Comparative Growouts, and Identifying the True Heirlooms in Heritage Farm’s Collections
Campout Speech by Kent Whealy, 1997
I want to welcome all of you to Seed Savers’ 17th annual Campout Convention. Each summer, on this next-to-last full weekend in July, our members gather at Heritage Farm for this special celebration, which is partly a convention and partly a reunion of old friends. Our first Campout was held in 1981, when just 12 of our members attended and all of them camped out. I cooked a meal for everyone on a charcoal grill on the deck of our family’s handmade home in the woods in northern Missouri. I also remember that everyone pitched in to help us pick and “shell” our peas, and then all shared a laugh when it was discovered that there were actually four different terms for what they were doing: shelling, shucking, podding and hulling.
Some of the folks who were at that first Campout are here today, and I’d like to recognize them. Would Auburn and Clarice Cooper please stand. Auburn and Clarice have been to every one of the 17 Campout Conventions, and we’re really pleased to have them back with us again today. And special thanks to Clarice, who helps Arllys with Saturday morning registrations each year. I’d also like to have Faxon Stinnett stand. Fax is a tomato collector from Oklahoma and he is going to turn 90 next month. Fax, it’s fantastic that you could make it again this year, and the only thing better would be if Mary could be here too. And I want to also recognize Tom and Sue Knoche. Tom is a squash collector from Ohio and has been one of our most active members. We’re certainly pleased to have Tom and Sue with us today. Indeed, we’re pleased to have all of these veteran seed savers back with us today. These are the folks who helped build Seed Savers during the organization’s early years, and they deserve our sincere thanks.
For some of you, this is your first visit to Heritage Farm. We want to welcome you and want you to feel at home while you’re here. Indeed, Heritage Farm is owned by the Seed Savers Exchange, and our members paid off Heritage Farm’s mortgages in only five years, so we really want you to feel like this is your home, too. (Please don’t take anything, though . . . .) Seriously, while you’re here, I hope that each of you has time for a really close look at all of these beautiful projects, because Heritage Farm’s genetic preservation projects are supported by your membership fees and your donations.
This year we’ve had one of the coldest springs on record in Northeast Iowa. For seven consecutive weeks our temperatures were well below normal. None of the field crops were coming up and the farmers were afraid their seeds were going to rot before they sprouted. Some of our crops in the Preservation Gardens are still about three weeks behind, especially the peppers and heat-loving crops. It didn’t warm up until a week ago. This last week has been incredibly hot, which was good for the gardens, but today I’m pleased the rain is cooling things off again, because it can be rather miserable when this many people are packed into this loft and the temperature hits 95°. Anyone who has ever stacked hay bales in a barn’s loft on a hot summer day knows exactly what I mean.
In spite of all the cold weather, this year’s gardens at Heritage Farm are probably the most beautiful ever, as well as being quite varied and much more interesting than usual. The gardens stretch from the blacktop road out in front, past the pond behind this barn and quite a ways down the valley. So when it stops raining, possibly tomorrow, and dries out a little bit, we hope all of you can take a long walk down the valley and have a leisurely look at these incredibly beautiful gardens.
I’m very pleased to introduce this summer’s garden staff. Would Kathy Moen please stand. Kathy is our new Garden Manager here at Heritage Farm, and a fairly recent graduate of Iowa State with triple degrees in entomology, pest management and plant pathology. Kathy has done an excellent job with the gardens here this summer, and we’re extremely pleased to have her permanently on our staff. I hope that all of you will make a point of meeting Kathy this weekend, and I’ll be talking about her garden projects in my speech in just a moment. Juliana, would you stand, please? Juliana Beiwel graduated last spring, also from Iowa State, with a degree in horticulture and has been working closely with Kathy all summer. Juliana is responsible for designing and planting the beautiful herb garden at the far end of the display garden beside the barn. We’re really pleased to have Juliana here with us this summer, and appreciate everything she’s done. Bob Fullhart, would you please stand? Bob is also majoring in horticulture at South Dakota State, where he does some wrestling. We’re also really pleased to have Bob on our garden crew this summer. At the end of the summer, everyone on the garden staff is going to be given an honorary degree in Purslane Management.
Aaron Whealey, standing back in the doorway, would you please raise your hand? Aaron started working for Seed Savers about a year ago, when he took over the potato tissue culture project that John and Cindy Meyer had done such a fine job with as volunteers for about three years. Aaron will be giving a potato tissue culture workshop on Sunday morning in his small lab in the basement of our new office facilities up the hill. He has about 400 varieties of heirloom potatoes growing in test tubes of gel, attempting to rid them of viruses. Aaron has also taken over the coordination of Seed Savers International. Since 1993 Seed Savers has funded 12 plant collecting expeditions in genetically rich areas across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. To help support these collecting missions (and the permanent maintenance of Heritage Farm’s vast collections), we’ve started selling packets of seeds from some Eastern countries and also some of our favorite varieties from the Preservation Gardens at Heritage Farm. This summer Aaron is growing all of those commercial varieties in an evaluative garden behind the barn. We’ll be taking a lot of photos this summer, and hope to put out a small catalog next fall. Aaron will be rechecking all of the varietal descriptions to make sure they’re accurate. So, this is a good opportunity to take a close look at many of the varieties that you’ll be seeing during the next few years in Heritage Farm’s catalog.
I also want Diane Whealy to raise her hand. Diane always coordinates all of the meals and the guest housing during the Campout. As Diane is planning your meals, she goes to great lengths to use paper products instead of styrofoam, and each year that becomes harder to do, which is a sad statement about the way things are going. Last year, Diane decided to order 2,000 pressed paper cups – several years supply – but when we opened the box, we were surprised to discover that all of the cups were covered with images of playing cards. It must have been a shipment of cups that was on its way to the Miss Marquette or one of the other floating casinos down on the Mississippi. Anyhow, tomorrow morning, as you’re having your coffee and the Jack of Diamonds is staring back at you, we wanted you to know that there is a reason, other than just sheer bad taste. Diane also manages both of the gift shops here at Heritage Farm, and she’s in charge of Seed Savers’ pre-Christmas mail-order product brochure. This year she has researched and planted a Scandinavian garden, behind the shed over near the kiosk, filled with varieties that she obtained from our members in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, which employs some of their traditional planting techniques, as well. And Diane also designed the display garden beside the barn, which includes a lot of the varieties that are for sale, not only in the gift shop, but also in Heritage Farm’s catalog.
Would Arllys Adelmann please stand. Arllys started working for Seed Savers just after my family moved to Decorah 13 years ago. She is our Office Manager and keeps our entire office running as smoothly as possible, which is quite a feat considering the complexity and scope of everything that’s going on here. Arllys is in charge of Seed Savers’ membership records and membership publications, and she single-handedly compiles the Summer Edition and the Harvest Edition each year. She is also in charge of registration for the Campout, so all of you met Arllys as you checked in this morning.
I would also like to have Joanne Thuente stand. Joanne is sort of Seed Savers’ unsung hero. Each year she enters and updates all of your listings in the 440-page Seed Savers Yearbook, and she also enters all of the listings for the The Flower and Herb Exchange. Joanne also has done all the data entry needed to compile and update three out of the four editions of the Garden Seed Inventory, and compiled both editions of the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory. Joanne and Arllys both carry extremely heavy loads, and their significant contributions to the organization never seem to be adequately recognized.
While you’re here, please take the time to visit Heritage Farm’s Historic Orchard, which is really beautiful this year and just loaded with fruit. The orchard contains about 700 different varieties of old-time apples (mostly 19th century varieties), 200 breeding lines of hardy grapes from the collection of Elmer Swenson, and also some older named varieties of grapes. This may be the year that we finally are able to get a look at several hundred different varieties of apples. The winter before last, we had actual temperatures here of 41° below zero, which damaged most of the fruit buds. That summer we had hoped to get a look at about 300 different varieties of apples, but instead only about 50 fruited. We’ve been waiting for several years, but each year something always seems to happen. But this year everything seems to be going perfectly – indeed, with all of this cool wet weather, we might as well be living on the coast of Oregon. Possibly 500 different varieties could fruit this year, if everything goes right, and we’re really anxious to take documentary photographs of these historic apples.
If this finally is the year and we are able to take documentary photos of most of the apples, then we’re hoping to do a book on heirloom apples with Dan Bussey. Dan, will you please stand up? Dan is an apple historian, and this year he is also acting as our consultant for Heritage Farm’s Historic Orchard. Dan maintains about 400 varieties himself and has an extensive library on apples, nearly everything that’s been published in this country and in Europe. Ever since I’ve known Dan, he’s been working on a book of apple histories and descriptions. I’ve heard it said that at the turn of the century there were more than 7,000 named varieties of apples in the U.S. Well, I’m sure that Dan has all of their descriptions in his computer. We have been talking about publishing a book that might focus on the heirloom apples in Seed Savers’ orchard. On Sunday morning Dan will be giving a workshop in the Historic Orchard describing the histories of some of the unique varieties being maintained in our orchard, which should be fascinating.
There will also be a squash tour and hand-pollination demonstration, which will be a joint workshop with Kathy Moen, our new Garden Manager, and Glenn Drowns, who is Seed Savers’ curator for garden corns and “cucurbits” (or vine crops). This year Glenn is working with Kathy as an expert consultant, mainly as a telephone advisor, plus making several trips here during the season. We are extremely pleased to be working closely again with Glenn. It’s always hard for Glenn to get away because, in addition to his huge gardens, he is also maintaining 130 breeds of poultry, but he’ll be here tomorrow morning, after chores. Glenn and Kathy’s workshop should be excellent. You may never have another chance to tour 800 varieties of squash, guided by the person who put most of that collection together, and also by the young woman who is growing probably the largest display of heirloom squash that has ever been attempted.
Sunday morning there will also be an allium workshop led by John Swenson. Several years ago John accompanied Phil Simon and other scientists from the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a plant collecting expedition to Central Asia where they collected rare varieties of “alliums” (the onion family). Seed Savers is currently maintaining about 180 different garlics, and quite a few rare allium species. Most of those have come to us because of John’s efforts. Many of those garlics are actually from the collection of Dr. Peter Hanelt, a taxonomist who has now retired from the seed bank at Gatersleben in eastern Germany. Starting about two decades ago, Gatersleben’s scientists made 10 collecting expeditions to Soviet Georgia within 12 years, because Georgia is the center of diversity for alliums. Now the Georgian seed bank has been completely flattened by civil war, but those garlics still exist at Gatersleben and here at Heritage Farm. John’s workshop will be especially interesting to those of you who have questions about how to harvest and replant the different types of vegetative alliums.
On Sunday I’ll be giving a workshop on Seed Savers’ herds of Ancient White Park cattle. These cattle are extremely rare (as opposed to “medium rare”. . . .), an English breed that dates back more than 2,000 years. Currently there are only about 500 of these cattle left in the world (mostly in England), with about 100 of those in the U.S., and about 30 of those here at Heritage Farm. Most of the U.S. herd is on the B Bar Ranch in Montana, and we’ve been working with those folks on a breeding program to maximize the possible unique genetics of the U.S. population. We’re working with two breeding groups here at Heritage Farm, a total of 29 cows, although six are now too old to have calves: The larger herd is right here at Heritage Farm, and there is also another smaller herd on a farm a couple of miles away. Each June our friends in Montana bring us two young bulls, which were just let in with the cows last week. During April, ten calves were born in the herd here and six calves in the herd at the south farm. This year, out of the 16 calves, 11 are heifers, so finally the percentage has swung back our way. Last year we had 12 calves, but nine were bulls, which really didn’t increase their numbers much. All the cows that have calves are extremely protective, and can be aggressive if you go near their calf. There are warning signs everywhere and barriers of electric fences, which are mainly for the people, not for the cattle. Still, I’d like to ask all of the parents here to please sternly warn your children not to climb any fences or open any gates. This is not a petting zoo, but it is a unique opportunity for everyone to get a close look at these handsome, ancient animals. If you see them coming down early in the morning to the water fountain beside the barn, stand back and be quiet and just watch. The old cows, the ones with the largest horns, are the wildest and also the most shy, so they’ll get their drink very quickly and then leave immediately. But the others will stay around for quite a while, if nobody tries to get too close. Sunday morning we’re going to run the herd down to a small pasture just past the farmhouse, so those of you who attend that workshop can stand in the driveway and take photos of the cattle, and we can talk about these magnificent animals and their fascinating history.
Finally, I want to thank Jeanne Daniels who donated the fans here in the loft of the barn, which we may still need, since it’s starting to heat up a bit. We’re grateful for the thoughtfulness and generosity of her donation, and pleased to have Jeanne back with us.
Again, I want to welcome all of you to Heritage Farm and urge you to take a close look at all of the projects – the beautiful gardens stretching down the valley, comparative growout of squash, Scandinavian garden, herb garden, display garden, evaluative garden, garlic collection, 19th century apples and hardy grapes in the Historic Orchard, potato tissue culture project and Ancient White Park cattle. I also hope that you are able to spend some time in our new office complex up the hill, which is air conditioned and will be open all weekend. So if it does get really hot again, you can walk up the steep path through the burr oak woods, or drive up, and just sit and relax in the attractive lobby or conference room or on the decks of Heritage Farm’s new offices.
Today I’d like to talk about the growth of the seed collections at Heritage Farm, and then describe our recent comparative growouts and also our initial attempts to identify the true heirlooms in Heritage Farm’s collections. We didn’t start out by attempting to become a seed bank, but very gradually that has certainly happened. In 1981 I was contacted by a fellow named John Withee, who has now passed away. John spent 14 years putting together a fantastic collection of 1,186 varieties of heirloom beans. John lived in Lynnfield, Massachusetts and collected heirloom beans throughout New England, which has long traditions of baked beans, especially in the lumber camps. John started an organization called Wanigan Associates, and put out a small catalog that was sent to about 400 members who were all involved in his seed growing scheme. John succeeded in getting quite a bit of national publicity, and it just sort of rolled over him, quickly becoming more than he could handle. So, in 1981 John contacted me – he was probably in his early 70s then – and asked if Seed Savers would be willing to take over and permanently maintain the Wanigan Associates’ collection of beans.
About that same time, Gary Paul Nabhan and his friends in Tucson were putting on a conference called “Seed Banks Serving People.” It was a fascinating, ground-breaking conference that brought together the first of the alternative seed companies and grassroots genetic preservation projects, along with our counterparts in the USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System. That week was the only time that I ever got to spend with John Withee. John had spent an incredible amount of time putting his collection together, and I could tell he was concerned about turning over the collection’s maintenance to us youngsters, so I wanted to do something that would let him really show off his collection at the Tucson conference. I had a woodworker/friend build two seed display cases, hinged like two huge books, that each contained about 600 little 1.5” squares covered with plexiglass. One of those cases is in the corner of the gift shop, so you can take a look at it downstairs. Aaron (who was nine) and John and I sat in a room at a Motel 6 in Tucson and filled those two cases with a rainbow of beans. The display was gorgeous, and John was really pleased. As far as I know, the bean case that John took home to Massachusetts in 1981 is still on display in the Peabody Museum.
Accepting the responsibility for the Wanigan Associates bean collection was Seed Savers’ initial commitment to the permanent maintenance of a central collection. From that point on, Seed Savers’ collections of seeds have grown quickly, mainly from four major sources. First, it became evident fairly early in the organization’s history that the trading going on through the Yearbooks was quite haphazard, and really wasn’t capable of permanently maintaining the varieties. Gardeners would come into the organization and then drop right back out again, and if nobody reoffered their varieties, those heirlooms were lost to us as surely as if we had never found them. So we started requesting varieties from each Seed Savers Yearbook, and have been doing that almost annually ever since. Initially we attempted to focus our efforts somewhat on the annual vegetables that are the most popular with our members, knowing that these were also the same crops that we would be capable of permanently maintaining with the most success – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuces, beans, peas, corns and the vine crops (cucumbers, melons, squash and watermelons). But our focus always seems to stray (whenever heirloom material is in danger of being lost, we always feel compelled to intervene) so over the years we have assembled substantial collections of more than 80 different species of vegetables, grains and fruits.
Second, at the time of the Tucson conference (in October 1981), I was only about a third done with the initial Garden Seed Inventory, which ended up taking three years to compile on a tiny ancient Apple computer. (Diane used to jokingly tell me during that period, “Kent, the baby’s three.”) That First Edition was published in 1984, just after our family moved to Decorah, and for the first time we had a clear picture of every non-hybrid vegetable variety still being offered by all U.S. and Canadian mail-order seed companies. More important, we could see which varieties were in the most danger of being dropped, which at that particular time was critical, because rampant economic consolidation within the commercial seed industry was approaching its peak and the losses were rapid and extensive. So we started using the profits from those inventories to buy up varieties while sources still existed. Our criterion has always been to purchase seeds that were down to being offered by only one or two companies. Again, our seed collections grew swiftly from acquisitions of those endangered commercial varieties.
Third, over the years Seed Savers has received a tremendous amount of national publicity from several hundred magazine and newspaper articles. Several times each week I’m on the phone with garden writers, telling Seed Savers’ story and helping them write their articles. That’s great, because, being a nonprofit that has to prioritize each expenditure, we’ve never had the money to advertise our cause. Gardeners all across the U.S. and Canada have read those articles, and then written or called for more information. For several years now, Seed Savers has been sending out more than 10,000 information brochures annually. Only a small percentage actually join Seed Savers, but thousands of other gardeners have written and said, “Enclosed are samples of my grandmother’s seeds (or my grandfather’s seeds), because I want to make sure that they’re always maintained, so please add them to your collection.” Probably a quarter of Heritage Farm’s entire collection has come to us from gardeners who have never been members of Seed Savers.
Our fourth major source of seeds has resulted from the work I’ve been doing for several years in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Since 1993 Seed Savers has arranged and funded a dozen plant collecting expeditions, including: 15 days in the Bukovina region of north central Romania (between the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvanian Alps); 30 days in mountain villages of eastern and southern Poland; 21 days to the Maramures and Muntii Apuseni regions of northwest Romania; 14 days on the remote agricultural islands of Linosa and Panatella (between Sicily and Tunisia); 14 days throughout Sardinia; 26 days to the Hissar mountains of southeast Uzbekistan; 35 days in Uzbekistan from Tashkent to the area south of the Aral Sea; 50 days through Kazakhstan to the area north of the Aral Sea and along the Syr-Darya River; 30 days throughout Russia’s middle and lower Volga Valley; and 40 days to the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. And, during the next couple of weeks, two more Russian expeditions will get underway to an area of ancient agriculture in Gorno-Altai (Mountain Altai), a huge mountain valley known as “The Vegetable Basket of Siberia” that’s located where the southern border of Russia touches the northwest corner of Mongolia, and also along the remote Dnieper and Southern Bug rivers in the Ukraine and Belarus, which was an area of ancient irrigated agriculture.
Some of these areas are so remote and untouched that our plant explorers have described feeling like they were walking back into the Middle Ages. Many of these areas are dazzlingly rich genetically, with traditional agriculture reaching all the way back unbroken and all seeds still produced by gardeners and farmers. But right now Western agricultural technology is flooding into these fragile areas, along with so-called “improved” seeds. You can’t ever fault peasant farmers for wanting to grow more productive varieties, but much of their irreplaceable genetic resources will quickly be lost when traditional varieties are abandoned. Except for one Polish expedition, I’ve worked entirely with scientists from the seed bank at Gatersleben in eastern Germany, and also from the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia. Following a century-old tradition, half of the seeds from each expedition are given to the host country’s seed bank. The collectors bring the rest of the seeds back to their institute, divide the samples again and send half to Seed Savers. I have also been granted the great privilege of requesting seeds directly from the world-famous collections at Gatersleben and the Vavilov Institute. Within the last five years, about 3,000 traditional varieties from 30 Eastern countries have flowed into Heritage Farm’s collections.
The seed collections at Heritage Farm have gotten really huge, and now contain about 18,000 total varieties. At the end of 1996, our collections included 3,500 beans, 600 corns, 200 cucumbers, 140 eggplants, 800 lettuces, 400 melons, 900 peas, 1,200 peppers, 1,000 squash, 150 sunflowers, 4,100 tomatoes, 200 watermelons, and smaller amounts of about 70 other vegetable crops. In addition, our perennial collections include 200 garlics, 700 apples and 200 hardy grapes. And those numbers do not include the seeds from the three Russian collecting expeditions in 1996, which were received too late for planting last spring and are still in boxes in our cool-storage vaults.
In December 1993, Seed Savers initiated a $485,000 fund-raising drive to build a complex of offices and seed storage facilities at Heritage Farm. Many nonprofits approach their members several times each year for donations, but I’ve never really appreciated that myself. We always give our members a low-key opportunity to donate at year’s end, but there’s never any pressure. So when we finally did ask our members for support in a substantial way, there was a tremendous outpouring. Seed Savers members donated $303,000 in only eight months! The generosity of our members (and the foundations involved) was amazing, and heartwarming. Construction began in July 1994 and ended up costing about $600,000, including equipment and furnishings. In May 1995 we dedicated the complex of new facilities, which includes an office building, greenhouse, root cellar and underground frozen seed vault. As you’ll see this weekend, the main floor of the office building contains seven offices, conference room, library, lobby, gift shop, dining room and kitchen, and is surrounded on two sides by large decks. The basement contains the garden staff’s offices and winter work areas, humidity controlled drying rooms, two large cool-storage seed vaults (filled with foil packets containing the seeds of 18,000 vegetable varieties), potato tissue culture lab, book and product storage, mailroom and truck dock. Also, a small back-up sample of each variety is kept in a separate frozen seed vault (an underground walk-in freezer) as fire insurance.
Two and a half years ago, Heritage Farm’s entire collection was brought together for the first time in our new cool-storage seed vaults. Before that, our collections of seeds were spread all over Decorah in various people’s refrigerators and freezers. You know, we worked off of a kitchen table for nearly two decades, which is often referred to almost reverently as “paying your dues,” but mainly it was just a real hassle. I really can’t tell you how incredible it is to finally have the facilities that we need to do our work well, and also how greatly these fantastic new facilities have empowered Seed Savers efforts. Finally, our seeds are all heat-sealed into foil packets and stored under almost optimum conditions in seed vaults that are refrigerated to 50 degrees F. and humidity-controlled to 40%. And having a frozen backup collection stored in a separate underground vault has really been a relief. I worried constantly about losing the entire collection to a fire or a tornado, because this incredible collection could never be reassembled: many of the folks who sent us their family’s heirlooms have now passed away; many commercial varieties were dropped from all catalogs long ago and would have died out; and some of the Eastern areas where we have collected recently are now involved in various levels of civil strife. Heritage Farm’s collection of seeds is an irreplaceable treasure that must always be maintained and made available to the members of Seed Savers.
Also, for the first time, Heritage Farm’s entire collection is easily accessible, and has now been organized quite well. We are finally starting to get a good look at what the total collection comprises. I would estimate that about one-third (or about 6,000) of the varieties in Heritage Farm’s collections have still never been available to Seed Savers’ members. Two years ago, in order to start distributing these unique varieties, Heritage Farm became a “listed member” in Seed Savers Yearbook. Being able to do that involved several years of work, was logistically quite difficult, and would never have been possible without our new facilities. We intend to gradually offer all of the varieties for which there is sufficient seed, beyond our own growout and storage needs, but only if no other Seed Savers member is offering that variety that year. We don’t want to compete in any way with the trading that goes on between our members, but this effort has been an effective vehicle for distributing unique varieties. Heritage Farm listed about 900 varieties in Seed Savers 1996 Yearbook, and last spring listed nearly 1,200 varieties. So our efforts to distribute these unique varieties are proceeding well.
Oh, by the way, some of you asked about the “IPK” variety names in Heritage Farm’s listings. IPK stands for the “Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung” (Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research) located in the village of Gatersleben in eastern Germany. Everybody just calls the institute “Gatersleben,” but that’s where it’s located, not it’s real name. So those are some of the IPK varieties that have come into Heritage Farm’s collection, either as a result of Seed Savers’ joint collecting expeditions with Gatersleben, or in some cases directly out of Gatersleben’s incredibly rich collection of 100,000 varieties collected over a 50 year period throughout the former communist world. Heritage Farm’s IPK listings were all supposed to have included their “country of origin,” but that was mistakenly omitted last year when the yearbook was being compiled. That was too bad, because those seeds are traditional varieties from 30 countries throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In 1993 I made the first of three trips to Gatersleben, where, for the first time, I saw some really large-scale comparative growouts. I walked with Dr. Karl Hammer and Nancy Arrowsmith through a greenhouse where 300 different chicories were growing – the diversity was spectacular, almost unbelievable. Dr. Thomas Gladis was also growing out their entire collection of brassicas, classifying each variety for a taxonomic study they were going to publish, but also taking comparative and evaluative data. On a later trip I saw a comparative growout of 3,000 different tomatoes, three plants of each. A substantial amount of Gatersleben’s gardens each summer are devoted to growing out entire collections in order to compare and evaluate everything during the same season.
Each summer, starting in 1985, up to 2,000 varieties have been multiplied in the Preservation Gardens at Heritage Farm. Actually, 2,000 is about the maximum that we can handle, and usually includes 300 tomatoes, 300 beans, 200 garlics, 125 peppers, 100 peas, and so on. We usually try to multiply about 10% of each species each summer, but with our total collection now exceeding 18,000 varieties, some species are getting too large to roll through even on a 10-year cycle. For almost a decade, we’ve taken documentary photos and evaluative data during our growouts at Heritage Farm, but it quickly became apparent that the data varied greatly depending on the growing season. When you’re growing out collections over a 10-year period, you’re dealing with summers of severe drought, other extremely wet summers like during the floods of 1993, other summers with a cold late spring like we’re having this year, and autumn frosts that can vary by a month.. It certainly isn’t just apples and oranges.
So last year for the first time we attempted a large-scale growout of one of Seed Savers’ major collections, growing out 750 different lettuces. I wish all of you could have seen that comparative growout. It was absolutely magnificent, just incredibly beautiful. I wrote an article about the growout in the Summer Edition that has just been mailed. The lettuce growout was in the garden over past the shed, where we grew four heads of each variety. We had a cool, wet, drizzly spring, and the heads were absolutely perfect. One evening I stood up in the farmhouse and watched a hail storm come over and just gritted my teeth, but it barely damaged the leaves and a week later you couldn’t even tell that anything had touched them. Out of the 750 lettuces, less than a dozen were spotted, like Speckled and Forellenschluss and some of those varieties. All of the colors were so vivid. Walking through that display when the dew was shining in the early morning light, well, I just wish every one of you could have been there, because it was absolutely spectacular. We’ve built a small photographic setup down in the corner of the barn (take a look this weekend) with a camera that slides up and down a column and two flashes that bounce off of the white ceiling. A documentary photo of each lettuce was taken on a grid (with a color scale along one edge), showing the top-view of a head, another head was cut in half to show its internal structure, and a typical leaf. During the growout and photographic process, we also took evaluative data on all of the varieties. By doing all of that, we now know exactly what is in our lettuce collection.
Kathy Moen is doing that same type of growout this summer, except with 800 varieties of squash. Kathy is being advised by Glenn Drowns, who has probably grown and hand-pollinated more squash than anyone in North America. Year after year, Glenn has grown a portion of his collections, and then sent samples of new seed to be stored as backup in Heritage Farm’s freezers. When I started planning this growout with Glenn, we decided to combine his collection and Heritage Farm’s collection, which together include more than 1,000 varieties. We decided not to include about 200 varieties being kept at Heritage Farm that are from Gatersleben’s collection or from foreign expeditions, knowing (wisely, for once) that would be more than we could handle.
Thank goodness, one of Kathy’s degrees is in entomology, because this summer she has had to deal with tremendous infestations of flea beetles, striped cucumber beetles, and even wire worms, all of which she has overcome. During the summer of 1996, the new gardens down the valley allowed us to finally rotate some of the older gardens out of our planting cycle. We experimented with several different cover crops in an attempt to feed those older plots, one of which was a tall-growing sorghum cross, and wire worms apparently thrived in its heavy roots. Kathy started all of the squash plants in our greenhouse. Immediately after transplanting, wire worms (which look like tiny half-inch centipedes) started cutting off the tiny plants. Glenn suggested that Kathy try burying a piece of potato beside each squash plant, because wire worms absolutely love potatoes. (About half of the gardens were affected, so that’s half of 800 varieties, times three plants of each, or 1,200 plants.) Kathy and Juliana and Bob buried half a potato on a stick beside each plant, kept checking until the potatoes were loaded with wire worms, and then plucked the potatoes and hauled them away in buckets. It worked! Now the plants are growing so strongly that Kathy is hopefully beyond any of those problems. It’s been an amazing process so far, and now many of the bush varieties are loaded with fruit. If we ever get any warm weather, it’s going to be an incredible display.
During this process, we also discovered that we had very little seed of about 100 of the 800 varieties. As I said, until two years ago it was difficult, if not impossible, to check on what we had in storage. We’ve always insisted that our primary curators – Glenn and Will Bonsall and Suzanne Ashworth – send us samples of new seed of everything they grow each summer for frozen storage here at Heritage Farm. So when we planted out the seeds of all the squash we had in storage, there ended up being about 100 varieties growing in the garden that were almost gone, even some that Glenn thought were gone. So Kathy, who didn’t think that she was going to have to do any hand-pollination this summer, all of a sudden is scrambling to hand-pollinate 100 varieties of squash. She certainly has the best teacher in the country, and is doing a great job out there in her squash jungle. All of the orange flags that you’ll see in the gardens are marking blossoms that have been taped for hand-pollinations. So that also has been quite exciting, because bringing back varieties that could have slipped through the cracks is exactly what our work at Heritage Farm is all about.
Another interesting process has been trying to identify the true family heirlooms in Seed Savers’ squash collection, and we have a lot of resources to draw on. Several years ago, Joanne finished entering all of our early yearbooks into Seed Savers’ database, so those records are complete all the way back through our first yearbook which was published in 1975. Usually, when a true heirloom is offered by a family member through one of our yearbooks, during the first couple of years they’ll give a complete description of the variety and its history. We’re also using the various editions of our Garden Seed Inventory, and that database contains the descriptions of all the non-hybrid mail-order vegetable varieties that have been available in the U.S. and Canada from 1981 to 1994.
Several historic texts have been quite helpful, especially the volume on Cucurbits from The Vegetables of New York, which describes every squash variety in New York in the 1930s. The Vegetable Garden, written by senior members of the Vilmorin family (proprietors of one of the oldest and largest seed houses in the world) was published in 1885 and contains hundreds of descriptions. The Field and Garden Vegetables of America by Fearing Burr, Jr., which contains descriptions of 1,100 different vegetables and medicinals and field crops, was first printed in 1863 and reprinted in 1988 and 1994 by The American Botanist, Booksellers (my friend Keith Crotz, who never misses a Campout and is here today). One book that even Keith can’t find for us yet is J. J. H. Gregory’s book on squash, so if anyone knows where to get a copy, let me know. J. J. H. Gregory Seed Co. in Massachusetts was one of the largest U.S.seed houses in the mid-1800s. Gregory introduced the Hubbard squash and bred many varieties himself.
A book most people don’t realize exists, Descriptive List of Vegetable Varieties (Introduced between 1936 and 1968 by Public and Private Breeders in North America), was published by the American Seed Trade Association and contains descriptions and the lineage of all varieties introduced during that period. We also have a copy of the only other commercial inventory besides ours that’s ever been compiled in the U.S., American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902, by W. W. Tracy, Jr., which was published by the USDA in 1902. We’re toying with the idea of taking that squash list (all varieties available by mail-order in 1901 and 1902), and going back to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Library in Beltsville, Maryland, where all of those old seed catalogs are on file. Although it would be great to harvest the squash descriptions out of those old catalogs, that may be more than we have time to do.
Within a year or so, we hope to publish Seed Savers’ Guide to Heirloom Squash, and are trying to take all of the photos and data here this summer. As I mentioned, we’re also hoping to do a book with Dan Bussey that might focus on the heirloom apples in Heritage Farm’s orchard. We’re just starting to see the first books being published that contain lots of color illustrations of heirloom varieties. Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables, that Ben Watson did, was the first time we ever saw 200 color photographs of heirloom varieties, and many of those photos were taken right here at Heritage Farm. A couple of new books that you’ll see in Heritage Farm’s product brochure next fall are Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by Seed Savers member William Woys Weaver, which contains more than 100 color photos, and Peppers of the World by Dave DeWitt and Paul Bosland, a field guide with color photos of about 500 varieties.
We are very anxious to start publishing in color ourselves, and are working on several projects right now that will start bringing at least some color to Seed Savers’ members within the next few months. Next October we intend to send all of our members a small product catalog, in color, and then next January we hope to send out a small seed catalog, also in color. The project-related revenue generated by both of those small color catalogs will be used to help finance additional foreign collecting expeditions and also to help with the substantial ongoing costs of permanently maintaining the vast seed collections here at Heritage Farm. Also, a year from now, in Seed Savers 1998 Summer Edition and in the following Harvest Edition, we hope to include a substantial number of “Plant Profiles” in color. Besides publishing in color, the other real key to building increased interest in true heirloom varieties are their stories and histories, which have always been Seed Savers’ strength. We already have the greatest collection of heirloom varieties that’s ever been assembled, and right now we’re starting to also do the research and compile the histories of these family heirlooms, which is really exciting.
Almost all of the gardening magazines you pick up today contain articles about “heirloom” varieties. That certainly wasn’t the case two decades ago when we began our efforts to promote heirloom varieties and build a national awareness of the dangers of genetic erosion. I remember that the first time I ever saw the word “heirloom” applied to plants was on the cover of one of John Withee’s issues of Wanigan Associates. The front cover of one of John’s little catalogs was almost covered with the word “Beans” repeated in a dozen different type styles, and down in one corner it said “Heirloom Beans.” And I immediately thought, “Wow! Heirlooms! They truly are heirlooms, just like a silver brooch that’s passed from mother to daughter.” When John and Aaron and I were filling those bean cases in that Tucson motel room back in 1981, I asked John if he minded me using the term. He said, “Heck no. I stole it too.” He went on to tell me that the only other time he ever heard the term used was by Billy Hepler. Not Billy Hepler, the son, who is the well-known plant breeder in California today, but by his father, who was a professor at the University of New Hampshire in the 1940s. The father became very interested in heirloom varieties and assembled quite a collection and, as far as we know, was the first person to ever talk about plants as being heirlooms. And just look at the interest we’ve been able to generate using that one term.
As I said, we never intended to become a seed bank – it just gradually happened. But look at what being a seed bank has allowed us to accomplish. Heritage Farm’s seed collection is actually the foundation for many of the genetic preservation projects and alternative seed companies in the U.S. today We are propping all of that up. We are fueling all of that with our heirloom varieties. We are largely responsible for making all of that possible. Indeed, the future of gardening in America is steadily emerging from Heritage Farm’s collections. When we published the Fourth Edition of the Garden Seed Inventory, we discovered that in the three years between the Third Edition and the Fourth Edition, nearly 1,700 entirely new (actually, mostly old) varieties were being offered for the very first time, and most of them are heirlooms and many have come directly out of Seed Savers’ work. Next year we intend to compile our Fifth Edition, and I already know that we’re going to find an absolute explosion of heirloom varieties.
That’s an incredible accomplishment for our organization. We have already changed the way that people in America garden. We have awakened gardeners in this country to their true heritage. They have finally become seriously concerned about the stewardship of their rapidly disappearing birthright, which is quite literally the richness on the dinner plate of life. I think that all of us who are deeply involved with Seed Savers deserve to be rather proud of what has already been accomplished, but actually we are just now hitting our stride. When we combine these fascinating comparative growouts at Heritage Farm with accurate varietal descriptions and histories of our true heirlooms and start publishing all of that in color, we will finish creating the most intense wave of horticultural interest that this country has seen since the golden age of gardening a century ago. It’s really wonderful to see all of you here, and to be able to share the excitement of what is taking place right now at Heritage Farm. Thanks for being here.