Heirloom Vegetables

Heirloom Vegetables

Part of Ep. 701 The Heirloom Garden Pt. 1

Visit the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.  The focus of this organization is to save heirloom varieties of vegetables, flowers and fruits.

Premiere date: Mar 06, 1999

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Well, this is a first. The Wisconsin Gardener isn't in Wisconsin anymore. We're at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. I'm with Kent Whealy, one of the founders of Seed Savers Exchange. This is a wonderful organization that devotes most of its time to saving heirloom varieties of vegetables, flowers and fruit. Kent, can we start out with a definition of what is an heirloom vegetable?

Kent:
Shelley, we think of heirlooms, actually, as these gardening treasures that have been passed down from generation to generation within families. Our main focus here at Seed Savers and at Heritage Farm has always been these heirloom varieties that gardeners and farmers invariably brought with them when their families immigrated to North America.

Shelley:
So, they were very precious.

Kent:
Certainly. They always brought the best of their varieties with them. It was sort of a link to the old country. It let them continue to enjoy the foods that they loved.

Shelley:
Do you have one that's a favorite example of an heirloom?

Kent:
Let me show you one that's right here. This is Chioggia Beet, which came into this country in the 1880s. It is just a
beautiful-- zoning with this red and white. It's totally unique. We've never seen another one like it and we're keeping about 200 varieties of beets here at Heritage Farm. Actually, this is one of 14 gardens here. We are maintaining a collection of 18,000 varieties, and growing out about 2,000 of them a summer.

Shelley:
Wow. And most of these varieties aren't something we're going to see at the grocery store, either.

Kent:
Certainly not. These heirloom varieties-- most of them have never been available commercially and have always just been passed down from generation to generation within farm families.

Shelley:
How did you get started in such an enormous project?

Kent:
Well, let me show you the variety that actually started Seed Savers. This is actually the seed that started the seed exchange. This is Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory. It was brought to northeast Iowa from Bavaria in the 1870s by Diane's great-grandparents. And her grandfather gave it to us. As you can see, it's just incredibly vigorous. It grows to the eaves of the barn every year.

Shelley:
You replant it every year? This is all from one season's growth?

Kent:
Well, it comes up from the seed that's dropped from the previous year's pods. So, you never have to replant it. It always self-seeds.

Shelley:
Wow. What does the flower look like on something like this?

Kent:
It's a beautiful little morning glory that's purple and has a red star in it's throat, so just absolutely gorgeous.

Shelley:
So, from this seed, you and your wife Diane created Seed Savers Exchange?

Kent:
Well, after Diane's grandfather passed away, we realized that if the family seeds were to survive, that it was up to us. So then, we founded Seed Savers and started building this network. It's now 8,000 gardeners who are maintaining and distributing heirloom varieties.

Shelley:
And this is all over the country and the world.

Kent:
Certainly.

Shelley:
And you said you grew 18,000 different varieties that you're saving here. One of the things that's always fascinated me are some of the stories behind these heirlooms.

Kent:
Yes, it's an incredible cultural heritage. For instance, this is a pepper that's called Jimmy Nardello's Sweet Italian Frying Pepper. It was traditionally fried and peeled and eaten. But it was brought into this country, into New York, in the 1870s from a village in southern Italy.

Shelley:
Now, I love the stories. I have to admit, that's one of the things that did capture me. But there are other reasons to be saving these heirlooms, aren't there?

Kent:
Yes, certainly. Probably the most important is the loss of genetic diversity. You have to realize, that this is all of the genetic material that we'll have for breeding the food crops of the future.

Shelley:
That's true.

Kent:
So, we just simply can't allow it to die out right now. There have been-- probably the most famous example of an epidemic that was caused by a lack of genetic diversity was the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. I mean, a million Irish died and a million others emigrated. But there have been other examples of epidemics, as recently as the 1970s, the southern corn blight in the southern states here in the U.S.

Shelley:
So, that's a lot closer to home.

Kent:
Certainly. And it took out 15 percent of the national crop and 50 percent of the crop in some areas. But it happened just because 76 percent of the hybrids that were being grown were based just on six parent lines. So, it was a very narrow genetic base, so when the disease hit, it took it out.

Shelley:
Because those had no resistance. So, we could be growing something here that has a resistance to a future disease or insect we don't even know about, yet.

Kent:
Certainly. That's why we're keeping so much of this. That's why we're maintaining all of this material.

Shelley:
It's the most noble reason to do this. But there's another very down-to-earth reason for us home gardeners, which is taste.

Kent:
Certainly. As a home gardener, we don't have to-- we're not concerned with grocery store tomatoes that are grown in California and shipped halfway across the country, and machine harvested. We're concerned with flavor and tenderness. As an example, let me pick one of these. This one is called Tommy Toe. And it's a wonderful little tomato that won a taste test over in Australia recently. They did a taste test with 100 of the most flavorful heirlooms that they knew about.

Shelley:
Just an heirloom taste test, then?

Kent:
This one won. So, it's incredible.

Shelley:
And as you're saying, we can grow very tender varieties that don't keep well, because they just have to go from our back yard into our kitchen.

Kent:
Yes, certainly. Try this one.

Shelley:
Or, we can grow them in our back yard and all they have to do is go to our mouth!

Kent:
Yes.

Shelley:
Thanks very much, Kent. This is certainly one of the reasons I save heirlooms.

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