An heirloom is an open-pollinated variety that traces back at least 50 years and will produce plants with the same traits from generation to generation. Traditional heirlooms are the result of generations of seed saving. First native people, then farmers and home gardeners selected seeds from their favorite crops. By traveling with these seeds and planting them in new locations, people allowed nature to select the crops that worked best in each particular climate. From those crops, the growers started the process over, saving seeds from the biggest, tastiest, hardiest plants, thus creating a genetic diversity so vast, food crop species numbered around 10,000.

Today, growers cultivate about 150 species of food worldwide, less than 2 percent of the once diverse offering of crop species. Traditional fruit and vegetable varieties grown in the United States have dwindled to less than 10 percent of what they were 100 years ago.

Seed saving declined in popularity within commercial agriculture as hybrids and open- pollinated seeds bred for longer shelf life and other transport-ready attributes took over the marketplace. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds, laments, “What you have predominantly is somebody in a greenhouse or laboratory somewhere making judgment calls about where they think the greatest profit is for developing new varieties. Generally, they’re paying no attention to the nutritional, ecological and economic health of the people eating the varieties, the health of the farmers growing it or the health of the communities.”

Steve Peters, of Seeds of Change, agrees that in the last 40 years, the industry has leaned toward one-shoe-fits-all type seeds. “When there’s a big change in the environment, you see those ‘widely adaptable’ varieties are not truly adaptable.” As the gene pool grows smaller and smaller, crops are likely to suffer increased disease and pest problems.

Some heirloom seed companies hire growers to provide product for customers; other seed companies are outgrowths of small family farms. A comprehensive list of seed companies that sell heirlooms is available at www.vegparadise.com/heirloom.htm. Companies leading the pack in heirlooms are Seeds of Change, High Mowing Seeds and Baker Creek Seeds.

High Mowing offers a variety of heirloom seeds, but focuses primarily on tomatoes, cucurbits, corn and melons. Jodi Lew-Smith, director of research and production, says she trials many heirlooms, and after spending a year or two “cleaning up” the stock seed, she selects her preferred varieties to grow for production. The company sources their seed from several places, including Baker Creek.

Jere Gettle started Baker Creek Seeds in the 1990s with about 70 varieties. Today, his goal is to offer approximately 1,300 seed varieties every year, with a slight variance in available varieties from year to year. The 2009 catalogue offered over 1,275 varieties from 70 countries, almost all of which were heirlooms. Seed growers who cross heirloom varieties to create interesting new varieties produce the small percentage of non-heirloom stock. Gettle doesn’t do any breeding; his emphasis is resurrecting old varieties. Growers throughout the Midwest and Europe produce seeds for Baker Creek. Farmers in France and Italy provide antique European varieties of melons and squash, while the Dutch growers send seeds for heirloom flowers. Gettle is currently seeking seeds from countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, where melons originated.

One of the oldest varieties that Baker Creek sells is the Black Spanish Radish. The earliest written records of this radish date to the sixteenth century. In all likelihood, the variety grew well before that time, but without documentation, seed historians can only guess at exact dates of introduction.

There is a certain amount of trust inherent in this market, since there is no way to confirm the age of a seed stock. Gettle says part of what makes a variety an heirloom is the story of the family passing it down. “Usually they just know how long it’s been in the family. All we can say is, ‘This variety has been in the Smith family for 120 years … you know my great-great-great grandmother brought it when she came to Iowa in 1916, but I don’t know where she got it from.’ That’s usually the story you get.”

What began as a seed-lending project at a local library has grown into an independent seed library program. In upstate New York, the Hudson Valley Seed Library (HVSL) has an online seed catalog and seed library program. Ken Greene, co-founder of the homestead-based farm and business, grows a range of heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables, herbs and flowers for seed. His goal is to provide seeds to urban, suburban, and rural home gardeners. By 2014, HVSL aims to offer 100 percent locally grown seed by teaching seed saving and working with other small farms and gardeners. Anyone can buy seeds from the HVSL catalog, which is available online. Those who join the Hudson Valley Seed Library membership enter a community of regional seed-savers. “We hope this cooperative process will educate gardeners about the importance of open-pollinated seeds and seed-saving and create a source of seeds grown in and adapted to our region,” says Greene.

As HVSL expands its network of local growers, the organization will rely less on large seed production facilities. The original sources for the seeds vary. Some were donated by local families who saved seeds and passed them down through generations.

When heirloom crops offer better flavor and more unique shapes and colors than mainstream varieties, it makes sense to add them to the roster as a complement to the usual lineup. Large-scale commercial growers may enjoy success with heirloom beans. Heirloom tomatoes and melons, however, are preferable for farm stands and local markets. They generally don’t ship well, stay fresh on a shelf for extended periods, or withstand mechanical harvesting.

Lew-Smith describes heirlooms as “jackpot crops” rather than “mortgage crops” because they tend to be more susceptible to disease than mainstream varieties with genetic resistances.

Rather than deal with shelf life and transportability issues, Baker Creek Seeds and HVSL reach out to small farms and people who are selling or eating locally, rather than shipping.

Future of heirlooms

In a sense, seed science is coming full circle. As growers demand vigorous and robust genetic material that can handle tough environmental conditions, many seed companies are turning to heirlooms and developing regionally adaptive varieties.

“The varieties we grow have better flavor, require fewer inputs and display more diversity,” says Greene. “I would be very interested in finding research to back up the common beliefs about growing heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.”

For more information

Saving seeds and growing heirlooms:
www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/pdf/hgic1255.pdf

Seed Savers Exchange
www.seedsavers.org

Freedom Seeds
www.freedomseeds.org

HVSL
www.seedlibrary.org

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.