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 V.20 No.14 | April 7 - 13, 2011 

Food for Thought

Swapping the Love

On food and seed exchanging

Young sprouts
Ari LeVaux
Young sprouts
Early spring means different things in different places. It's called mud season in some regions. Elsewhere it's the fifth month of winter grief. In warmer climes, winter can be so mild and summer so hot that spring is little more than a fleeting end of tolerable weather. But everywhere that winter is significant enough to interrupt the growing season, early spring has a special meaning among locavores. For cooks, gardeners, hunters and mead-makers alike, it's time for swapping.

Food swapping can add diversity to a stash that grows evermore homogenous as it dwindles. Last fall I made a surplus of apple sauce, but I ran out of carrots halfway through winter. If I could trade with someone who has carrots and no apple sauce, we'd both diversify. This can make a big difference in the final weeks before the new growing season brings early crops such as asparagus, radishes, spinach and garlic flowers.

A cloud of suspicion had fallen upon that jar, and rightly so. The first rule of Swap Meat is that you trade only your own goods.

The clock is ticking furiously for root crops like onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, beets and squash. (Squash, while technically not a root crop, didn't get the memo, and stores fine alongside the true root crops.) If your root crops haven't gone bad already, they will soon. It would be wise to trade your surplus while it still has value.

Take your pick.
Ari LeVaux
Take your pick.
You don't have to be root-cellar hardcore to benefit from food swaps. If you show up at a food swapping party with homemade pies, you might score some homemade beer. Depending on the crowd you run with, food swapping parties can resemble a cocktail party, a potluck, a rager, a garage sale or some combination of them all.

In the wild, ungulate-laden hills of Montana, where hippies hunt and vegetarians have been known to eat venison if they know who killed it, I've been fortunate to attend the annual Swap Meat that takes place around this time.

Swap Meaters are not limited to trading meat. Pickles, jam, honey, frozen veggies and aging root crops are all fair game.

Just be prepared to explain the pedigree of your goods. I remember one guy describing the meat he'd brought as "found in the freezer after my roommate moved out." He also mentioned something about it possibly being roadkill. He had brought nothing else to trade and got zero action.

Another time, someone brought girlfriend-made pickles.

“These green tomato pickles are actually [girlfriend's]," he said, "but they ... ”

I showed up with nothing but open hands, and when I left my jacket pockets looked like squirrel cheeks.

"Oh no! Those are bad," objected someone with intimate knowledge of [girlfriend's] pickles, from across the room.

Murmurs swept the Swap Meat circle.

"No, these aren't the bad ones," the pickle purveyor protested.

"[Girlfriend] put ginger in her pickles so they'd be good in Martinis," the protester continued. "But we tried them, and my God, they were eff-ed."

"This is a different batch," the pickle man softly protested.

A cloud of suspicion had fallen upon that jar, and rightly so. The first rule of Swap Meat is that you trade only your own goods. That way you know exactly what it is and where it's been.

You can be sure that more than just food will change hands at a food swap. Tips on gardening, preservation and cooking will be traded as well, plus phone numbers, gossip and hunting stories. When swappers run into each other months later at the growers’ market, you can expect updates on the traded goods. Community bonds are further strengthened.

I just attended a swap of a different sort: a seed exchange in Española. Spring is the obvious season for seed trading because it's the time to plant them.

The event started out ceremonially, with Native American song and blessings. Dirt from around the Southwest was mixed with water from distant parts, along with seeds brought from all corners. Everyone took home a handful of the mix to plant. Then guitar and accordion players dispatched upbeat riffs while participants wandered among the seed tables. There were envelopes for putting seeds in, as well as pens for jotting pertinent details on the envelopes. Behind the tables, growers watched their haul disappear, talking shop with their seeds' new and prospective parents.

Most of these seeds were homegrown and home-saved, but many farmers also brought seed they'd purchased years ago from catalogs. Rather than letting the aging stuff go bad in the barn, these exchangers hoped to send their seeds to new gardens while they still had life to germinate.

Pickles and preserves
Ari LeVaux
Pickles and preserves
The event opened first to those who actually brought seeds—thus the "exchange." After the exchangers had taken care of their business, the action was opened to the public. I showed up with nothing but open hands, and when I left my jacket pockets looked like squirrel cheeks. Corn, beans, squash and chile were the most common seeds offered, this being New Mexico, but there were plenty of others, too. My loot included Tarahumara sunflower, Hopi blue corn, Inca rainbow sweet corn, red beans, parsley, borage, Chimayó chile, yin-yang beans and seeds for what a little girl promised will be the juiciest carrots ever.

Amid the festive atmosphere were serious conversations about tomato blight and water rights. But seed industry consolidation was the elephant in the room. The largest GM corporation in the world, Monsanto, is also the world's largest organic seed company—and largest seed company period—thanks to some recent strategic acquisitions. Because of consolidation like this, thousands of seed varieties are being dropped from circulation. Savers maintain an important reservoir of special seed varieties that would be invaluable if disaster were to strike, while improving their quality of life in the meantime.

Exchanging is the antithesis of seed industry consolidation, and trading food is a thrilling ride beyond the bounds of the currency system. You can't eat money, and it won't grow if you stick it in the ground. So as you prepare to grow and eat real food this summer, don't forget to swap your leftovers from last year.

 
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