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Seeds Firmly Planted in the Past

Heirloom Varieties Flourish Once More at Heritage Farm

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A01

DECORAH, Iowa -- In a cellar vault on a picture-book place of orchard, pasture and field known as Heritage Farm, a big slice of America's history is preserved in trays, barrels and shelves housing thousands of white packets containing seeds.

A soup bean believed ferried on the Mayflower, a black pole bean carried by the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears, a variety of tomato collected by Robert E. Lee while at war. In all, a stock of 24,000 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers are represented in the 20-by-15-foot room bathed in bright light and icy cold air. Many were staples of life in Colonial America, some originated from Indian tribes and yet others passed through Ellis Island sewn into hatbands and dress hems.

Seed Savers Exchange gardeners Amy Fortman, Jason Skoda, Marissa Knehans and Linda Drackley harvest garlic at Heritage Farm in Iowa. (Greg Brown -- Waterloo-cedar Falls Courier)

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For gardeners, farmers and historians of America's agrarian traditions, the collection maintained by the Seed Savers Exchange is nothing less than a modern-day Noah's ark and a model for similar efforts in 30 other countries by like-minded preservationists concerned that the world's rich tapestry of vegetable and flower varieties, centuries in the making, is unraveling at an alarming rate.

Other seed banks, notably the government's National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., are maintained by scientists looking for better crops or as insurance against future agricultural calamities. But Seed Savers' mission is to place seeds in the hands of tens of thousands of gardeners who grow heirloom varieties not just to preserve genetic diversity but to experience a taste of America before our food went into the melting pot.

"When you begin to grasp the sheer numbers of varieties that are there compared to what we eat on a daily basis, it's shocking and awesome," says Deborah Madison, a cookbook author and board member of Seed Savers, founded in 1975 by a young midwestern couple, Kent and Diane Whealy.

Today, the nonprofit's 8,000 members offer each other 11,000 heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruits and grains. Separately, the seed catalogue is distributed to 150,000 gardeners and farmers in the United States and offers more than 600 selected varieties.

This year's, for example, features Armenian melons sold in Philadelphia markets in the 1840s, a garlic from a Republic of Georgia village and the Opalka paste tomato, brought to New York a century ago by Polish immigrants.

The collection began with the seeds of a morning glory and a tomato that Diane Whealy's grandfather collected and handed her shortly before his death in 1972. His parents had brought them from their German homeland in the 19th century. Each year, Grandpa Ott grew the annual vine on his porch and collected its seeds every fall for the following year.

This is how seeds, unique to one religious sect or a village or even a family, were passed from one generation to the next for centuries. But by the 1970s, decades of hybridization and mail-order marketing, which like the auto industry relied on introducing novel varieties each year, had rendered the heirloom a dinosaur.

Some hybrids are more productive and disease resistant, but many are bred for mechanical harvesting, shipping and durability, all at the expense of flavor. Moreover, hybrids were severing the cultural strands spun by heirlooms. As a rule, hybrids cannot reproduce themselves.

Thanks to the rescue effort and a new interest in heirlooms, the recorded loss of commercially available varieties has slowed, Kent Whealy says. But even his lifetime of seed sleuthing has failed to recover more than a fraction of the varieties once known in America. Among the losses: An apple variety named Taliaferro that Thomas Jefferson called "the best cyder apple existing."

Diane Whealy says that after her grandfather died, she looked at the pillbox containing the morning glory seed and realized "that if I hadn't talked to him about it, they probably would have been ripped out and disappeared. This is the only morning glory of this color growing in the country." Thus started the Whealys' quest, which culminated in the move to Heritage Farm in 1984.

Every summer since then, the distinctive purple and red trumpets of Grandpa Ott's morning glory grow high against the old dairy barn that is the farm's signature building. The two-hour drive from Dubuque, ironically, takes visitors past countless acres of just one crop, corn, most of it genetically modified.

In the bizarre parallel worlds of agriculture in the 21st century, Heritage Farm flourishes as an oasis of diversity and genetic purity. The Whealys, now in their fifties and recently divorced, still work together but for an endeavor far bigger and sophisticated than at the start. Their son, Aaron Whaley (he uses an older spelling of the family name), runs a catalogue, and garden manager Matthew Barthel oversees a crew of 19 gardeners who grow the 10 percent of the stock that's planted each year to renew the seed.

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