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100. Bill McDorman | Saving Seeds | Cornville, AZ
23rd November 2015 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 01:20:52

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Bill McDorman is Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Ketchum, Idaho.  He got his start in the bio-regional seed movement while in college in 1979 when he helped start Garden City Seeds in Missoula, Montana.  In 1984, Bill started Seeds Trust /High Altitude Gardens, a mail order seed company he ran successfully until it sold to an intern in 2013.  He authored the book, Basic Seed Saving, in 1994.  In 2010, he and his wife Belle Starr created Seed School, a nationally recognized weeklong training.  He served as Executive Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH from 2011 to 2014.  Bill is a passionate and knowledgeable presenter who inspires his audiences to learn to save their own seeds.

Well I am super super excited about this interview today because I have been trying to get this  extraordinary guest on my show ever since I first heard of him from Robin Kelson from the Good Seed Company back when I first started last March or April!

 organic grown watermelon organic grown cantaloupeCantaloupe seeds

We grew some of his seeds corn and watermelon and cantaloupes this year very successfully! So he’s here to teach us about saving seeds among other things and maybe even saving our planet!

There’s also an episode about a Seed Saving Workshop at the Penny Royal Collective in Kalispell where I talked about Bill earlier.


Tell us a little about yourself.

I was a student at the University of Montana bought a little house on the north side of Missoula. For the fist time I was going have my own garden!! I had been brought up growing with my parents. Which I shared but this was gonna be mine. I had Mrs. Sorgie’s old house, famous for her tomatoes. She was one of the original rail road families that staked out the best land in Missoula that you could garden to grow tomatoes

families workers to bring the railroad


had this reputation in the neighborhood to live up to, but I was serious anyway, started looking families around for the seed

that was a thread that changed my life

I’ll ask you how do you find the best seeds for your garden?

What does the best even mean? Is it more then seed porn? By that I mean the catalogs that we look at dreaming about our harvest? Is that the best seeds? Is it because you buy them from the best people? Or many of us are learning, is it be cause you get them from someone local so they are adapted to your area?

I realize that my neighbors, I call him Uncle Vic had talked about all the variety were gone. You just couldn’t find them anymore.

I started digging deeper this was a world wide phenomenon

This was in 1976 that I started researching and we realized that we were gonna lose, all the varieties if we are looking for the best seeds. My gosh that’s a huge problem. If we look now, we lost 96% if you get down to counting which was an article I read in National Geographic a few years ago.  I think it was National Geographic May 2011 Issue counted the number of varieties in 1903 vs what’s available right now. And so 96% that’s all the ecological and cultural niches that it took 10,000 years for humans to develop, especially since the start of our country were gone. That’s what really motivated me to look around I was a boy scout.

Let’s find out what’s left.

seemed like a good idea

if we’re really gonna lose this stuff

and make it available again. It was a down home project it’s still there it’s called the MUD project was founded in my bedroom on the North Side of Missoula

I have to tell you the episode 97 released today is with Ellie Costello the current director of MUD.

such great people

organizations that have continued to grow

We started the seed company to make available all the seeds we found it was called Garden City Seeds

ran for 15 years.

ran for western Montana then

John and Karen moved it to the Bitterroot till the non-profit was called

sold it to an entity

Irish eyes

still have the same varieties and descriptions we wrote for their catalog. There’s still a history there so long story short that’s how I got into this.

I had a friend who worked for Garden City Seeds when they were in the Bitterroot!

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

I don’t remember how old, I must have been younger then 6 my parents moved

I remember my father pulling a little carrot out of the ground and it being a magical experience. I couldn’t believe something like that could come out of the ground and it tasted so good and it was like eating candy! I do remember that.

A gentleman who came to our Seed Schools in a church garden a little boy looked at and said

“Gene is that where all carrots come from?” That’s what changed Gene’s life and then he

Life long dedicated to garden education

ended up at one of our Seed Schools.

So when it came time to sign up for Law School.

Let me continue my story of Garden City Seeds

graduating from UM

originally supposed to go to law school

needed to get this non-profit off the ground. I thought in the next 2-3 years of hard work this will be going. After 2-3 years I left, I was burnt out…

wrote the original incorporating papers.

I helped pick the board

bought two lots,

expanded, we planted gardens, we did trials

herb garden… goats and chickens we tried to really live in a self -reliant matter

permaculture came along, as the Penny Royal Collective is trying to do right now, I felt like I walked back into my own backyard

I feel the energy and see what they were experience

Ketchum, ID where I grew up. Ketchum is at 6000 feet bought gardening


I kept track one year and we had 9 frosts and 2 hailstorms between memorial day and labor day

on the edge of people trying to grow food, there were high quality and high conscious people there wanted their own food, the kind you only get when you grow it yourself.  I thought growing was a great idea. The world had lost these individually adapted seeds

coops had provided

So I started a seed company called High Altitude Gardens which became Seeds Trust and I ran that for 25 years.


Corn Seed Corn Seeds Packet

Where I really learned a lot about individual varieties

how to help people

catalog and phones

had to answer a lot of questions over the phone

sitting around talking to people all day

richest experience of my life

hear so many particular problems

from gardeners all over the world

launched me into seed school

teach over 20 years…

probably the high light

I just foiled my original idea

figure out the things that will grow

and get them there

got to go to Siberia in 1989 behind the iron curtain. I got to bring back some treasures. I’m really proud those are still in catalogs and being sold and produced all love the world. It was a wonderful moment for me, they weren’t mine, they were developed by the love and hard work, for the whole period locked behind the iron curtain. I was the first guy from the west who got to walk out of them literally, hidden in my front pockets!

Then didn’t I read something about while you were there you went around and talked to the farmers and learned how they were collecting their seeds?

I was there in august 1989 and the iron curtain came down in November. Neil Young was there rocking and they  took the Berlin Wall down, and glasnost and perestroika

I was with the first western group allowed to go to Siberia without the KGB

all gardeners was great wonderful time, lots of tears of hugs everyday, of course sharing lots of seeds, I took a bunch to share, so open hearted that was best to what they had found. That was the background to the whole experience.

Then what happened next? You came back with the seeds, and started the Seeds Trust thing?

Well I grew them and tried them, and if they worked we put them in the catalog. After ten years of doing this people started sending me things! You know gardeners are vain. They would call me or write to me and say “Look I know your pretty proud of winter squash and it’s only 90 days, but mine’s better!  Do you want some seeds?”

And I’d say of course and it was hard to keep up with From Mongolia, the mountains of Guatemala. Maybe some of the proudest things I was able to grow and share were from Ken Fisher from Belgrade Montana who had Fisher’s Garden Seeds. His original Mountaineer Squash and  Candy Mountain Super Sweet corn and Fisher’s Earliest Corn! They were incredible varieties!

He had hand selected for 50 years or more by the time I had gotten there. He openly shared everything with me. He was a mentor with me. There were all sorts of experiences that paid me. You can imagine trying to run your own small business back then it was hard. There was no internet. I had to borrow money to print catalogs and hope to sell enough to get it back. It was really an interesting time. Once the internet came I didn’t have to deposit checks in the bank, I didn’t have to open letters, and look at orders and type them in and actually it was easier to make a living, so those first 15 years was pretty tough! But I got paid every day! You know knowing I was doing something really important, something really authentic! Something people really appreciate it what I was doing and  I think people in 1000 years willl look back and appreciate it. You know in 2 generations we lost 96% or 93% we lost all the varieties. That’s an incredible statistic! We need diversity and all that adaptation to face the storms that are coming! I think in a 1000 years when people look back at us and they’ve grown back all these varieties, they’ll look back at us in the early 21st century and go whoa what happened people? How did you lose all that stuff?! But they’ll look a few people woke up and they got together and they started over growing and saving their own seeds in their own homes and regions and readapted things and creating new diversity! Those were the most important people of the earliest 21st century! Anyone who gets involved in growing and saving their own seeds is doing what I believe is the best and the most important work humans can be doing right now!

Diverse Gardens

This is how we save the planet, it calms people down! It gets them to think long term.starts to feed them where they are. It lowers their carbon footprint. Almost everything we are trying to accomplishment to save what’s left of the nature and diversity and beauty of this planet is enhanced when you come home and grow your own food and save your own seeds and seed saving is the most powerful part of that and will have the most lasting impact.

You can take what you grow in your garden, the best of it, and instead of starting over every year and trying to do that again and again and again!

When you save your own seeds and take the best out of that garden and take it into the next year and the next year! And those of us who have done that have learned after only 2-3 years  we see significant changes in how good things are in what we are saving! That this system is so incredibly beautiful and adaptable and powerful that it just takes your breath away! And that makes you just want to save everything.

if we can get millions of americans to be the way it used to be only 2 generations ago and grow some of their own food and save a few of their own seeds I believe everything will change, economically politically and of course nutritionally! 

Are you going to the UN Climate Talks in 2 weeks? You should be their keynote speaker?

They’re not ready for it yet. We have this beautiful local food movement that starting to happen all over. When I got started 30 years ago saving seeds because we were gonna lose most of them, nobody had any idea what we were talking about we were just out there! And slowly but surely people are waking up and a huge reflection of this change in consciousness is this local food movement! Eat Local! Be self-reliant, be resilient in your food supply, it means so much economically to your local economy!


Missoula Farmer’s Market a Must Go in Montana’s Summertime!

You know I was there at the very first Missoula Farmer’s Market when there were only about 6-8 booths and probably only 30-40 people show up. I was just in Missoula this summer and there are what 3-4 distinct markets? on the same day? With thousands of people showing up! However if you walk through that market. That’s the change that’s taking place! I walk through farm’s markets’  all over the west this summer. I got to go and travel and talk about seeds at farmer’s markets and if you ask famers where they get their seeds, all of them have the same answers. I order them, I get them from Johnny’s, I get them from High Mowing, I get them from Territorial! That’s where most of the good organic grower’s get them from. Mostly thousands of miles away! Many of the certified organic hybrids they are growing in our Farmer’s Markets come from Europe. There are 2 companies in Europe are pioneering that and many of those varieties are patented so you can’t save the seeds! So my question for all of us and for them is how does that help local food?

I had a farmer tell me a great story, he said, you know I almost got wrecked this year my seed...