Heirloom seeds for nonprofits and businesses alike

“The farm pics were taken by the company’s graphic artist who worked for Landreth from the 1880s through the early 1900s,” says Barbara Melera, owner of D. Landreth Seed Company.

Three Pennsylvania organizations use heirloom seeds to preserve history and turn a profit. Amishland Seeds (www.amishlandseeds.com) is a one-woman business, the D. Landreth Company (www.landrethseeds.com) is the oldest known seed company in the United States, and Landis Valley Museum (www.landisvalley.org) represents a living museum that started its heirloom seed project in the 1980s to preserve history and earn money for its Heirloom Seed Project and the Landis Valley Museum.

Antique seeds packets from the D. Landreth Seed Company: tomato, cucumber, squash and pepper.
Lisa Von Saunder by her heirloom kale garden.
Eva’s Burgundy Lettuce at Amishland Seeds.
The 100th anniversary of the D. Landreth Seed Company’s 1884 seed catalog cover.
Seeds are stored in glass jars away
from direct light in the Heirloom Seed Project’s farmhouse at Landis Valley Museum.

Niche business

Lisa Von Saunder of Reamstown, Pa., owner of Amishland Seeds, came to Lancaster County to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning her own business. While visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia, she had an epiphany. “It was like I was struck by lightning,” she says, when she realized she could raise and sell nearly extinct historical seeds like those she found in the well-tended gardens at Monticello. Von Saunder says, “It took me 12 years to research and find property for growing heirloom seeds.”

Von Saunder set out to find rare or nearly extinct heirloom seeds of fruits and vegetables from around the world, grow the plants, and save the seeds for sale.

After researching about starting an heirloom seed business, and finding a place to grow plants for seed, Von Saunder slowly started the retail side of her business. She says, “It took nine years of gardening [and] getting seeds. I experimented with Ebay [and when I found that did well] I decided to go further and hire a professional webmaster [to set up my Web site].”

Von Saunder’s Web site teaches the botanical names of a wide variety of tomatoes, eggplants, pole beans, and more. She also gives the history of where her vegetable seeds came from and how they are used in their original country. In addition to her Pennsylvania German friends who gave her native seeds, Von Saunder gathered seeds for tomatoes, eggplants and other vegetables for seed propagation from Bulgaria, India and the Ukraine. “I don’t ever sell the actual seeds people give me or that I acquire in seed trades. I first grow out the plants from those original seeds and then harvest them appropriately, then sell those seeds from the mother plants over succeeding growing seasons,” she explains.

One of Von Saunder’s oldest vegetable varieties is the skirret (Sium sisarum), part of the carrot and parsnip family from the Roman times. “It’s white and sweet-tasting. It’s been in and out of fashion [throughout history]. It came with the colonists; it’s hard to germinate, but once it gets going there’s no stopping it,” says Von Sauder, explaining that the plant is perennial, but not invasive.

In order to acquire “mother” seeds to start new plants for propagation, Von Saunder would sometimes go to farm auctions where she would find seeds hidden within barns. She would take the seeds to the auctioneers to auction them off. She was usually the only bidder.

Her good friend, Eva Snader, who recently died at age 89, gave Von Saunder various seeds to plant for next-generation seeds. To show her appreciation, Von Saunder dedicates the names of her seeds to those who helped her get started, such as Eva’s Burgundy Lettuce.

Von Saunder’s gardens aren’t certified organic, but she does use all-natural means of seed growing, including avoiding hybridization and GMOs. She does all the planting, drying and selling, working 12 to 14 hours a day. She packages her seeds in plastic bags with silica gel to keep the seeds dry and fresh. “I use heavy-duty Ziploc bags. In my house, I have walls of seeds,” Von Saunder says.

The D. Landreth Seed Company

The D. Landreth Seed Company is the oldest heirloom seed company in the United States. According to the company literature, David Landreth and his family settled in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1784, where he started a garden center. He first sold seeds to local estates and to the city, but eventually he sold seeds to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother.

Landreth was responsible for introducing the zinnia from Mexico; the first truly white potato; and the tomato, also known as the Love Apple, to the U.S. He also perfected the first yellow tomato variety and introduced young America to Bloomsdale Spinach, “one of the most popular vegetables grown and a favorite of gardeners even today,” according to the company.

Peter and Barbara Melera now own the company, and moved the business from Baltimore, Md., back to Pennsylvania in York County, approximately two hours from Philadelphia. “We purchased the oldest seedhouse in America, and the fifth-oldest U.S. corporation, The D. Landreth Seed Company, in 2003, with the intent of restoring this historic treasure,” explains Melera.

“Some of the heirloom seed varieties go back to the 1500s and the 1600s. None are unique to our family or community. Our varieties are very old, and because of this, they’ve been shared with many individuals, families and communities. None of [them] are unique to Landreth alone,” she says.

Melera also notes, “Our seeds are primarily grown by independent producers, usually small farms in the Pacific Northwest, Missouri, Oklahoma and California. Seeds begin to be harvested in June, with the last being harvested in October and early November. Most flower seeds are harvested earlier than vegetable seeds.”

Melera stores her seeds in glass jars or plastic buckets away from any light. The company packages seeds in seed packets, plastic bags and mesh bags depending on the quantity of seeds. They have four employees with “decades of gardening and farming experience,” Melera says.

Some of D. Landreth’s most popular seeds are Detroit Dark Red Beets, Blue Lake Bush Beans, Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, Brandywine tomatoes, Purple Top White Globe Turnips, Connecticut Field pumpkin, and Georgia or Southern Collards. They sell these items year-round through mail order, business and craft shows, as well as consigning their seeds to nurseries.

Heirloom seeds are passed on generation to generation, and they’re openly pollinated. Melera explains, “When a variety is sufficiently isolated [through open pollination], the seeds produced will produce plants, fruits and vegetables very similar to, but not identical to, the parents.

“Heirloom seeds are produced by plant varieties. The most broadly accepted definition is a variety that has been in cultivation for at least 50 years. Some purists prefer it be at least 100 years. Most heirloom seed purveyors also consider a variety that has been grown for several generations by a family or a group, like the Amish, to also be heirloom.”

Nonprofit museum saves history and turns a profit

Landis Valley’s Heirloom Seed Project (www.landisvalley.org/seeds.php) began in the mid-1980s. Beth Leensvaart, assistant to Heirloom Seed Project coordinator, Joe Schott, says, “The seed project has been in existence for 25 years. It was brought to our attention that saving heirloom seeds should be a part of the mission of the museum, along with saving artifacts, diaries, etc.”

A volunteer goes into the farmhouse that is home to the Heirloom Seed Project at Landis Valley Museum.

Leensvaart says that the seeds can be traced back to the Pennsylvania German culture of the 1800s. “Heirloom varieties are no different from other plants when it comes to planting, it’s in the spacing of different varieties to prevent cross-pollination that matters,” she explains. “Heirloom seeds are seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation without any cross-pollinating or hybridizing. Seeds from heirloom plants can be saved, and when planted the following year, will produce the exact same vegetable.”

Landis Valley does a quality control check each year. Leen-svaart explains, “Each year, we send a sample of all our varieties that we sell to the USDA for germination testing. This way, we keep up with the standards of the USDA, and we are assured of the viability of the seeds we sell.” Some of the Heirloom Seed Project’s most requested seeds are for tomatoes and beans.

Leensvaart explains, “We acquire our seed through donations from families that garden and save seed for the next season, year after year. Hence, some of our family names, such as Mrs. Neidigh’s six-week bean and Grandma Hershey’s Sugar Peas.”

Schott and Leensvaart are the only paid staff at the Heirloom Seed Project. The rest of the staff is made up of master gardeners who volunteer.

Beth Leensvart discusses gardening techniques with a volunteer at the Heirloom Seed Project.

The fruits and vegetables are not grown to sell. Leensvaart says, “We grow for seed only, which destroys the fruit. We do try to use what we can, like the tomatoes. We only need the seed, so cleaning before taking the seed out lets the volunteers keep the tomato meat for sauces, soups, etc.”

Landis Valley sells their heirloom seeds at their annual Herb and Garden Faire Day every Mother’s Day weekend in May, as well as through their seed catalog, online presence and in their museum store, The Weathervane. Proceeds from the Herb and Garden Faire Day benefit the Landis Valley Museum, and earnings from their seed sales benefit the Heirloom Seed Project.

“The business of heirloom seeds is growing by leaps and bounds. There is a definite growing interest in heirlooms,” says Leensvaart.

Heirloom seeds appeal to those who want to preserve history, love growing, and want to reconnect to their heritage. It opens up a whole new world to the small grower.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa. She writes for various trade magazines focusing on landscape companies, agriculture and business.