural community ecology that evolves in perpetuity.

From working with oxen to working with a board of directors, no other book contains such a wealth of innovative ideas and ways to make your farm or homestead not only more sustainable, but more inclusive of, and beneficial to, the larger community. Readers will find information on such subjects as:

  • Working with pigs to transform forested landscapes into arable land;
  • Designing and building unique, multifunctional farm and community spaces using various techniques and materials;
  • Creating and perpetuating diverse revenue streams to keep your farm organization solvent and resilient;
  • Receiving maximum benefits and yields for the farm without denigrating resources or the regional ecology;
  • Implementing a fair and effective governance structure;
  • Constructing everything from solar dehydrators and cookers to treehouses and ponds; and,
  • Connecting and partnering with the larger community beyond the farm.

Emphasizing collaboration, cooperation, and mutualism, this book promises to inspire a new generation of growers, builders, educators, artists, and dreamers who are seeking new and practical ways to address today’s problems on a community scale.

Available in: Paperback

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Josh Trought

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Loving and Leaving the Good Life

Loving and Leaving the Good Life

By Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of Living the Good Life and many other bestselling books, lived together for 53 years until Scott's death at age 100. Loving and Leaving the Good Life is Helen's testimonial to their life together and to what they stood for: self-sufficiency, generosity, social justice, and peace.

In 1932, after deciding it would be better to be poor in the country than in the city, Helen and Scott moved from New York Ciy to Vermont. Here they created their legendary homestead which they described in Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World, a book that has sold 250,000 copies and inspired thousands of young people to move back to the land.

The Nearings moved to Maine in 1953, where they continued their hard physical work as homesteaders and their intense intellectual work promoting social justice. Thirty years later, as Scott approached his 100th birthday, he decided it was time to prepare for his death. He stopped eating, and six weeks later Helen held him and said goodbye.

Loving and Leaving the Good Life is a vivid self-portrait of an independent, committed and gifted woman. It is also an eloquent statement of what it means to grow old and to face death quietly, peacefully, and in control. At 88, Helen seems content to be nearing the end of her good life. As she puts it, "To have partaken of and to have given love is the greatest of life's rewards. There seems never an end to the loving that goes on forever and ever. Loving and leaving are part of living."

Helen's death in 1995 at the age of 92 marks the end of an era. Yet as Helen writes in her remarkable memoir, "When one door closes, another opens." As we search for a new understanding of the relationships between death and life, this book provides profound insights into the question of how we age and die.

Available in: Paperback, eBook

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Loving and Leaving the Good Life

Helen Nearing

Paperback $25.00