This is something I feel particularly strongly about. I hope you feel the same.
When you visit the farm stand, you might see heirloom tomatoes for sale. But what are heirlooms vegetables? They are not a kind of tomato. Heirloom is more of a description of when something was developed. Like ‘antique.’ Heirloom fruits and vegetables, of which there are thousands, are the varieties developed by previous generations of gardeners and farmers. They are open pollinated, which means they are pollinated naturally by wind and animal. It also means that most of their qualities breed true from generation to generation.
Before Monsanto started packaging and shipping out billions of genetically identical seeds each year, farmers planted the seeds harvested from last year’s crop, whose seeds were saved from the prior year’s crop, and so on back tens or hundreds of years. But these long gone farmers did not just collect seeds and replant each year. They collected the seeds from the individual plants that did best. In this way, they reinforced the traits that they valued and tried to weed out the traits that they didn’t.
The first cultivated corn was smaller than your pinkie finger. I bet it didn’t taste very good either. For a couple of thousand years though, farmers have been selecting the seeds from the biggest and sweetest ears. Those are the seeds replanted the next year and next year’s corn is a little bigger and sweeter.
Different plants grow better in different climates. What grows well in North Carolina might not be what grows well in Maine. But it’s more fine tuned than that. What grows well on the west side of a hill in Waltham, MA might not be what grows well on the east side of a drumlin in Lincoln, MA. In lands covered for ages in farms, millions of farmers have developed cucumber/carrot/cabbage/etc for their own little plots of earth that grew best there. One farmer’s variety might be more wind hearty or less susceptible to a late frost. Another farmer might be growing the perfect tasting pumpkin for Aunt Emily’s prize winning pie.
Once big agriculture came along, we all started growing the same things. Individual farmers packed up, their farms gobbled up into the machinery of big agriculture, their seeds mostly lost to history.
You know those presentations they do to convince you to preserve the rain-forests? “Every 20 seconds another species in the rain-forest goes extinct.” They probably blow out a candle every twenty seconds to emphasize the point. It breaks your hear to think of it.
Well that’s how I feel about heirloom seeds. These distinct varieties are the culmination of ten thousand years of agriculture on this planet. We can’t just let them be lost forever.
If you’ve followed any of the seed variety links on our pages, you probably found yourself on the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed website. This is just one company doing the critical work of preserving our seed heritage. We get most of our seeds through Baker Creek, but we try to support other heirloom companies as well, such as Seed Saver’s Exchange. There are others. Look for them when you’re ready to plant Minnesota Midget Melons or the violet colored Dragon Carrot. Before you buy your summer corn seeds from Burpee, think instead of buying Hopi Pink Flower Corn or Wade’s Giant Indian Flint Corn. Don’t those sound like more fun anyway? Support your local seed libraries. Give your business to companies going about growing seeds the right way. Plant heirloom.