BOISE — Casey O’Leary is the brains behind an effort to take the local food movement one step further and ensure people in Idaho and the Intermountain West have locally grown seed to grow that food.
O’Leary, who owns a small urban farm in Boise, is also the founder and manager of the Snake River Seed Cooperative. This group of 27 small farmers from around the region produces local seeds that are put in garden packets and sold at retail nurseries around the state.
Most of the seeds are sold to backyard gardeners while some are purchased by small-scale farmers.
“It isn’t truly local food if it’s grown from a seed that has to be brought in from somewhere else,” said O’Leary, “We’re trying to make the local seed piece come together. We’re trying to connect the concept of local food grown from local seeds.”
O’Leary started the cooperative four years ago. Members currently grow about 300 varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seeds. The co-op sold about 30,000 seed packets last year.
“So we’re not huge but we’re growing,” O’Leary said. “We want to create a robust, regional seed shed.”
While the co-op has grown to include 27 farmers, “(O’Leary) is the master orchestrator behind the co-op and convincing farmers to grow more seed,” said SRSC member and Middleton farmer Mike Sommer.
Sommer said his involvement in the co-op has led him to start growing more of his own seed.
“We spend thousands of dollars a year on seed and I’m sure other farmers do as well,” he said. “It could save us a lot of money.”
O’Leary said seed grown locally will adapt to local conditions better than seed grown in a different region.
“The longer you grow seeds in a certain location, the more they adapt to your environment, so the seeds you grow here do better here,” she said. “When you buy a seed packet off the shelf, there’s literally no transparency in where those seeds have been grown.”
She said the group is trying to create a culture around local seeds.
“They’re not just a faceless thing you start with to grow your vegetables,” she said. “They have a huge cultural history and a huge economic value, and local gardens that use local seed do better.”
O’Leary said local seeds are the next frontier in the local food movement.
“So many people have made that connection between local food and how it impacts local communities and local economies,” she said. “Now we need to take it that step further and talk about the seeds that are growing the ‘local’ food.”
She said the plan is to create a robust, regional seed shed that includes Idaho, western Washington, western Oregon, northern Nevada, northern Utah, eastern Wyoming and eastern Montana.
Born and raised in Boise, O’Leary turned to farming 15 years ago, partly through her experience with environmental activism and “also through getting fired from a lot of customer service jobs. I decided I should maybe work with plants instead of people.”
Occupation: Owner, Earthly Delights Farms
Hometown: Boise, Idaho
Education: Bachelor’s degree in horticulture, Boise State University
Family: Husband, Brent, and dog, Ron