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Sustainability | New World Seeds & Tubers

Greetings. You’re reading our very first post, and as you visit our website I hope that you’re finding information that will be interesting to you and useful for you.

We speak of time, and of beginnings and endings, but it’s all really just change, and the end of one thing is the beginning of another. For coming up on 58 years now Tom Wagner has been developing tomatoes, but his research and breeding work did not leave him enough time and resources to market his seeds except to give them to friends or sell them to a few members of the general public who sought them out.

And so he put his seed company, Tater Mater Seeds, on hiatus.

If you’ve been looking for Tater Mater Seeds, you’ve found it. For the first time, a significant fraction of the thousands of named varieties developed during decades of breeding research will finally be available to the general public. Some hundreds of them will be available this year in small quantities, and more, in increasing quantities, over the next few years. There are enough of them that it’s still a daunting project for a two-man operation.

There are still decisions to be made regarding the potato side of Tater-Mater Seeds, but one side of the business we’d really like to promote is true seed potatoes and mini-tubers grown from true seed, which means that we’ll be developing a whole new market.

While Tom is harvesting the fruits of decades of work, changes in the rest of the world are likely to take this business into directions he didn’t anticipate back when he began this adventure.

You see, the name of our company has a double-meaning. It refers to the wealth of crops that the Amerinds developed here in the Americas, which just happen to constitute an impressive fraction of the world’s most popular foods, but it also refers to a new world whose birth pangs we are starting to witness now.

The status quo is one in which gigantic agribusiness operations have been producing relatively cheap staples.  As a result, not even most farmers much less backyard gardeners grow their own food anymore aside from perhaps a small amount of produce.

We doubt that this is sustainable. The reason is first of all that much of this production was financed by a gigantic credit expansion. Now that credit has been contracting for a while, big commercial food producers are having to reduce their production because they can’t finance their operations to the extent that they did during the bubble years. The credit expansion was in essence a subsidy that hid the true cost of production.

Another problem we perceive is that production has been pushed to its probable limits. For so long, decisions have been made favoring productivity over all other concerns including profitability, sustainability, and reliability, that our food production and distribution systems are becoming less fault tolerant. Anyone who has grown certain commercial crops realizes that less-than-ideal conditions might result in worse than reduced productivity, but rather crop failure.

Consider for example what happens when wheat that has been bred for productivity above and at the expense of all other considerations has to deal with heat and drought in Russia and the Ukraine, U99 fungus in Africa, or cold wet weather on the Canadian high plains. Consider too the domino effect that occurs in world commodity markets when just a relatively small amount of production becomes unavailable. That’s what happens when supplies are getting stretched while demand keeps growing.

Just to be clear, we’re not Luddites. The problem is not technological progress, but rather, the belief in the doctrine of progress that assumes that everything improves over time. That only seems to be true over a relatively short historical span. From about the 3rd century AD until almost the Renaissance, the conventional wisdom was that the world started perfect and was in constant decline thereafter, to the point that many people assumed that the world would end around the year 1000! What seems to actually be going on is a cycle of birth and death–”Samsara”–that exists at many different scales within the great Heirarchy (“holy order”): living beings, communities, great cities, civilizations, species, whole worlds, and perhaps even the whole universe itself.

Birth implies death, but equally, death implies birth. There is no cause for grief; it’s just change. The pendulum swings back and forth. We have little doubt that whatever comes after us will be worthwhile in its own right.

Recent transitions from previous epochs have been relatively painless. Although many workers were thrown out of their traditional occupations, more often than not once they recovered from personal financial crises they typically ended up with higher standards of living than when they started.

The next transition between epochs won’t be as easy. Life is easier within the context of increasing economic complexity, rather that decreasing economic complexity. The particularly hard parts of the graph are the inflection points; as one of our correspondents joked: it’s not the fall that kills you, but the sudden stop at the end.

In any case change is inevitable so we’re gearing up–or perhaps down–for it.

Human history rises in circles, like an aero. The circles may be different—some golden, some bloody—but they can all be divided into 360 degrees. And so, if we move from the zero forward—10, 20, 200, 360 degrees—we come to zero again. Yes, indeed, we return to zero. But to my mathematically reasoning mind, it is clear that this zero is completely different from the last zero, it’s all new. We turned right from the initial zero, we returned to it from the left, and so instead of a +0 we have a –0. Get it?

I see this Zero as a taciturn, huge, narrow, knife-sharp cliff. In the brutal, hairy darkness, holding our breath, we sailed from the black, night side of the Zero Cliff. For centuries, we, the Columbuses, sailed and sailed, we went all around the earth and finally—hurrah! Salute—and all lookouts aloft: before us is the other, heretofore unseen side of the Zero Cliff, lit by the aurora borealis of the United Nation, the blue monolith sparkling with rainbow colors and the sun—hundreds of suns, billions of rainbows . . .

What if only the breadth of a knife edge separates us from the other, the dark side of the Zero Cliff. The knife is the most enduring, most immortal, most brilliant human invention. The knife has served as a guillotine, the knife is a universal means of resolving all knots, and along the knife’s edge lies the path of paradoxes—the only path worthy of a fearless mind.
–Yevgeni Zamyatin, “We”

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