Scarcity and Abundance: A reflection on seeds and culture

fatherdaughter seed swaps

The March 2015 Burlington, Vt. Seed Swap featured an abundance of seeds donated by High Mowing Organic Seeds and Gardener’s Supply.

By Carolina Lukac
VCGN Garden Education Specialist

The Burlington Seed Swap, held this spring at Memorial auditorium, was a cultural experience for me. I remember feeling my heart racing and thinking to myself, “Wow, this is the land of abundance.”

I should probably first paint a picture of where I come from and of my relationship with seeds…  I was born and raised in Mexico City, where I spent the last 8 years of my life establishing and running an urban agriculture learning center.  Although Mexico has a strong agricultural heritage, when I started gardening in 2007 it was challenging to find organic seeds in the city.  The two women and I who cofounded Huerto Romita had a habit of smuggling seeds from our trips to the United States and for a few years those were the only seeds we planted.  I personally traveled to the U.S. quite frequently and through the years I refined my seed smuggling strategy – I would roll up seed packets so that the seeds wouldn’t rattle in my suitcase and then I would discreetly stuff the rolled up packets in a bag filled with underwear and bras.  Custom officials in Mexico City went through my luggage more than once, but they never caught on to my illegal importation of organic seeds that went on for years.

I always gardened with a sense of scarcity and sacredness towards seeds.  I would count out radish seeds and meticulously plant one by one because scattering seeds and then thinning out seedlings seemed like a waste.  I remember one occasion when I was traveling back from Oaxaca with two heirloom Zapotec tomatoes and had to spoon out squished tomato pulp from my purse to save the seeds on my bus ride home.  And then there was that year when a historic hailstorm fell in April and completely destroyed a butterhead lettuce that had gone to seed in my rooftop garden; I cried when I saw all those seeds washed away.  Seeds were scarce and because they were scarce, they were also sacred.  There were always enough seeds to create beautiful seed mosaics as part of the altars we frequently set up at community events and workshops.

Once a year I would help organize a seed exchange, a “trueque de semillas” at Huerto Romita.  The first couple of seed exchanges were chaotic events where the few seeds that were donated by individuals disappeared from tables within a few minutes.  The only leftover seeds were the kind you commonly find in street markets in Mexico City – seeds that are painted fluorescent colors by chemical fungicides that are routinely applied.  Our seed exchanges always seemed to attract a lot of people who had no idea where to find organic seeds, people who wanted to start growing their own food but didn’t have access to seeds.  Most of those people respected the “barter and trade” dynamic and commonly offered food or special items in exchange for the coveted seeds.  There was an understanding that when you participate in a “trueque” you make a reciprocal offering in gratitude for what you receive, especially when it came to seeds.


Each precious seed is carefully counted and labeled at the Huerto Romita seed exchange in Mexico City.

This past November, I put a lot of thought into my last seed exchange in Mexico City during a school gardening network gathering.  I was hoping for an organized, educational, and enjoyable exchange.  We printed out seed packets with blank spaces for writing in the seed variety, harvest date and location to make sure everyone documented their seeds’ origin.  We asked participants to place their 5-10 donated seed packets on the corresponding table according to botanical families. For this seed exchange we were fortunate to receive an immensely generous donation of 50 seed packets of lettuce varieties.  Eager participants awaited the official start of the seed exchange and I could see many people hovering over the Asteraceae table.  We inaugurated the event with a blessing in honor of seeds and within 10 minutes all the seed packets disappeared from the tables.  The scene was a little insane in the moment and then heartwarming to watch two young girls open up their seed packets and give away individual seeds to people who arrived late.

So, back to the Seed Swap in Vermont where seed packets were also nicely arranged on tables identified by botanical family.  However, there were HUNDREDS of seed packets, probably millions of organic seeds and I gawked in disbelief.  I remember taking photographs of the tables and instant messaging them to my friends in Mexico to show them what a seed exchange looks like in Vermont.  Oddly, the only seed I smuggled into the U.S. when I moved to Vermont was a bag of cacao beans.  The Aztecs used to barter and trade with cacao beans, so I figured that raw cacao beans from Mexico would be a reciprocal offering for organic and heirloom seeds from Vermont.  As often happens when I feel culturally out of place, I looked around myself to pick up on behavioral clues as to how I should be exchanging seeds.  I saw nobody offering up his or her seeds.  But I did see many people carefully open up one seed packet, pour out a few seeds into an envelope and then place the opened seed packet back on the table.  I felt a little bit uncomfortable with how sane and orderly and individualistic the dynamic appeared, but I put away my cacao beans and dived right into a pile of seed packets on the Solanaceae table.


The March 2015 Burlington, Vt. Seed Swap was a partnership of Vermont Community Garden Network, Burlington Parks Recreation & Waterfront, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington Permaculture and Ron Krupp.

By the end of the Seed Swap I had encountered a couple of people who did indeed bring their own seeds to exchange and I shared cacao beans with a few people.  But for the most part, I simply filled up my pockets with small envelopes full of seeds.  Later on when I arrived home, I lit a candle in honor of my newly acquired seeds, spread them out on the table and again took photographs to document the abundance.  I still find it hard to fathom the quantity of seeds that are donated every year for the Seed Swap.  And I still hold onto the sacredness of seeds, whether in scarcity or abundance, seeds are the source of all that nourishes life in both Mexico and Vermont.

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