Meet a Canadian seed saver: Owen Bridge, Annapolis Seeds

October 1, 2019

When he was 12 years old, Owen Bridge had an encounter that would change his life.

When he was 12 years old, Owen Bridge had an encounter that would change his life. He met Dan Jason, the writer, activist and seed guru behind Salt Spring Seeds in B.C. Dan placed seeds from three rare bean varieties in Owen’s hand, and assigned him a very special job: growing and caring for them so they wouldn’t disappear.

“It felt pretty special at 12 years old to be able to save a whole variety just by growing it in my garden,” says Owen. The boy was hooked.

Today, Owen lives in Nova Scotia, where he operates Annapolis Seeds, an organic seed farm he started just seven years after that encounter.

During the growing season, Owen tends to his three acres of seed crops, with his 13 year old hen trailing behind him as company. It’s quiet work, but fascinating.

“Most people have no idea how colourful a bean can be. They think that tomatoes at the superstore are pretty diverse now, but they’ve never seen a giant tomato, or a tomato with black stripes running through it. To me, when I see a new trait pop up, it just makes me really happy. I find biodiversity amazing.”

The challenge is getting this biodiversity to the market. Like most seed companies in Canada, Annapolis Seeds sells to discerning gardeners in beautiful small packets that travel through the mail or change hands at community markets. This year, Owen will have 500 varieties available for purchase – an impressive inventory that comes with its own logistical challenges.

“Winter is my real bottleneck season, when I travel to Seedy Saturdays and try to fill my online orders at the same time,” explains Owen. “At that time of year, I’d need three of me to keep up.”
The seed packets might be small, but their importance is enormous. Three quarters of global crop biodiversity was lost in the 20th century. Much of the crop diversity that remains in North America survives in those small packets.

Unfortunately the quantities produced are not enough to meet the needs of farmers. That’s one of the challenges that SeedChange’s domestic program tries to tackle, by encouraging more farmers to get involved with seed production.

The team running the program stopped by Owen’s farm on a cold, rainy day last June. After admiring the fields and hearing the stories behind many of his unusual crops, the crew warmed up over soup inside Owen’s old, eclectic farmhouse filled with antiques and seed equipment.

In jest, one of the visitors asked Owen what he’d do with a $100,000 grant. Which popular seed crop would he focus on bulking up first? Kale? Tomatoes?

“To be honest, I’d grow more of the weird stuff,” replied Owen with a smirk.

And really, who can blame him. The demand for good, market-friendly organic seeds might be growing in Canada, but somebody has to save the hundreds of varieties most of us have forgotten, keeping them safe until we realize how much we need them.

The 12 year old boy who stared, wide-eyed, at a handful of endangered bean seeds is alive and well, and determined to be that seed saver. Luckily for us all, he has his own farm now.