Guest Post: Devin Ingersoll, Farm Outreach Coordinator
As the snow continues to fall, the Farm staff and volunteers are getting rather antsy to start planting. This Friday we are hoping to start our first trays of flowers and even plant lettuce directly into the soil of our new hoophouse! Even though it is much too cold outside, we have been very busy ordering seeds, planning our crop rotation, and shoveling the sides of the hoop houses after each storm so that they don’t collapse under all the weight of this snow.
As we order seeds, we choose heirloom organic seeds to plant whenever cost allows. Seed selection is critical to success come harvest time, and as farmers we can also play a role in investing in diverse and organic varieties. There are hundreds of varieties out there but some are more important in terms of diversity and sustainability than others. We aim to sow seeds that increase genetic diversity and the health of our soil.
Our ancestors were intimately tied to the landscape around them because it was the difference between life and death. If a field or crop failed, it meant drastic changes in diet for the upcoming winter. Every year seeds were planted, cared for, and the mature vegetable/fruit harvested for consumption. Before the age of seed catalogs or supermarkets, farmers themselves selected their best plants for seed the next year. For hundreds of years, this artificial selection led to thousands of varieties (strains) of crops being grown all across the world. Each variety with traits specific to the micro-climate of the region it was grown in. The best varieties were passed down from generation to generation, increasing the genetic pool and biodiversity even further.
As industrialization swept the nation in the early 20th century, the farm landscape in America began to drastically change. Farmers began to operate under the mantra of “get big or get out”. Farms increased in size and farmers decreased in number. The larger seed companies began to sell new hybrid varieties developed through cutting edge research. Hybrids are a cross between two related but distinct varieties chosen for a particular trait like durability, or disease resistance. If a farmer plants a seed from a hybrid, the resulting plants will actually look like the parent generation with only one of the two desired traits the hybrid offers – meaning a farmer cannot save the seed from a hybrid for the next growing season and expect it to look or taste exactly like that year’s harvest. Instead, farmers must purchase the hybrid seed from the large seed companies to keep growing plants with both desired traits.
It became less and less likely to find the open-pollinated varieties that could be saved from season to season in seed catalogs or in farmer fields. Home gardeners did still use open pollinated varieties and selected for traits the farmer did not value; these open-pollinated seeds, saved beginning prior to 1940, are termed “heirlooms”.
As the small seed companies consolidated in the 20th century, many varieties of seed ceased to exist. For instance in the 1800’s farmers in the US cultivated 7,100 distinctly named varieties of apples, today 6,800 of these are extinct. Heirloom vegetables perform one major function for the human race. These heirlooms preserve genetic diversity, therefore adding to biodiversity in the region.
Jack Harland, a respected scientist, explained that crop diversity is a “genetic resource that stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine.” Here at The Farm at Stonehill, we aim to preserve the genetic diversity of our heritage by growing heirloom varieties and saving seed to plant the coming year. As climate change begins to negatively impact the environment around us, the genetic diversity stored in seeds may again mean the difference between life and death. A farmer suffering from droughts due to climate change may still be able to put food on the table by planting just one of the thousands of potato varieties available. However, if humans do not grow, save, and grow again all of the genetically diverse cultivars, we are gambling with the future of the ecosystem that supports us, and our own survival.
That is why The Farm at Stonehill aims to grow as many heirloom varieties as possible given the amount of land and resources we have. Just some of the organic heirloom varieties we grow to distribute to our four community partners are pictured below.
Watch below a great Ted talk on the importance of genetic diversity and the biggest seed vault in the world:
Information on heirloom variety history taken from resources below: