|Our global villages had become ominously uniform -- the same handful of fast food giants, the same strip malls, the same glossy Barbie-doll fruits and vegetables that fill our groceries, devoid of all flavor but picture perfect to the eye. Well, make way for tomorrow, because here come the heirloom foods -- again.|
The most glamorous menus showcase heirloom produce. Farmers markets overflow with exotic shapes and colors. From the pages of small catalogs, sprout seeds with names like Rainbow Inca Corn, Appaloosa beans, Red Alpine fraises des bois, Zapotec pleated tomatoes. Nothing it seems, is sexier than planting non-mainstream seeds, seeds that have eluded the Disneyfication of our everyday life and that offer an abundance of alternatives to one-brand-fits-all gardening.
Is it simply retro nostalgia that inclines more and more of the country's 60 million gardeners to, so to speak, try this at home? Or is it something deep in our biological unconscious that gets a thrill out of planting a seed re-discovered after centuries of neglect, or out of collecting the seeds from some treasured flower, or a particularly tasty tomato, and saving it for another season.
Seed saving is all of the above, and more.
In the simple act of planting a seed the gardener simultaneously blows a kiss to the past, and guarantees the future. Preservation, and proliferation, are the twin agendas of the current heirloom/native seed movement. Preservation, in that the very way of life associated with old-fashioned flora is brought forward along with the flavors and fragrances that might have charmed our great-great-grandmothers. Proliferation, in that by continuing that legacy, and sending it speeding on toward our own grandchildren, we maintain the diversity of the world's herbs and plants -- a diversity that also carries with it abundant phytochemical solutions to environmental, medical, even spiritual diseases we've only begun to imagine.
The Irish potato famine of the 1830s perfectly illustrates the implications of a dwindling bio-gene pool. In a classic case of putting all its eggs in one basket, Ireland had planted its meager soil to a single variety of potato. Replicating a single set of genes, this was monocropping on a disastrous scale, and when a virus came along to which these genes were susceptible, there were no alternative potato crops remaining to feed the country.
Since all the potatoes were the same -- homogenous, rather than biodiverse -- they all succumbed to the plague. And, since the potato was the staple of the Irish diet, most of the Irish who who couldn't emigrate starved to death. One biologist has likened this scenario to that of a thief, discovering that a single key can unlock every door in the mansion. And many feel that it's high time to change the locks.
Tending the earth's edible future reached its most poignant moment -- certainly its most courageous -- during the Nazis' World War II Siege of Leningrad. The site of the world's largest seed bank -- at which Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov and his army of ethnobotanists had stockpiled an astonishing 200,000 species -- Leningrad endured 900 days of attack during which over half a million people starved to death. Surrounded by harvested seed crops, the collectors martyred themselves rather than consume the botanical future. And when soldiers entered facility after the siege they found the emaciated bodies of the botanists lying next to full, untouched sacks of potatoes, corn and wheat -- a priceless genetic legacy for which they paid with their lives.
The heightened consciousness about old-fashioned plant varieties blossomed along with the back-to-the-land movement of the 70s, and experts locate the exact moment in 1975 when Kent and Diane Whealy, armed with a legacy of antique Bavarian seeds from Diane's grandfather, began tracking down other "heirloom" (European-derived) varieties -- ones that had been passed down from generation to generation.
The Whealys' personal quest evolved into Seed Saver's Exchange, a network linking up seed collectors and their odd pockets of cultural heritage, all over the country. This grassroots preservation movement today maintains a living bank at its Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa -- 140 acres containing nearly 13,000 rare vegetables and an orchard of 700 old-time apples (a modest fraction of 7,000 apple varieties existing in this country at the turn-of-the-century).
The Whealys' seeds have found their way into farms and gardens, like the Fetzer Vineyard Garden Project nurtured by Sonoma grower Jeff Dawson. and into chef/entrepreneur Greg Holleman's Minnesota-based specialty foods company, Indian Harvest. While some groups have styled themselves as archives of biogenetic material -- Jurassic Parks for vegetables -- others have chosen a more commercial path.
Going to Seed
Water from the Rio Grande irrigates the 30-acre Seeds of Change garden an hour north of Santa Fe, N.M. By dawn's early light, the land seems to levitate with fertility, its multi-textural patchwork of plantings glowing with rich greens, reds and yellows. Terraces of chamomile and basil work their way up toward the renovated ranch house where Seeds of Change Director of Agriculture Howard Shapiro and his wife Nancy live. An allée of cottonwoods bears testimony to ranches long gone, shading aromatic beds of compost whose sweet smell permeates the morning air.
Seeds of Change, founded in 1989 by a group of eco-visionaries, direct descendents of the home-grown, hippie movement, is one of the most prominent of these companies. Run from its Santa Fe corporate headquarters, the company fills millions of seed packets each year with 100% certified organically grown, open-pollinated seed produced at 26 affiliated farms.
The original team included Gabriel Howearth, who'd studied with Alan Chadwick at UCSC's Farm & Garden before interning with Mayan Indians; filmmaker and grower Kenny Ausubel, whose passionate book Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure spread the biodiversity gospel; Bolivian Quechua Indian agronomist Emigdio Ballon from Bolivia who still analyzes the vigor of today's harvests; and molecular biologist Alan Kapuler, who today heads up the Seeds of Change research farm in Oregon.
Ausubel loves to cite the example of the Idaho producer who grows for MacDonald's corporation the exact same blight-prone russet that caused the Irish potato famine. "It's the MacDonald's criterion of potato selection -- a strain is bred and grown because it makes perfect four-inch french fries," Ausubel chuckles. "And that's the mentality which unfortunately is driving most of the world."
Walking the gardens with intern Christian Petrovich, my senses are bombarded with the brilliance of orange Mars tomatoes, weighing their stalks down to the ground. Scores of multi-colored native corns burst skyward in dense squares of open-pollinated biomass. Nearby, a graceful thicket of sorghum forms a living "room" within which chiles are sheltered from stray, unwanted pollen. Our boots quickly cake with mud from last night's rain, as we circumnavigate clusters of 30 different chiles, miniature forests of onions, dense hedgerows of sweet clover, tomatillos and sweetpeas. Bee hives punctuate the green, and a band of guinea fowl from a neighbor's ranch wander with gusto, lustily consuming grasshoppers as they roam.
"We plant all the rows two feet apart," Petrovich explains, "that way no soil is exposed, and it creates a living mulch. It's better for the soil," he says, slapping at a mosquito. "But it's harder to work."
"These are really trial gardens," explains Shapiro, who joined the company as an investor four years ago, and assumed leadership when Ausubel left in January 1995. The garden I'm looking at, however astonishing in its fecundity -- with gigantic "teddy bear" sunflowers and lavish stands of pastel zinnia -- is one of two research plots. Most of the actual seed growing for the company takes place at far-flung organic gardens all over the country. With one third of the total acreage is dedicated to composting crops -- the perfecting of soil is never-ending.
It was Ausubel's book and friendship with Gabe Howearth that changed the life of Mark Love, a Santa Cruz grower, who now raises herb and flower seed for Seeds of Change. Love also juggles a variety of farming-related jobs and sells produce to local restaurants like Cafe Gabriela and Pearl Alley Bistro to maintain self-sufficiency. On the land he rents in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the organic farmer spends a lot of time making sure the seeds he sends via UPS to Santa Fe are clean. "The processing is very laborious," he says, "because it all has to be done by hand. My responsibility to Seeds of Change is to plant the seed, make sure that the plant's grown aren't cross-pollinated, which is difficult, then process and clean the seed, dry it and send it off."
Love doesn't begrudge the backbreaking work of organic farming and seed raising. "I figure there's no other legacy I'll be able to leave, so I wanted to pass on some purposeful heritage," he says. Without his work, and that of other organic seed savers, Love believes we'd be reduced to "just a few, commercially-sanctioned seeds."
Love, who cheerfully admits that his operation is so small that he's not even officially classifiable as a farmer, is committed to his livelihood. But, he explains, "It's incredibly hard work -- I have a healthy respect for anyone doing agriculture." And he's proud of his relationship with the Santa Fe company. "I don't know how my life is going to touch the broad spectrum of food growing," he admits, "but you have to motivate yourself to do what's important."
It's taken the planet millions of years to slowly assemble and evolve its intricate, cellular opera and there are still at least 50,000 known edible plants still left on earth. Yet only three of those -- rice, corn and wheat -- account for half of what all human's eat.
Stuart Dickson, an organic superstar who cultivates over three dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes on 120 acres near Watsonville, is devoted to the explosive new market for heirlooms. "When the organic specialty market started up," Dickson recalls, "it looked like a great opportunity for me to be adventurous -- to play with all these different colors and sizes and shapes." Learning about tomatoes during his days in farming the Capay Valley, he started incorporating their diverse shapes and hues into his planting.
The heirloom tomato business is so good that Dickson even confesses to "shipping them nationwide, 150 to 200 cases a day." He admits though, "you sacrifice a lot of the flavor to ship them -- I really recommend that people grow their own."
Seed Savers Exchange is Dickson's favorite source, and he recommends it to home gardeners everywhere. "It's so easy to do -- then they can begin to save their own heirloom seeds."
Back to the Garden
In the sunny Seeds of Change greenhouse, where seedlings begin their life, and harvested seeds are carefully cleaned in front of cleverly-configured fans, Emigdio Ballone runs his fingers through a tray full of salvia seed. "The big companies go for hybrids," he says, in a musical accent of the Andean highlands, "and that creates a dependency between certain plants and chemical fertilizers."
Admitting that the first thing he does in the fields each day is pray for the fruitfulness of the seeds, Ballone points out that each organism has its own place to live, a structure and internal behavior specific to a particular ecosystem."Seeds are life -- the future. When you work with seeds everyday," his eyes gleam, "you have a different feeling, a different respect for plants."
"We view this all as large-scale gardening" says Howard Shapiro, looking out over crimson heads of amaranth spiraling flirtatiously toward a row of waist-high chard. "After all, we're planting them for their seed," he explains. "That's why the garden looks the way it does" That's why it isn't row after identical row -- with its delicate cosmos, fragrant sweet peas, sudden thrusts of Indian corn, overblown nicotiana -- all loaded with genetic blueprints, selected for vitamins, flavor and a heady sense of vive la difference.
"Taste," says Shapiro of his company's purpose. We are on another tour, this time of the Seeds of Change shipping warehouse. "Taste, and plant vigor -- add to that nutritional value, and we do spectrographic analysis to make sure we give people the highest amount of amino acids, the best Vitamin A and C."
Showing me the floor-to-ceiling inventory -- in these bins, trays and bags are probably the world's largest collection of organic seeds -- Shapiro points out that this is a commercial endeavor. "We are not a seed saving company, though we are committed to supporting the work of groups like Seed Savers Exchange." Ironically, in order to insure an inventory of organic, open-pollinated seed to fill their orders, Seeds of Change has had to decrease the number of varieties offered in its catalog.
The field work is on-going, Shapiro notes, pointing to bags of thumb-sized blue corn kernels recently brought back from Bolivia. Believing that in the four years he's been on board, the company has gone from a "great idea" to a "real seed company" Shapiro is proudest of the fact that he delivers scrupulously clean seed. "And it has an enormously high germination rate, too," he adds, almost smiling under his flowing silver beard.
"A seed is not just a seed," says Kenny Ausubel, surrounded by the piñon pines and junipers of his land near Santa Fe. "It represents all the knowledge that went into it -- how the people planted it, what songs they sang, what prayers they offered." Currently an eco-strategist for Odwalla juice company working with native American farmers on restorative agriculture, Ausubel recalled that the founding of Seeds of Change was a specific effort to link the preservation agenda with a business operation.
"We hoped that perhaps we could have a mission-driven company that would actually act as an economic force," he says. "If we don't create jobs around sustainable practices, we're not really going to have the impact we need to have." Ausubel says he recognized early on that a mere scattering of companies wasn't going to save the world. "That's for sure," he grins, wistfully.
"What is most important is the vision," he contends, looking out at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming in the horizon. "We're dealing with a lot of people who are simply not even aware that there is a problem, that we are losing genetic diversity. It's not that they're in denial -- they don't even know."
It's taken the planet millions of years to slowly assemble and evolve its intricate, cellular opera and there are still at least 50,000 known edible plants still left on earth. Yet only three of those -- rice, corn and wheat -- account for half of everything we eat. Ausubel, who left Seeds of Change a year and a half ago, after agreeing not to discuss the details of that dissolution, is convinced that kinship and diversity are the keys to all the environmental models he's currently studying.
"Everything is related -- from microbes to mammals, there's much more that's shared than is different." A healthy ecosystem is diverse, Ausubel contends. "When you remove the diversity, the system falters and starts to break down."
He loves to cite the example of the Idaho producer who grows for MacDonald's corporation the exact same blight-prone russet that caused the Irish potato famine. "It's the MacDonald's criterion of potato selection -- a strain is bred and grown because it makes perfect four-inch french fries," Ausubel chuckles. "And that's the mentality which unfortunately is driving most of the world."
Why should people bother preserving and growing old seeds? "This is something people have done for a long, long time," says Ausubel, still passionate that individuals can make a difference.
"You realize when you look at one of these seeds that somebody, somewhere down the line held onto this, even though it was really difficult -- and they had faith. And by their simple act of faith and caring, they can change the world."
All the seed saving in the world can't, in the opinion of experts like Ausubel and Gary Paul Nabhan, solve the overall problem of dwindling plant genetic diversity. Nabhan, who helped found Native Seeds/SEARCH in the early 80s, an effort that has reunited many native crops with their indigenous communities in the American Southwest, has written eloquently of man's age-old tinkering with the genetic code. Even before the last ice age, human hunters are thought to have wiped out mammoths and other mega-fauna, upon whom a huge diversity of plant life depended for its pollination. Nabhan is concerned that efforts, like those of the Whealys in Iowa may simply be genetic freeze frames, rather than long-term solutions. "In the meantime," he writes encouragingly, seed savers "serve as bridges, keeping alive seeds of the elders until the younger generation has a chance to prepare the earth for them again." Each embryonic time capsule planted in a garden somewhere today -- gives us hope for a harvest that is as gloriously diverse as it is fruitful.
- Seed Savers Exchange -- 3076 North Winn Rd., Decorah, Iowa 52101
- Seeds of Change free catalog -- 800/957-3337.
- Indian Harvest Specialty Foods -- 218/751-8500; email@example.com
- Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure, by Kenny Ausubel, Harper, San Francisco 1994 -- Easily the most exciting, accessible book on biodiversity and the importance of sustainable agriculture.
- Rain Forest in Your Kitchen, by Martin Teitel, Island Press, 1992: A short, hard-hitting guide to eco-savvy lifestyles.
- Enduring Seeds, by Gary Paul Nabhan, North Point Press, 1989: Elegantly written, brilliant ethnobotanical explanation of why plants diversified and how we can heal the rift between human culture and the botanical wild.