Q&A with Ben Cohen, owner of Small House Farms and author

Ben Cohen is an author, poet, herbalist, gardener, seed saver and wanderer. He lives and works at Small House Farm with his wife, Heather, and two sons, Elijah and Anakin, on their family homestead in Sanford, Michigan.

The Cohen family grows seed crops, herbs and flowers and also keeps a small flock of laying hens. Ben is also the founder of Michigan Seed Library, a community seed sharing initiative that has worked closely with a number of communities to help establish seed library programs across his home state and beyond.

He spends his time outside of his gardens offering workshops and lectures across the country on the benefits of living closer to the land through seeds, herbs and locally grown food. We caught up with Ben on his new book From Our Seeds & Their Keepers: A Collection of Stories.

Q: You wrote a book that just came out! In what ways was becoming a self-published author difficult, and what has it taught you about yourself?

A: This past July, I published my first book, From Our Seeds & Their Keepers: A Collection of Stories. It was so much fun to put this book together! As I've traveled around the country swapping seeds and meeting the many wonderful people that keep them, I've had the opportunity to hear so many interesting stories.

The seeds themselves help us to keep this history alive and every person that tends and cares for these precious artifacts becomes a part of the story as well. While writing the book, I learned a lot about living a slower, more intentional life and about living in harmony with the seasons and the reciprocal relationship that we must have with our seeds as well as with our food.

Q: Looking back on your time growing up in Midland, what are your fondest memories of this community? What would you like to see changed for current and future generations?

A: I've lived in Midland on and off for many years. I have many fond memories of growing up here in town – whether it was the Circle Bowling Alley was a fun place to spend an afternoon or catching a movie at Cinema 1&2.

What I've always enjoyed are the many green spaces that Midland has offered and seeing how the county has really put some good focus into expanding these areas, making them more accessible to everyone is certainly exciting! One thing I would love to see developed is some rooftop gardens installed downtown, wouldn't that be fun?

Q: As an entrepreneur who has made a name for themselves, do you have any words of wisdom for someone who wants to start something new and create their own path?

A: It may sound cliché, but my advice is to simply do what you love. Follow what you believe in, always. When I make decisions as an entrepreneur, I don't ask myself, "Will this be profitable?" Instead I ask myself, "Will this make the world a better place?" Obviously, a business needs to make money in order to stay operating, but if you're not actively improving the world for future generations then really, what's the point?

Q: What inspired you to start saving seeds?

A: There are almost as many reasons to save seeds as there are seed savers, but the reasons that you'll hear the most are things like; local adaptation for better performance in the changing climate, genetic preservation for maintaining historical connections as well as for future breeding efforts and economic benefits for people that would prefer to produce their own.

My first seed story started in the homestead gardens at the Chippewa Nature Center and it’s a tale that found its way into my first book. When I started saving seeds it was as if something inside of me awakened after a long slumber. While participating in the ancient rituals of harvesting and cleaning seeds, the memories of generations of seed keepers before me bubbled to the surface and took on new life once again. Connecting to the life and death cycle of my food was a profound moment for me and it has changed who I am in many ways. Seeds are more than just a commodity to be bought and sold, without seeds we simply do not exist.

Q: What exactly is a seed library, and who in the community can benefit from using one?

A: A seed library functions very much like to how a traditional library operates. The seed library acts a home for the community's seeds. Participants can come "check out" the seeds they are interested in and then after their harvest in the summer and fall they then return seeds from their gardens to the seed library to replenish the supply. Everyone in the community can benefit from these programs!

Not only do these seed libraries give people access to the seeds they need to grow fresh produce at home, but many also offer gardening related education programs throughout the year on topics such as square foot gardening, organic pest and weed control, seed saving, preserving your harvest and so much more. These programs are fantastic for bringing the community together to celebrate fresh, local food!

Q: How many seed libraries have you helped establish?

A: Currently, Michigan is home to 54 seed libraries! I have worked to help a number of these programs to become established and continue to offer educational workshops for these communities through the MI Seed Library network.

Ben Cohen’s book From Our Seeds & Their Keepers: A Collection of Stories is available on Amazon and on the Small House Farm website.

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