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Seeds Firmly Planted in the Past

In a way that the Whealys could not have foreseen 30 years ago, the heirloom seed movement has been swept up in the revolution taking place in the nation's food chain. Small local farms have proliferated to serve restaurants, roadside stands, direct sales to subscribers and farmers markets.

Madison, in her book "Local Flavors," says there are almost 3,000 farmers markets nationally compared with just a handful when the Whealys started. There are approximately 70 in metropolitan Washington alone. The Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market, for example, has 30 vendors who must raise what they sell.

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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Modern-day truck farming also has been invigorated by regulations that have opened new markets for farmers who are certified organic growers, changes that have increased the demand for heirloom seed. Seed Savers is not only selling to farmers directly but growing heirlooms for other seed companies to sell.

Neil Hamilton, a director of Seed Savers and president of the National Gardening Association, told 180 heirloom gardeners convening recently at Heritage Farm that all these strands are part of a "broad development of food democracy" in America. "I don't think anybody believes we are going to create this separate food system that replaces grocery stores," he said. "The question is broadening the food system."

The Seed Savers catalogue offered 47 certified organic varieties last year, 124 this year, and more will follow. Home gardeners still make up the majority of the catalogue's customers, but the expansion is in supplying commercial growers and other seed companies, including bulk sales to Japan and Europe, ironically from where many of these New World heirlooms came.

Catalogue sales have grown by 125 percent in the past five years, Aaron Whaley says. He has developed Seed Savers' response to the market with a slick, colorful sales catalogue and Web site, replacing a folksy black-and-white flier.

All this has led to a major expansions in operations: The area under intensive cultivation jumped from 14 to 23 acres this year with greater emphasis on bulk production, and two years ago Seed Savers bought a 716-acre neighboring tract to quintuple its size. This will allow heirloom corn and other varieties to be isolated from the pollen of genetically modified crops on other farms, Kent Whealy says.

In spite of the growth of Seed Savers, its homespun origins were clearly evident at its recent convention, camp-out and reunion of the faithful. On a bright summer weekend, members from more than 20 states mingled in the display garden that Diane Whealy tends, filled with the annuals, herbs and vegetables racing to bloom in the short growing season.

Kent Whealy believes that as baby boomers retire, the interest in vegetable gardening will climb again, further broadening the role of heirlooms. About one in four American households grows vegetables, according to the National Gardening Association. Sioux Ammerman, a seed saver from Santa Clara, Calif., who grows heirlooms for "nourishment" of body and soul, is not so sure. "It's so simple" to grow vegetables, she says, "but then I talk to people who cut down all their trees because they make such a mess. It's a little scary."

She points to the Irish potato famine of the 1840s as the prime example of the danger of relying on one crop. Others note the summer of 1970, when 15 percent of America's corn crop was wiped out by a single disease, southern corn leaf blight.

In 2002, 90 percent of Michigan's tart cherry crop was ruined by frost damage because the trees derived from a single variety named Montmorency, says Peter Bretting, national program leader for the Agricultural Research Service's plant germ plasm and genomes banks. Cherries of later-blooming types would have gone on to set fruit.

Bretting's agency, as part of the national system, controls its own ark: 10,000 species, tens of thousands of varieties, 450,000 samples of plants, stored for use by scientists in developing new agricultural crops.

The government's gene banks and those of grass-roots organizations such as Seed Savers complement each other, he says, and are recognized as vital in protecting the food supply for future generations. Paradoxically, advances in genetic engineering have increased scientific interest in heirlooms because their vast genetic wealth can be better tapped today, says Bretting, who is based in Beltsville.

The advent of the Internet has protected heirlooms by establishing new networks of home growers, Whealy says. Early on, he amassed Asian heirlooms brought by refugees from the Vietnam War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Whealy returned from Eastern Europe with 4,000 newly discovered varieties. "We are getting material now from Mexico, Cuba and Haiti," he says.

After a tour of the seed vault the other day, Whealy takes his visitors past a herd of ghostly white cows and their calves -- rare Ancient White Park cattle from Britain -- and on to a remote apple orchard where 700 pre-1900 heirloom varieties grow in neat grids. A century ago, America had more than 7,000 regional apple types. "This," he says, "is what's left."

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