Monday, June 4, 2012

The Seeds We Need

I’ve been thinking more about the seed industry ever since reading a copy of The Heirloom Life Gardener, by Jere and Emilee Gettle, co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

If you haven’t read the book yet, it contains, among other topics, the story of how the Gettles got started in the seed business.

Jere Gettle noticed back in the ‘70s that seed companies had begun to drop heirloom seeds from their catalogues. It turns out that, over time, seed companies had been adjusting their seed offerings to the public to favor new, hybrid varieties, and, that consolidation of seed companies in the past 20 or so years has reduced, generally, the number of varieties available to home gardeners.

The heirloom varieties are still available due primarily to the work of individuals like the founders of Baker Creek who care about those varieties and who are concerned about the possible loss of biodiversity that we might someday need.

What does this all mean for gardeners?

As the seed industry has developed innumerable hybrids, gardeners have more varieties from which to choose and can select for particular, desired characteristics, such as resistance to common diseases.

Many of the newer varieties are highly productive, but some important characteristics (flavor, for instance) have been sacrificed as other characteristics, such as the ability to produce in hot weather, are selected for.

I’m thinking here of the Heatwave tomato. I notice that this variety hasn’t been on the shelves (at least, not where I've been looking) at the local garden store this year, but a few years back it was prominently displayed and being touted as a great tomato for the South. The year I grew it, Heatwave didn’t perform as well as Rutgers, an open-pollinated variety that was developed in the ‘40s, and no one at my house would eat a second Heatwave tomato after the first one came into the kitchen. I have noticed that a Heatwave II is being offered as seeds in various catalogues, and it may be that this is a newer, tastier version.

Another wrinkle in the seed industry as it is today is that a new, favorite hybrid might disappear from the market at any time, which is annoying. I have had that experience with a canary melon. I found one that I just loved, then one year it was available through only one (expensive, specialty) seed company, and now it is gone from the marketplace.

As a home gardener, it’s hard to know how to address all the changes cropping up in the seed industry. The Gettles started a seed company to insure that a host of heirloom varieties wouldn’t be absolutely lost as the larger seed companies discontinued listing them in their catalogues. Since then, the mainstream catalogues have returned to listing more heirloom varieties, which enables them to keep customers who are looking for a broader range of varieties.

In my suburban garden, I’m working to develop a stable line from my favorite hybrid melon, and when that work is done (in an unknowable number of years), there should be enough seeds to share with pretty nearly everyone who would like to try the newly open-pollinated variety in their own gardens. I’m also saving seeds from my friend The Tomato Man’s yellow and pink Amish tomato. He first grew his Amish tomatoes from seeds he bought more than 30 years ago, and he has been saving seeds from the plants every year since then. He gave me a few plants, and now I’m saving their seeds, too, as backup.

What I’m doing isn’t as far-reaching as what the Gettles are doing, but it’s something. Most gardeners won’t have the resources (time, space) for even this much, but there are bound to be other ways to make sure that the seeds we home gardeners need are readily available over the long haul. It's likely that "voting with your money" is part of the answer, but there is probably more that can be done; I just don't know yet exactly what that is.

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