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Seeding the Future

Our global villages had become rife with the same Barbie doll fruits and vegetables in our groceries--until the advent of heirloom seeds

By Christina Waters

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.

In the simple act of planting an old-fashioned, non-hybridized 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 1840s 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 with a single variety of potato. Replicating a single set of genes, this was monocropping on a disastrous scale, 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 those 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 Allied soldiers finally entered the besieged facility, 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 that had been passed down from generation to generation.

The Whealys' personal quest evolved into Seed Savers Exchange, a network linking seed collectors and their odd pockets of cultural heritage all over the country. Today, this grassroots preservation movement 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 some 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 Vineyards Garden Project, formerly tended by local gardener Jeff Dawson. He now directs the two and a half­acre demonstration organic garden at the Kendall Jackson Winery's California Coast Wine Center at the site of the old Chateau de Baun in Santa Rosa. The garden includes several themed plots dedicated to heirloom fruits, vegetables, and herbs used in a variety of ethnic cuisines. It features 100 varieties of tomatoes, 50 different chili peppers, and 25 types of eggplants.

In addition, Dawson is laying plans for a seed-saving garden to insure the survival of rare and endangered fruits and vegetables. "This will create a gardening Mecca in Sonoma County," he explains.

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 virgin light, the land seems to levitate with fertility, its multitextural patchwork of plantings glowing with rich greens, reds, and yellow. Terraces of chamomile and basil work their way up toward the renovated ranch house where Seeds of Change Director of Agriculture Howard Shapiro and 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 was founded in 1989 by a group of eco-visionaries--direct descendants of the homegrown, hippie movement. Run from Santa Fe corporate headquarters, the company fills millions of seed packets each year with 100 percent certified organically grown, open-pollinated seed produced at 26 affiliated farms.

As I walk through 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 multicolored native corns burst skyward in dense squares of open-pollinated yearning. Nearby, a graceful thicket of sorghum forms a living "room" within which chilies are sheltered from stray, unwanted pollen. Our boots quickly cake with mud from last night's rain as we circumnavigate clusters of 30 different chilies, miniature forests of onions, dense hedgerows of sweet clover, tomatillos, and sweetpeas. Beehives punctuate the green, and a band of guinea fowl from a neighbor's ranch wander with gusto, lustily consuming grasshoppers as they roam.

"These are really trial gardens," explains Shapiro, who joined the company as an investor four years ago and assumed leadership in early 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. One third of the total acreage is dedicated to composting crops--the perfecting of soil is never-ending.

Future Think

"A seed is not just a seed," says Kenny Ausubel, former head of Seeds for Change, 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."

An eco-strategist for Odwalla juice company working with native American farmers on restorative agriculture, Ausubel recalls that the founding of Seeds of Change was a specific effort to link preservation 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 couldn't hope 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 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 couple of years ago, after agreeing not to discuss the details of that dissolution, is convinced that kinship and diversity are the key to all environmental models.

"Everything is related--from microbes to mammals, there's much more that's shared than is different," Ausubel contends. A healthy ecosystem is diverse. "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 McDonald's corporation the exact same blight-prone russet that caused the Irish potato famine. "It's the McDonald'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 that 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 passionately convinced 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."


For a free list of heirloom tomatoes available through mail order, send an SASE to Grand View Farms, 2255 Green Hill Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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