Preserving genetic diversity in our seeds

Stack of catalogs

Its that time of year again: crop planning! I’ve spent a few days pouring over seven beautiful seed catalogs. In addition to our staples: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, FedCo Seeds, Totally Tomatoes..I added on Kitazawa Seed Co. (specializing in Asian Vegetable) and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (very rare collection of stunning heirlooms). Yep! The gangs all here and my seed order is almost complete.

One big change that has happened since last year at this time is my new found commitment to growing heirloom, local varieties of seed. We already grow some unusual veggies and I often get the comment ‘I didn’t know there were different kinds of (insert vegetable type here)’! I am not very eloquent yet on describing the importance of preserving many different types of carrots, lettuce, etc. I’ve been unable to really convey the need to protect genetic diversity and how these days most people eat only food that was selected for a very narrow list of traits (transportation, storage rather than flavor or disease resistance).

The FAO (among many other organizations) has reported that since the 1990’s we have lost 75% of of plant genetic diversity as farmers have started growing more massed produced hybrid varieties rather than saving their own. Meaning, those genetic varieties are gone–forever. Thousands of years or more of selecting healthy traits in those plants and the species completely disappear because we no longer grow them. These cultivars need us to plant and care for them over time just as much as we need them to ensure our survival as a species. Am I being overly dramatic? Farmers are growing mostly hybrid vegetables and are cultivating more food than ever and feeding more people as a result.

In the long term though we are setting ourselves up for what could be a major disaster. If a serious disease rolls through and kills all of the hybrid varieties of potatoes, what would we do? Perhaps their is a rare heirloom variety out there being saved by someone’s grandmother that happens to have resistance to this disease. This is why diversity is important–it means food security. These hybrids can’t account for any and all diseases, pests, droughts, whatever might pop up.

Hybrid varieties are a cross between two different parent varieties of the same species that usually results in a more vigorous seed. Sounds great for short term. However–these seeds cannot be saved from generation to generation and so do not adapt and evolve to a local environment like a heirloom variety would over time. Seeds, pests and diseases evolve together–each trying to one-up the other in an ever adapting struggle for survival.

Let me give you an example. Lets say I decide to grow an Amish Paste tomato which is a well-known heirloom variety. This means its been saved over many years already. When I plant the seed in Michigan I watch the plants over the season and tag the plants that seem the healthiest and have the most delicious fruits (that is human intervention in selecting which plants will survive for next season). I save the seeds from these plants and can then plant them again next year.

The next year they are likely to show traits that I selected for the previous year. We had a major drought this year all over the country. If I saved seed from the tomatoes that seemed the toughest genetically, they would likely be more resistant to drought the following year and so on. This is one small example of how locally adapted seeds are so important to sustainable agriculture. The healthier and more well-adapted the plants, the less inputs you need to introduce on your farm.

If I were to buy  hybrid tomato seed from a seed company in New England the seed I am growing would be adapted to wherever the parents of that seed were raised. What if those seeds were not exposed to a particular disease that is present in our area? I would have to treat the plant to keep it from getting sick or just allow it to die. I  cannot select for traits and save those seeds since they are a cross between two other plants. Its complicated, and I don’t completely have the science down. I believe there is room for hybrids in agriculture for sure…however, we need to grow heirloom seed to preserve genetic diversity and these seeds are more sustainable long term.

I have to admit though I’m excited to be growing heirlooms and starting to save seed on our farm in an intentional way, I’m nervous. Heirlooms can be less productive (even though often more delicious) and that could mean less income for us. In the beginning I could also have many disease issues which would leading to less productivity. Also, any time I am seed saving or holding crops in order to save seed that means less time and space for crops that will result in income.  I can understand the fear and why farmers have turned to hybrids overall. There is so much uncertainty in farming already…

So- I have have decided to incrementally implement more and more heirlooms overtime. This year will be the largest amount of heirlooms we’ve grown so far. The following is a few we will be growing that are considered part of the Slow Food Ark of Taste (preserved varieties based on food heritage and flavor that are in danger of extinction) or are varieties specific to the Midwest:

Detroit Dark Red: Introduced in 1892 and a standard variety. Best roots in FedCo’s evaluation.

Black Seeded Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean: Kentucky Wonder type with long, large, stringless, fiberless, fleshy pods 6-8″ long, 8-10 seeds per pod, good flavor & texture, Heirloom from central Ohio. Original seeds from Tom Knoche’s Aunt Marge who maintained this variety for 60 years.

Grand Rapids Lettuce: Large erect bright light-green heavily frilled and curled leaves, for greenhouse or field culture, early, holds well, slow bolting.

Sanguine Amerliore Lettuce: Also called “Strawberry Cabbage Lettuce”. Old French Butterhead variety w/ deep red-brown mottling clustered toward the pink center of each tongue shaped leaf, retains color,  tender texture, excel quality, introduced to the U.S. in 1906 as Strawberry Cabbage Lettuce by C.C. Morse and Co.

Chicago Warted Hubbard:  Also called  “Green Chicago Warted Hubbard”, “Hubbard Improved”.  This heirloom was developed by Budlong Gardens of Chicago and was introduced by Vaughans Seed Store of Chicago in 1894. The 13 lb. fruit are dusky olive green, deeply wrinkled and warted, classic hubbard shape. Fine-grained, sweet orange flesh.

Burgress Buttercup Winter Squash: Introduced in 1932 by Burgess Seed & Plant co of Bloomington, IL.  Buttercup has set the benchmark over the years for all other winter squash. Super sweet brilliant orange flesh with very fine eating qualities.  Rind is thin but very hard, medium length keeper.

Dwarf Gray Sugar Pea: Described by D.M. Ferry & Co. in 1892.  Broad pale green 3-4″ pods are stringless and free of fiber, well suited for steaming or stir-fry.  Beautiful purple bi-colored blossoms. Edible pod.

Sheepnose Pimento Sweet Pepper:  My favorite sweet pepper!! Tomato-type peppers are exceedingly flavorful with sweet juicy flesh. Very meaty, good for canning. An Ohio heirloom from the family of Nick Rini. Keeps for an extended period when refrigerated.

Amish Paste Tomato: This heirloom tomato was discovered in Wisconsin although its origins are in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of the Amish Country.  The tomatoes are teardrop or heart-shaped with a brilliant red orange color. The Amish Paste tomato has a balance of acid and sweetness.  When it is sliced fresh the juicy flesh sparkles and has a solid texture.  The Amish Paste is eaten fresh or in sauces.

Beam’s Yellow Pear Tomato: Introduced to SSE in 1983 by John Hartman of Indiana.  FedCo trialed with against 25 different yellow pears in 1998 and found it was the best tasting.  Endless supply of 1 1/2” fruits with great flavor.

Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato: West Virginia heirloom obtained from Darrell Kellogg of Redford, Michigan. Large orange beefsteak fruits weigh 1-2 pounds. Delicious rich flavor with a good acid/sugar balance. Very productive.

Cincinnati Market Radish:  Heirloom described in Vilmorin’s The Vegetable Garden (1885); now becoming scarce.  Deep red radishes are 6″ long and tapered (like a carrot).  Flesh is tender, crisp, and mild.  Medium tops are good for bunching.

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