Maine Sunset: A Seed Without a Price

Image: a pale-skinned hand drops seeds into a hole in the dirt.

In last year’s catalog we conducted an experiment for the exchange of Abenaki Calais Flint Corn seed. We invited you to read a bit about the seed’s history, how it traveled through generations of seed keepers, gardeners, independent breeders, farmers and small seed companies, to you. We challenged you with the question, “How do we put a monetary value on seed, a foundation of life?

We were touched by how many of you articulated what the corn seed was worth to you. One response in particular spoke to how precious seed is: “It is hard to even suggest a monetary value for an heirloom variety. We think that growing this is like putting down a deposit on the future of food and of diversity. So we weighed an ounce of our 2022 season Painted Mountain corn. We then counted the kernels. There were 95 in an ounce. So we decided to buy this start on the future of Abenaki Calais at a dollar a seed.”

In total, customers paid almost $3,400 for this item, at an average packet price of $5.78. The lowest price paid per 1 oz packet was $0 and the highest was $95. We paid $182.82 in Indigenous Royalties to the nonprofit Nibezun, and after we covered our other costs for the seed, the profit went into our Seed Farmers Resilience Fund.

To continue the experiment this year, we are highlighting a different variety, the Maine Sunset Bean. Beans have a long rich history in Maine and the Northeast. Like corn, beans were tended by the indigenous peoples of this land and selected for beauty, adaptability and nutrition. European colonizers quickly adopted beans into their diets, with beans becoming a staple for most New Englanders. A pot of beans could cook all day for Saturday night supper, with leftovers reheated on Sunday to allow the Sabbath day of rest for the cooks. Many churches and town granges still host Saturday night bean suppers. Most of the dry bean varieties we love came from generations of families selecting and cultivating their favorite varieties and passing them to friends and neighbors.

Back in the 1930s, quite near here over on Knox Ridge, a farmer named Bantam passed along some bean seeds he liked to his mailman. Skip ahead to 2015. Former Fedco staffer Megan O’Brien had just bought a farm in the area and wanted to grow local dry beans. She asked Cedric, brother of the prior farm owner, if he’d heard of Maine Sunset. He hedged for a bit—then produced a coffee can of beans. His father was the mailman and his family had been growing the bean all along on that very same land. They found that the beans ripen to the fully dry stage somewhat earlier than other favorites like Jakes and Yellow Eye and were every bit as good when baked.

For several seasons we’ve struggled to get a good seed crop of Maine Sunset, but this year a grower we partner with in Massachusetts has had success! We are thrilled to offer it outside of the normal monetary structure of capitalism. Once again, any profit we make from this seed will go into a fund to help seed growers who are experiencing climate-change–related crop failures and growing challenges.

Will you grow and save your own seed to start the journey of a whole new generation?

Past Pay-What-You-Wish Seeds:

2023 - Abenaki Calais Flint Corn: For the inaugural year of our seed-without-a-price program we choose a corn variety that was adapted to the region by Indigenous seed keepers, and then nearly lost.