In a sunny corner of Tomoko and Kenji Usui’s garden, surrounded by marigolds and goldenrod, there stands a peculiar little house. The thatched roof is tall and pointy like a witch’s hat, with flowers growing around the brim. The porch is wide and shady, with a handmade wooden chair on it inviting visitors to take a rest. Imprinted in its plaster walls are stars made of wheat, pumpkin-seed hearts — and a fragment of a poem by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian mystic, spelled out in buckwheat: “Unfold your own myth.”

A visitor might almost expect the low wooden door to swing open and a gnome to step out, digging fork in hand, to tend the garden.

In fact, the miniature house is inhabited by seeds — which, if you really think about it, are at least as magical as gnomes.

“One rice seed sprouts 30 stalks, and each stalk bears 100 seeds. In five months the seed multiplies by 3,000 times. It’s amazing, right? And 2,999 of those seeds are a gift from nature that enables us to live,” says Kenji, 63, a long-time gardener. Together with his wife, Tomoko, he runs the Shanti Kuthi guesthouse and sustainable living school in Ikeda, central Nagano Prefecture.

This year the couple launched a community seed bank that they hope will help preserve some of Japan’s traditional garden and field crops. Anyone is welcome to visit the seed center (the gnome-like house) and take home as many varieties as they want. The only hitch is that borrowers are gently urged to plant what they’ve taken, save the next generation of seeds, and return some to the center the following year.

“If you don’t do anything with seeds, they lose their ability to germinate,” Usui explains. “So you let them go, share them with friends, and return them to the earth. They come back 1,000-fold. Seeds have that bounty in them, that ability to bring us joy.

“But if you push the principle further and start selling efficient varieties for a high price, you eventually end up with a company like Monsanto [the U.S.-based agribusiness multinational that dominates the world market for genetically modified seeds]. The opposite of that is for seeds to be free and to share them with everyone.”

The Usuis were inspired to start the seed center after seeing a similar model in action on a trip to Bangladesh in 2012. Kenji had developed a simple contraption for cooking rice using the husks as fuel and thought the technique might be of use in that country. They contacted a Japanese man who worked with a local organization promoting sustainable agriculture there, and he agreed to be their guide.

One of the places he took them was to a seed bank run by members of an ecological farming movement called Nayakrishi Andolon. The movement had arisen in response to worsening problems associated with the modernization of agriculture in Bangladesh: debt, dependency on chemicals and expensive machinery, environmental and health problems — as well as the loss of traditional knowledge and culture. Seeds were in trouble too, the Usuis learned.

“During the Green Revolution, farmers were urged to increase rice output and to use hybrid seeds because they are more productive. There used to be all sorts of seeds suited to the local climate and environment, but people abandoned them for the hybrids,” says Tomoko, 48.

Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing two parent plants chosen for specific characteristics, such as yield or disease resistance. The offspring of such a cross usually has more desirable qualities than either parent plant, but the benefits only last one generation. For instance, if a farmer saves seed from a hybrid corn plant and plants them the following year, they’ll most likely end up with something far less sweet-tasting than the previous summer’s cobs. For that reason, farmers are forced to go back to the seed company each year — a system that has led to increasing corporate control of seeds.

In contrast, farmers develop heritage or “open-pollinated” varieties by selecting and saving seeds over many generations. Provided steps are taken to prevent unintended crossing in the field, seeds from open-pollinated plants produce offspring with essentially the same characteristics as the parent plant. That allows farmers to save their own seeds and gradually hone varieties to suit local growing conditions.

However, thousands of local varieties are on the verge of extinction in both Japan and Bangladesh (as well as many other parts of the world). On their trip, the Usuis learned that farmers in Bangladesh are trying to stop that loss by establishing community seed banks.

They visited one such facility where farmers were cleaning and packing seeds from the recent rice harvest into the earthen urns for storage at a community agricultural center. Tomoko was surprised to find more than 1,000 traditional varieties of rice there. Some had unusual scents and flavors, others were suited for making sweets, and some could grow tall enough to survive flooding. The bank had more than 500 types of vegetable seeds as well. At a smaller village center, she met women involved with the project.

“They told me that protecting and caring for the seeds was the job of women, and that rang true with me. The seed banks became a place for people to gather and communicate. It really seemed fun. I thought, this is something I can do,” Tomoko says.

Back in Japan, she and Kenji held an event to talk about their travel experiences. When they mentioned the idea of starting a seed bank, the audience responded enthusiastically.

Two recent movies have raised awareness in Japan about the loss of local vegetable varieties and the threat posed by corporate control of seeds. One is a French documentary titled “The World According to Monsanto,” which takes a highly critical look at the seed-selling giant; the other is “Yomigaeri no Reshipi” (“Reviving Recipes”), a Japanese film about endangered heirloom vegetables. But while seed-exchange clubs are fairly common here, community seed banks with a shared storage facility are not.

The Usuis decided to start one. Working with participants in a sustainable building workshop they lead each year, and using wood cut from their own property, they completed the building in 2012. They also began holding events to collect and exchange open-pollinated seeds.

Some came with stories. One jar of adzuki beans arrived from a 93-year-old woman who had brought them to her new home when she got married, and saved their offspring each year since. Another friend brought chard seeds from Ladakh, India, thinking they might suit Nagano’s similarly mountainous environment. Beans, a traditional crop in Nagano, arrived in abundance: green, yellow, white and maroon soybeans, mottled runner beans as big as a farmer’s thumb, black-and-white “panda beans,” tan “tiger beans” and many more.

By fall 2012, the wooden shelves of the seed center were lined with jars holding about 200 different varieties, from cotton and rice to cherry tomatoes and zucchini. A notebook near the entrance listed the names of at least 100 borrowers (the bank works on the honor system). Most had come from out of town, lured by the novelty of the project.

One exception was Hiroshi Uchikawa, 64, an avid gardener and seed-saver who lives 15 minutes by car from the Usuis. This spring, he contributed calabash seeds he’s been saving for the past 10 years and took home a type of eggplant native to Obuse, in northern Nagano. So far this summer, the eggplants have grown an abundance of healthy leaves but no fruit.

“I like finding interesting new seeds, even if they don’t work out. The seed bank has a lot I’ve never seen before,” he says. However, he worries that the quality may not be ideal if participants haven’t yet mastered the art of seed saving — something he knows first-hand is a real challenge.

“It’s hard to avoid cross-pollination, hard to grow some plants to the point of producing seed — and hard to store the seeds properly,” he says, noting temperature and humidity are not precisely controlled at the Usuis’ facility. He’s hoping they will eventually work out these kinks and also accumulate more local varieties suited to Ikeda’s climate and geography.

Kenji and Tomoko agree that there’s plenty of room to improve their seed bank.

“We want to get more local people involved,” Tomoko says. “And we’re hoping that people who came from far away will go back and start new seed banks in their own neighborhood.”

The Shanti Kuthi guest house in Ikedamachi is a 20-minute walk from Shinanomatsukawa station on the JR Oito line. For more information visit www.ultraman.gr.jp/shantikuthi/index.html (Japanese only)

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