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Heirloom vegetables a growing phenomenon
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
October 9, 2001
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When opening a menu or strolling through the produce aisle at the grocery store, you may notice a new word on the vegetable price tags - heirloom. About 26 years ago when an Iowa couple became pioneers of seed preservation, they didn't think they'd get such an enthusiastic response.

Diane Whealy and her husband, Kent, began their heirloom seed operation more than 25 years ago in Decorah, Iowa. Their goal is to preserve varieties of fruit, vegetable and flower seeds which were grown before hybridization. Diane is standing in the middle of her annual garden, which is planted with heirloom flowers.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)
HUNGARIAN HEART, CHEROKEE PURPLE, CZECH'S EXCELLENT YELLOW and Dad's Mug are just four of the 4,000 tomato varieties grown and stored at Heritage Farm in Decorah. More than 18,000 treasured vegetable varieties are cultivated at the 173-acre farm nestled among limestone bluffs, winding streams and century-old white pines in northeastern Iowa. The description of the farm makes Heritage sound more like a tourist attraction than a genetic diversity project. These days, it's both.

Touring the preservation gardens, Seed Savers co-founder Diane Whealy points out the diverse array of plants that will make future crops possible. It all started with one seed. Diane's great grandparents brought the seeds from Bavaria more than 100 years ago to St. Lucas, Iowa.

"As a child when I would visit my grandparents, one of my memories was sitting on my grandfather's porch which was surrounded with morning glories. It was a special memory and a special place," says Whealy.

About 26 years ago Diane asked her grandfather if he had any extra morning glory seeds to preserve the childhood memory in her own garden.

"He had seed and he gave it to me in a pill bottle," says Whealy. "And we realized - had he not given me the seed it might've been lost. We thought, 'Boy, that could happen a lot.' So we started Seed Savers with that idea - where we would identify, distribute and collect heirloom varieties of seed. So we are here today, and we hear stories like that thousands of times."

When Diane and her husband Kent started preserving seeds, they cherished each letter in addition to the seeds that came with them. Some 18,000 letters later, they're not so wistful. But Kent Whealy, a self-described preservationist, is still proud of the history they've preserved. He says they have seeds in their collection that came over on the Mayflower, varieties carried by the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, lettuces Thomas Jefferson grew at Montecello, and tomato seeds General Lee sent to his family during the Civil War.

In addition to preserving history, the Whealys hope to preserve the environment as well. Kent Whealy says farms planted with one or two vegetables are vulnerable to more pathogens and insects than a farm planted with a variety of crops. If the environmental argument isn't convincing enough, Whealy says the taste of an heirloom tomato speaks for itself.

Employee Angie Ottison is harvesting seeds from one of the heirloom tomato varieties, Speckled Romans. The seeds are squeezed into small plastic dishes, allowed to ferment for a few days, then rinsed, dried and stored.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)
"We all know what a grocery store tomato tastes like - hybrid varieties that all ripen on the same day so they can be machine harvested. They have to have tough skins and solid flesh, not only to withstand mechanical harvesting but also so they can be shipped across the country. Folks don't keep varieties around for 150 years if the taste isn't really excellent," says Kent Whealy.

In the barn, the garden crew slices open Dwarf Red Early tomatoes and squeezes the seeds into small plastic dishes. Angie Ottison cleans a tub of Speckled Roman tomato seeds.

"After the seeds ferment for a couple days - which kills disease that could be carried over - we take a strainer, pour the seeds into it, and with a sprayer spray and clean all the tomato residue off," Ottison explains.

The seeds are then dried and stored.

In 1980, Kent Whealy says he and Diane started compiling inventories of all the mail order varieties available. A number of alternative seed companies have started since the Whealys broke ground.

"When Diane and I started this work 26 years ago, there was almost no awareness of the dangers of genetic erosion or heirloom varieties. It's really gaining quite a bit of momentum now," he says.

Before they expand any farther, the Whealys say their priority is preserving the quality of what they already have in their inventory. But they'd have a hard time rejecting any new seeds.

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