Mill Hollow Farm, the home of Truelove Seeds, is reached by a track off a busy highway. In a short distance (through woodland, over a brook, up a hill) it feels like you’re entering a different world. The farm is surrounded by a lively woodland from which there’s a constant back drop of noise (cicadas and other animals) that means you can’t fail to understand the plethora of life we’re surrounded by and intertwined with. Hummingbirds, dear, chipmunks, ground hogs all fill my week with excitement.
The name of the game at Truelove Seeds is, unsurprisingly, seeds. They operate a farm producing seed for sale, and a seed company selling their own and other projects’ seeds. They are simultaneously aiming to support more resilient farming through the sale of open-pollinated, culturally important, regionally adapted seeds (vegetable, flower and herbs), whilst providing an additional income for the projects they work with (all small-scale farmers “committed to community food sovereignty, cultural preservation, and sustainable agriculture”), and spreading knowledge about seed saving. Owen Taylor, who started up Truelove Seeds, has, for now, decided to give 50% of seed sales to the producers. This is apparently a figure which is unheard of in the industry and one he acknowledges he may have to revise. But an important focus of the project is supporting the social justice work that these other projects do, and he wants to see if that figure can be sustainable for TLSs.
The cropping space at Truelove is around half an acre outside and a polytunnel which is around 120m2. The tunnel’s side vents are kept down to isolate the crops being grown for seed inside, and the occasional noise of big industrial fans moving air through adds to the Truelove soundscape.
In addition to seed sales, they are also selling flowers to florists, running a small flower share, and selling tomatoes now the plants are too diseased to continue saving seed from – basically building additional strings to their business bow that can be interwoven with seed production.
TLS is in it’s early days. This is the end of the second proper year of production on the site. The distribution catalogue was launched in December 2017. In this way it’s funny to come and visit such a young project on a trip in which a key aim is to think about resilience. But I don’t think that resilience and longevity are the same thing, and I also think there’s a lot which can be learned from young projects (like young people), which in their development hopefully think a lot about what they’re doing and why.
TLSs is far from financially viable currently (unsurprising given it’s age), with a lot financially developing organically. The set up costs were floated by friends of Owen’s donating no strings attached money. This was Owen’s preferred route of funding. He’s existed in the non-profit industrial complex for a long time and witnessed the mission creep and the framing of projects for donors and felt that he, as a paid member of staff, was sometimes more of a beneficiary of that process than the communities they aimed to support. He’s keen (for now) to avoid setting TLSs up as a non-profit. Owen describes a turning point in his own journey of reading a book called ‘The revolution will not be funded’ which made him think what’s the alternative model. And so TLSs is an experiment in this alternative model, one in which the focus is the people he wants to share seeds with (the customers) rather than funders.
TLSs is very much Owen’s baby, somewhat the coming together of the various aspects of his career to date. The bringing together of his long-term work in the food justice world and all the connections he’s built through that work, with his passion for plants and seeds and their stories. On site Owen is supported by a number of apprentices each working 1 or 2 days a week and a few hardy volunteers who come out and join the gang. This year Owen has managed to pay one member of staff but he is keen to be able to pay the other apprentices who have come along since for next year, to utilise the knowledge they now hold. All these connections have formed informally with people hearing of the work that TLSs does and wanting to get involved. It’s a gaggle of truly wondrous beings and I’m looking forward to spending the week with Zoe, Amirah, Simone, Peggy, Althea, Debbie, Owen and Gemma.