Seed Money, Part I

Employing an ancient human technology to reinvigorate agricultural biodiversity

The Seed Chest

Parmenter garden, Westcliffe, Colorado, 2015. Photo: Simon Giebler

“In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.”
Vandana Shiva

Fort Collins, Colorado, January 1975

Dr. Donald William Denna scribbled notations on an envelope, dropped a few seeds inside and sealed it. He stood from his desk and winced at the familiar clutch of pain in his chest. Turning, he surveyed the large cabinet set against a perpendicular wall. Placing a finger beneath the cool brass lip of a drawer pull, he opened one of five dozen drawers and placed the envelope among several similar packets.

Squaring chair to desk, he clicked off the lamp and transferred his coat from the rack to his tall frame. He placed his hat on his head and stepped through the office doorway for the last time. Shoe soles clicked down the linoleum-tiled hallway until he exited the building into the cold January air, crossing campus to the athletic building for his noontime swim.

Dr. Denna was a horticultural researcher and associate professor closing his tenth year at Colorado State University. He was a plant breeder at the end of an era: as breeding research was taking a turn toward more generalized and less geographically specific applications, as molecular biology was paving the way for genetic-level plant breeding, and as breeding overall was moving into the private sector. Denna’s seed collection, packed into the vast 12-foot wide, shoulder high oak cabinet of tin-lined drawers, consisted of tens of thousands of seed accessions from the research he’d done over his years at CSU, and likely from years at Cornell and Michigan State before that.

Characterized as “hardworking” and “brilliant,” yet “something of an absent-minded professor” by colleagues, Denna kept to himself. He is described as “very friendly” by those who cracked the code of his introversion that was too often misconstrued as chilly egotism. The physical exercise he engaged to strengthen his failing heart brought additional personal benefits, too, providing pleasing solitary time away from such social complexities. That January 15, 1975, 44-year-old Don Denna perched his lean, muscular body at the pool’s edge and contemplated the bracing, cool engulf awaiting him. As he dove, the room’s vacuous echo was replaced — by the sudden rush of water in his ears — with a womb-like silence. These swims usually provided satisfying rhythmic gurgles and splashes that accompanied each stroke, each breath, each lap. On this day, however, the rhythm was not to be found. Instead, even the central rhythm of his body halted, painfully, and he sank to the bottom of the pool.

Over the following weeks, Dr. Denna’s office would be emptied: personal items sent home, and university property disbursed through the department. Denna would not be replaced at the University, so with his death came the end of plant breeding at CSU — surprising for a university that still, four decades later, has a strong agricultural focus. But unsurprising when viewed as part of the overarching privatization of plant breeding, moving from the hands of individuals and public entities into the intellectual property dossiers of chemical companies.

Denna’s vast seed collection was to be mostly forgotten. Possibly because it was deemed to have no significant commercial value or genetic potential, the unfinished sketches of one lesser 20th century artist. But possibly forgotten only because it fell into the perceived obsolescence of the breeding program itself.

The cabinet — seeds and all — was hauled into campus storage where it would sit, unattended for decades.

Westcliffe, Colorado, December 1991

Cord Parmenter blocked and jacked the camper until it was level. Level enough, anyway. He still had much work to do before nightfall. He sawed a hole in the ceiling and assembled the stove chimney out the top of the camper. Then, attaching the bottom of the pipe to the stove, he set a fire within. Dark was setting and it was cold.

He turned to his wife, Penn, as she focused her flurried energy on the preparation of a makeshift Christmas Eve dinner. He smiled. Cord had lived in remote mountain transience much of his life (“a true wild man,” Penn calls him). But Penn — this bright, energetic young actress from suburban Pueblo West, Colorado — was far from the life she had known. Theatrical pursuits had taken her successively to Los Angeles and New York and each time she had returned to Cord. This first night in the camper set forth their homesteading high in Colorado’s Wet Mountains.

The chimney moaned and gonged as the heat rose through it. Within a few minutes the fire had warmed the stove, and the stove began to warm the camper. Penn flashed an eager smile at her husband.

Penn and Cord Parmenter at home, circa 1992. Photo: Parmenter

Westcliffe, Colorado, June 2015

I awake to the sound of hooves clopping rhythmically on gravel, lumbering horses coming in for breakfast. Twenty feet off the ground, I’m sharing a platform with my son, in a piñon tree we’re told is a thousand years old. There’s just enough room for the two of us — sleeping head to foot — and a collection of our belongings: duffle of clothes, lantern and a small stove which I put to immediate use for tea and oatmeal.

After breakfast, we climb down the ladder and wander the 44 acres of the Parmenter homestead. A quarter century in, enormous productive mountain gardens roll across the landscape. Paths twist and curve through dozens of raised beds — and two greenhouses — like branches of the ancient piñons dotting the property.

Simon, my son and photographer, shoots pictures of plants, cats and gardens, of Penn as she arranges a collection of rare heirloom tomato seedlings to be delivered to a local garden center, and of Penn and Cord posing in front of the ingenious passive solar greenhouses I’m here on assignment to write about. We gather around the picnic table to explore, in detail, Cord’s greenhouse design and Penn’s seed saving passion.

A few feet away, the Christmas Eve camper remains the central structure of their home, with additions sagging off the front and back. A large water tank rising above the house provides running water and a flush toilet. (It was their first summer, 1992, before they got a toilet at all. “You kids need a shitter!” Penn’s father had announced. “Cord, dig a hole and I’ll come next weekend with the materials.”) Inside the house, dishes stack high in a dank kitchen overdue for a remodel.

The Parmenters have raised three sons in this place: erudite lads who challenge my assumptions about remote mountain poverty. The eldest, Max, a Daniels Scholar at Denver University law school, interrupts our interview by Skype. He’s on summer break in China visiting his roommate’s family home. Eavesdropping on his cultural report is like listening to a NPR dispatch.

This land has sprouted boys and horses, gardens and greenhouses, and several small income streams in goods (seeds, seedlings, greenhouses) and services (blacksmithing and teaching). As this modest income meets modest outflows, the Parmenters inhabit a classic homesteader’s success model. In Penn’s words, “We live poor just fine.”

* * *

The Parmenter homestead’s beauty is presented in busy collaboration with the land. At one end is Cord, a quiet force who appears to drive the larger movements of the operation with capable skill and no sudden movements. When swept with contemplation he’ll wring a handful of beard, and just when sternness seems a defining characteristic, his face will crack open to a generously handsome smile.

Inhabiting an energetic opposite, Penn is a whirlwind of activity rapid firing 30 words to Cords one. It’s easy to imagine her on the stage, owing to her commanding presence and infectious exuberance. Penn Parmenter seems a woman motivated by taking on just a bit more than she can keep up with.

Foraging through boxes and bins full of seeds, she shares their stories along the way: some traded illegally from Italy, some smuggled out of Siberia and some kept through 15 years of her own careful seed saving. “I was told I would not be able to grow a tomato,” she tells me as envelopes, jars and dried-on-the-branch newspaper-wrapped bundles of seeds spread in front of her. “Everybody was telling us what we couldn’t do every step of the way. Now I’m selling 130 tomato varieties and trialing another 250. No, don’t tell me I can’t grow a tomato at 8,000 feet.”

In addition to tomatoes, Penn has adapted corn, pumpkin and other ‘impossibles’ to high elevation. “Seed is brilliant and not only self-replicates, but adapts to its environment,” she explains. “Saving the best seeds each season has improved our high-altitude gardens tremendously in just a few years.”

“Seed is brilliant and not only self-replicates, but adapts to its environment. Saving the best seeds each season has improved our high-altitude gardens tremendously in just a few years.” — Penn Parmenter

A broad piñon shades the picnic table. Behind Penn a large rusted corrugate barn serves as Cord’s blacksmith shop and, more actively, greenhouse construction workshop. As Penn and I continue to talk, Cord directs his 18-year-old son Beau and a paid helper in the careful loading of a large greenhouse — one wall at a time — onto the trailer with which he will deliver it to a customer in Woodland Park tomorrow.

Corn, 2015. Photo: Simon Giebler

Simon stages quick shots of jars or handfuls of seeds, and then spontaneously lays out a corn kernel mandala organized by color from purple through blue, green, yellow, red and back to purple. Penn unpacks pinto beans from 60 miles south. “They’ve been growing this there for 100 years,” she says. “Right here in my hand is 100 years of adaptation to La Veta, Colorado. These beans can do much more than the beans in the packet from the store” — an opposite view to the one-variety-fits-all approach taken in recent decades by large chemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont. Inasmuch as a garden is a microcosm of regional agriculture, Penn Parmenter is a renegade of the microcosm, laying herself across the path of organized extinction.

“This is an Iraqi tomato,” she says, handing me an envelope labeled Abu Rawan. “In war we blow up seed banks and all their diversity.” Her flurry of motion stops and she looks at me to ensure I understand the gravity. “Isn’t it mindboggling? That’s what feeds us, that’s what neutralizes us, that’s the common denominator for us all. It doesn’t matter your race or your religion; without seed we die.

Parmenter tomato flat, 2015. Photo: Simon Giebler

“To me, growing this Iraqi tomato is really important,” she continues. “We’re connecting to people that just got their world blown to shit, they have no food, their seed is all blown up, and still there are guys trying to get this seed out into the hands of people who can grow it out and continue these varieties that could just be gone.” I look at the seeds, war refugees, and then back at Penn as her ever-ready Cheshire grin returns behind black frame cat-eye glasses. “And an Iraqi tomato is adapted to the high and dry desert. It’s perfect for us!” she says.

“Seed is the most potent and powerful currency in the world, that’s why the big chemical companies want to control it,” she says, referring to the increasing conglomeration of seed companies. [Today, of the “big seed six” — Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, DuPont, Monsanto and Dow Chemical — all but BASF are under negotiation for even further consolidation.] “Whoever has the seed wins. You can’t eat money or gold.”

“Seed is the most potent and powerful currency in the world, that’s why the big chemical companies want to control it. Whoever has the seed wins. You can’t eat money or gold.” — Penn Parmenter

Everything circles back to the importance of seed saving. “You and I can learn to make seed and save seed and make ourselves sustainable and keep replanting and feed ourselves,” she says. “When you do that, you get back so much more seed than you think you will without even trying. Then not only are you adapting it each year, you can gift that seed and share that seed with other people who have growing conditions like yours, and now you’re spreading this strong seed that can do well in extreme climates. And you’re feeding people.”

Fort Collins, Colorado, 2010

Having just completed Bill McDorman’s SeedSave International Seed School, Penn’s passion for seeds was growing exponentially. She was teaching a weekend class on high elevation gardening at the Denver Botanic Gardens and expressing her awareness of seeds as living, breathing embryos. After the class, a man came up to her and said, “I have something I think you’d be very interested in.”

Fifteen years earlier he had acquired a seed chest being discarded by Colorado State University — a giant piece of furniture that had been abandoned in university storage for nearly a quarter century before that. It was the chest he’d been interested in, but it still contained countless seed packets he couldn’t bring himself to dispose of. He’d traced much of the seed back to the university’s Dr. D.W. Denna.

“This seed chest is really cool,” Penn tells me by phone a few months after my visit. “It’s got his handwriting on each drawer all yellowed with age. I went over there hoping to get a packet of tomato seeds,” she recalls. But, seeing a worthy home for the seeds, the man gifted all the seed to her. “He loaded my car up with the whole freakin’ collection because he wanted someone, the proper steward, to take it.”

Cord and Penn Parmenter discovering the seed chest, 2010. Photo: Parmenter

“If you could’ve heard Penn’s voice the first time she called me after they discovered these seeds,” recalls Bill McDorman, who is also the executive director of Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. “But what does someone like Penn do when they find it? She doesn’t have the resources — I mean, it would cost literally millions of dollars to try to systematically go through that collection, do all the trials and increase the seeds to bring them into some sort of even small-scale market or industrial production.”

Aside from a few tomato packets that she took out for experimentation, Penn packed the collection — complete with daunting responsibility — into seven large Rubbermaid tubs for over three years, she says, “knowing it was a goldmine of lost heirlooms and crosses from this genius professor whose whole life’s work was thrown into a barn.”

“We’re sitting on what we think and what we feel is priceless,” says McDorman, “and yet, we can’t afford to…” He trails off. “All of that is [a parallel to] where we’re sitting as humanity right now. In so many ways.”

Seed Money in its entirety was a nonfiction finalist in the 2017 Iowa Review Awards. Part of the above was excerpted by Orion magazine in its Fall 2019 issue.

Read Seed Money Part II: The Seed Temple here.