Growers turn to heirlooms to keep veggie variety alive
Expect to see some unusual sights at farmers' markets this year.
Like Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes — an heirloom vegetable developed in the 1930s to help some guy pay off his mortgage — or the almost purple Cherokee tomato.
Then there's the husk or ground cherry, which is not a cherry at all, but a sweet, pea-sized yellow fruit as addictive as popcorn.
These are tasty, but unusual looking vegetables that are heirlooms — plants grown for a number of generations, typically for more than 50 years, and are the focus of an effort to keep more varieties of vegetables on hand.
Thousands of unique vegetable seeds have been lost over the last century as commercial growers have concentrated on fewer varieties.
The federal government and some non-profits have been concerned about relying on fewer types of vegetables, as disease or an insect can wipe out a crop.
The numbers are staggering: Some 93 percent of vegetable varieties sold in the United States in 1903, as tallied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were no longer on the market and were not in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory by 1983, according to a often-cited study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International.
For example, 544 varieties of cabbage were being sold in the United States in 1903, while 80 years later, only 28 varieties were in the U.S. National Seed Laboratory.
But that number could be deceiving because of what was considered a vegetable variety back in the day, according to Barbara Melera, president of D. Landreth Seed Co., in New Freedom, which claims to be the oldest seed house in America at 229 years.
Less variety is not good
Although the exact numbers of plant types are debatable, the loss of variety and the need for variety are not.
“It's true that the varieties that are commercially available are smaller numbers, and there is a concern about the diversity of seeds that we need,” said Mark Lipson, Organic and Sustainable Agriculture policy adviser for the USDA.
“We are relying on a few varieties, and we are more vulnerable to things that can happen.”
Lipson said that there isn't a “specific goal in terms of number of varieties that we need.
“It is probably accurate to say that there is a much smaller number of seed varieties. Many of those seeds still reside in the USDA plant-germ system, but they aren't necessarily being grown out for commercial production anymore,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims to be the world's largest collector and preserver of heirloom seeds, with a database to research more than 10,000 varieties of seeds.
The government continues to store seeds and distribute to a number of seed houses and heirloom seed-saving communities.
And the demand for heirlooms is blossoming like flowers at farm markets across the country, according to USDA.
“I think the public is getting the message that this is something special,” Lipson said. “They like the qualities of the fruit and vegetables that are traditional.”
More seeds, more veggies
Now, local growers, whether farmers or backyard gardeners, are planting some of these lesser known, generations-old seeds that have been making a comeback.
Local organic farmers such as Blackberry Meadows in Fawn are growing heirloom vegetables, with generations-old heritages, offering a wide selection.
Blackberry Meadows grows 25 varieties of peppers alone.
“It's more interesting that way,” said Jen Montgomery, 35, who along with her husband, Greg Boulos, owns Blackberry Meadows.
“People who cook like to experiment,” she said. “Some peppers are good for stuffing, some are good for pickling, others for salsas.
“The selection satisfies culinary tastes, and the variety is there,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery and Boulos started the Heritage Seed Collective several years ago to help gardeners save seeds and rootstock of rare and endangered plants.
They're the same seeds that the farm uses to grow organic vegetables sold at farmers' markets and for customers who pay a flat rate for vegetables all season, otherwise known as Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) shares.
Blackberry Meadows has been offering the heirloom seedlings to the public for several years and, each year, it sells more.
This year the farm will offer a package of all of its seedling varieties to fill a 100-square-foot garden for $150. That's about 110 varieties of heirloom, organic vegetables.
“For our heirlooms, we pick ones that will offer the most nutrients, which are found in the color and the flavor of the vegetables,” he said.
“This is not just a ‘hippie thing' and not all of these farmers are liberal hippies,” said Boulos.
“It's about empowerment,” he said. “We really want people to grow their own.”
The origins of food
What is old is new again.
As Blackberry Meadows can attest, people are more interested in farming and seeds these days.
Melera, the seed company president, attributes interest in heirloom seeds and backyard gardening to several events: A string of salmonella outbreaks in 2006; the sour economy; and the spike in gasoline prices that fueled higher produce prices.
Consumers want to know more about where their food is coming from these days, according to Jenny Best, spokeswoman for Slow Food USA.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit is dedicated to “counter the rise of fast food, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”
Best said that her organization has experienced “in the last couple of years, a shift of attention away from fancy food toward mindful consumption.”
People have been wanting to know where their food comes from, she said, but now they are asking about the seeds.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.