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Heirlooms to the Rescue

How planting heirlooms can preserve genetic diversity and enhance global food security.

Heirloom SeedsWe often think of saving seeds in literal terms: letting flowers and vegetables go to seed, whether edible at that point (squash, tomatoes) or not (lettuce); separating and cleaning the seeds, drying them, and then protecting them until we’re able to plant again. But there’s a larger issue here, one that’s apparent when you consider that 94% of the seed varieties available to farmers and gardeners in 1900 have been lost, never to be grown again. Today, many of us are involved in saving seeds from extinction. To quote an old ecological saying: extinction is forever.

Today’s activists — there’s no better word for them — have taken those extinctions to heart and are on a quest to save as many varieties of seeds as they can. Janisse Ray, author of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food is one of them. Ray’s book is a sort of manifesto on the practice and importance of seed saving. While she mixes in chapters that discuss the assault on non-corporate, non-patent protected heirloom seed varieties and the dangers of industrial agriculture, most of the book is a collection of intriguing stories about those involved in the seed saving movement. There’s the story of Iowa photographer Dave Cavagnaro who teaches willing gardeners about preserving and raising heirloom squashes; legendary seed saver Will Bonsall of Maine who explains his pollination and seed-saving techniques in terms that everybody can understand — sex. Then there’s the late seed saver and poet Jeff Bickert of Vermont who gave away heirloom seeds and starts for 11 different kinds of beans and 18 varieties of potatoes. All of these people, including the Tomato Man, who offers 312 varieties of heirlooms and open-pollinated tomatoes, and the Sweet Potato Queen, who grows 40 varieties of heirloom sweet potatoes, including some which are purple, are the kinds of characters you won’t easily forget.

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People aren’t the only subjects here. Ray digs up the history of the Conch Cowpea, a spreading vine that was drought resistant and adaptable to the kind of sandy soils known in the coastal south. It served as a source of protein in places where northern beans wouldn’t grow as well as providing ground cover and a silage crop for livestock. Then there’s Keener Corn, grown for dry grinding into meal. Keener corn grows a stalk that can be very tall, 10 to 12 feet, but produces only a single ear per stalk. Why bother? It makes the tastiest meal that Ray, or its grower Bill Keener, have ever tasted. Need another reason? It’s been in the Keener family for generations. Letting it go would be like putting great-grandma’s Bible in the trash.

And that’s where author Ray excels. Sure, she talks about how some heirlooms are valuable because they are disease resistant or easily adaptable to certain local conditions. And then there’s flavor. In a world where commercially-grown produce tends to all taste alike, Ray finds the kind of varied flavors that chefs, both home and professional, cherish. But above it all, Ray brings a sense of family and community to the heirloom culture. Growing food — growing unique food — makes for a social camaraderie and a sense of purpose that other social endeavors have a hard time matching. Ray is also expert at personalizing the stories, bringing in her own experiences, sometimes unashamedly so, in a way that will connect with readers. You might not feel like you’re reading a gardening book while going through The Seed Underground, It’s more like a collection of short stories with a central theme. It’s that entertaining. Let’s also say its critical reading for those who want to know where their food comes from and have decided to grow their own. I can’t think of a better way to spend a few of these cold winter nights ahead of spring than reading Ray’s book.

4 Responses to “Heirlooms to the Rescue”

  1. Berg on January 28th, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    I wonder how many of those available varieties were lost because they lacked in production or some other characteristic? Also I would like to know how many new varieties have been created from selective “breeding”/seed saving of the best plants to basically over time produce a new variety? I’m all for sentimental value but there is probably a reason the majority of varieties don’t exist anymore and there are probably plenty of new varieties to replace them. I agree though a well known variety being lost because the grower responsible passed away and no other viable seeds could be found is unfortunate and thats why I believe seed saving is important. It allows me to find varieties that have been tailored to my environmental conditions over years of growth.

  2. Aaron on January 28th, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    I appreciate the previous commentor’s point of view, and would like to add that while some varieties were allowed to die out because they weren’t as productive or tasty, etc., the real issue with losing 94% of the varieties available in 1900 is the loss of genetic variability. People grew a bunch of things then, and so if one got diseased or had other issues they had a number of other varieties still producing and they avoided catostrophe.

    My concern, and its a concern shared by many others, is what happens now if something comes along that wipes out a majority of that last 6% that remains? There is no recourse, and many of us would be wishing for those less-tasty, not-as-productive varieties when faced with little or nothing at all.

  3. Kay on February 22nd, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    We are going through a devastating period of loss of biodiversity. It’s frightening when you think about it. It isn’t just food. It’s everything. Many scientists believe this issue worse than climate change.

  4. Patti Borneman on February 17th, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    This is a wonderful review of Janisse Ray’s The Seed Underground and I agree … it’s the perfect book to read during our long winter in Montana. I thought your readers would be interested to know that Janisse Ray will be in Helena on March 11, 2014, to read from her book and talk about the subject. She is in Montana to teach at the UM in Missoula as this year’s William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. For more info, please visit: http://www.cultivatehelena.com. All are welcome and it’s a free event.

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