The seed goes on

World Reports

Stroll through a local farmers’ market these days and you may happen to come upon some unfamiliar produce: bell peppers shaped like miniature, wrinkled pumpkins. White squash and scalloped-edged melons. Strange tomatoes ranging in color from pale yellow to stripey green-red. Fruits and vegetables that look like the works of a mad geneticist.

But these vegetables aren’t coming out of a gene-splicing lab. Unlike genetically-modified (GM) monocultures or even hybrids, heirlooms are cultivated from saved seed and act as repositories of a plant’s lineage.

“I say, the system that produces the best tomatoes wins.”

“Anytime farmers can plant heirlooms they will,“ says Grant Brians, the director of Heirloom Organic Gardens. “We have fourteen varieties of heirloom tomatoes, the newest strains dating back to the ‘30s.”

Brians has experience in both small-scale agriculture and corporate agri-business. A farmer since age 14, Brians worked as a support engineer and seed trial technician for Rijk Zwaan, a vegetable breeding company in the Netherlands. He currently runs the Heirloom Organics operation, a 150-acre farm near Hollister, California that sells to wholesalers, restaurants, and farmer’s markets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Heirloom Organics buys seed from small companies that focus on open-pollinated varieties, as well as seed exchanges such as Seed Savers Exchange (SSE).

The oldest variety Brians grows is a yellow scallop squash that dates back to the Middle Ages. There are also potatoes first selected in the 1700s, including a purple Peruvian variety that dates back to the Incan civilization, and fingerlings dating to the 1500’s. There are wild arugula and orach, barely domesticated crops that could potentially be the “heirlooms” of the future. One could easily devote a lifetime (or at least a hefty novel) describing an heirloom’s evolutionary development, its history, and cultural influences. But first things first – what is an heirloom?

The definition of the term “heirloom” is debated among enthusiasts, but most farmers and gardeners agree that an “heirloom” is an open-pollinated cultivar – it is propagated by natural pollination (insects, birds, wind, water) and comes back true to parent type the next generation.

Many perennial fruits, like citrus and stone fruits, as well as some popular vegetables (potatoes and onions) do not come true to type from seed, and are usually propagated by cuttings or grafting. In the US, heirlooms refer to saved-seed varieties preserved before F(1) hybrids were heavily marketed after WWII. Much of the seed comes from generations of small-scale farmers, but other seeds derive from old commercial varities, such as the Jubilee, a tomato introduced by the Burpee Seed company in 1943.

A cabbage by any other name

But preserving heirloom varieties is more than nostalgic hats-off to old plant varieties, it is an important method to protect crop biodiversity. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, global crop genetic resources are being lost at the rate of one to two percent per year. Over 90 percent of US vegetables have become extinct in the last century. While most US citizens are not concerned about dwindling vegetable sources, history has proved that over-reliance on a few crop varieties can be disastrous.

Take the 1970 US corn blight, for example. At that time most commercially grown maize carried T-cytoplasm, a gene that was developed to help eliminate the expensive process of de-tasseling corn. But corn with the gene was also susceptible to a strain of southern leaf blight. Later identified as the “race T” fungus, the blight started in Florida and carried across the Corn Belt and up into Canada, subsequently destroying 15 percent ($1 billion worth) of that year’s maize crop. It was an economic disaster for farmers, who also had to contend with potential corn blight the following year. While consumers were not directly affected, the epidemic drew worldwide attention to the problem of genetic vulnerability.

“It is necessary to have an underlying agriculture,” says Bill McDorman, founder of SeedsTrust.

A life-long gardener, McDorman remembers when the Nixon administration, in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, sold out 2,000 small seed companies to corporate interests. It was a geopolitical move to effectively globalize agriculture and secure cheap food for the US while oil prices rose.

photo of heirloom tomatoes in a basket

McDorman views the sellout as both a historical and personal crossroads. Instead of attending law school, he started the DownHome project, a non-profit dedicated to local farming. This later developed into SeedsTrust, an Idaho seed company that sells heirloom, herb, and wildflower seeds as well as seeds for high-altitude gardens. McDorman also established the International Seed Saving Institute (ISSI), a non-profit group that organizes 70 saved-seed, self-reliant “micro-gardens” throughout the world.

For each micro-gardening project, ISSI finds an “angel,” a local farmer who is knowledgeable about seed saving and local crops. The gardens have proven to be cost-effective and even saved farming in areas of civil unrest. In regions of the Congo large gardens are the targets of war raids, whereas micro-gardens are hidden in the mountains and other less accessible areas. Micro-gardens are also beneficial to hurricane-prone areas in coastal Honduras and Haiti.

While McDorman thinks genome research will be beneficial for a plant’s genetic resorvoir, he thinks that GM agriculture should have been implemented more slowly and documented for long-term effects. “Roundup-Ready corn is just here for short-term profit… the big box system is not sustainable.”

Growing and selling locally, or “regional home reliance,” is the central theme of McDorman’s projects. While heirlooms do not always qualify as “local” (seed exchanges encourage cross-continental trade), climates effectively localize heirlooms. Vegetables that flourish in cold European climes do well in the Rocky Mountains, while cultivars from warmer regions may prosper on the coasts. Furthermore, heirlooms are usually distributed in small, local markets where flavor, not cost, is the bottom line.

“Taste is the number one priority,” echoes Brians. These are vegetables that have been passed down through generations, selected for their tried-and-true flavor.

And incidentally, this is one of the best arguments against GM-produce. “I asked the CEO of Novartis to try my tomato and tell me what he thought.” McDorman laughs in a recent interview. “I know we have better-tasting tomatoes… and I say, the system that produces the best tomatoes wins.”

Of course there are a few concerns with heirlooms, namely cost and availability. Heirlooms are still the darlings of US produce, bought and sold in hoity-toity grocery stores and featured on restaurant menus. Could the purchasing of heirloom vegetables just be another notch on the eco-elitist card?

“Actually, cost varies, “ says Brians. “Heirlooms can be less expensive, more expensive, or the same.” Mostly, it depends on the retailer – obviously, shopping for heirlooms at the farmers’ market instead of Whole Foods will save you money. Farmers’ markets have dramatically grown, increasing 111 percent from 1994 to 2004, and farmers’ markets are more likely to offer heirloom varieties. And despite rapid urbanization, people are going back to or continuing to tend their home gardens. Saving seed is an easy and economical means of food production.

There is a growing consciousness in the US – some have even called it a “food revolution” – people are being educated about the hidden costs of industrial agriculture and starting to make ethical choices. Purchasing heirlooms and saving seed are two more choices citizens can make to encourage regional home reliance and reflect the model of sustainable agriculture.

Alison Bodenstab is an Earth Island Journal intern.

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