Rescuing heirloom seeds for Australians

Kent and Diane Whealy founded Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) in Iowa in 1970.

Anxious to keep precious heirlooms in circulation, they heard about a legendary watermelon that had moon-like markings and star-like dots that had disappeared from US catalogues in 1920.

A local US TV station picked up the story and an old farmer who still grew it passed on a few seeds to SSE. Watermelon ‘Moon & Stars’ soon became the poster child of the heirloom seed movement.

Today, Seed Savers has 20,000 cultivars of vegetables properly named and true-to-type that have been grown by migrants from South and North America, Europe, Asia and even Australia in their seed banks, continually renewed on 10 year rotations.

The iconic barn at Seed Savers Exchange

How did Diggers get involved?

I read a story about SSE and visited Iowa in 1991. David Cavagnaro was the farm manager and he was de-tasselling and bagging corn to avoid pollen contamination. If he stopped to talk with me his precious heirloom strains would be lost, so I helped him for three hours until the female cobs and male tassels were isolated from each other.

I realised that David was probably the most knowledgeable vegetable grower in the world – after all, he had personally grown many of the 12,000 varieties in the SSE collection at that time.

I had to return home but as luck would have it, I asked David if we could grow out his most interesting heirlooms in Australia. He sent Diggers about 100 tomatoes which we grew at Heronswood.

Top gardeners and chefs raved about the taste compared with the rock hard supermarket hybrids. Kevin Heinze, our local garden guru, said when he tried the taste test winner ‘Tommy Toe’ that “it was the best tomato he had eaten in 50 years.”

David flew out for the event and did the first of four lecture tours which created such demand for heirloom seeds (way before the US) that Diggers had to set up its own production garden at Seymour (called Heritage Farm) in 1992.

I didn’t realise at the time that David was a world-class photographer, an author and biologist, as well as a gardener. He inspired all of us at Diggers instantly, but the heirloom re-introductions took another 20 years to reach mainstream Australians.

Diggers has been supporting SSE for nearly 20 years and the rescue of heirloom vegetables as an exchange goes both ways. We have sent SSE Silverbeet ‘Five Colour Mix’ and rescued Australian heirlooms like Lettuce ‘Australian Yellow Leaf’ and Cucumber ‘Richmond Green Apple’.

Some facts from Seed Savers Exchange

Heirloom seed stewardship

This is the tradition of sharing seeds from neighbour to neighbour, friend to friend, mother to daughter, generation to generation. SSE pulls together people from around the globe and every culture carries with it distinct seeds, foods, and culinary traditions. Heirloom seeds are passed down in communities and families, outside of commerce.

Historic seed trade

As recently as the early 1990s, most farmers and gardeners saved at least some of their own seed. Commercial seed companies developed and introduced many new vegetable varieties over the years, but every year they also add and drop varieties based on their commercial demand.

By growing open-pollinated heirloom varieties in your garden, you are helping to maintain heirloom, historic and rare seeds for future generations. Gardeners, seed savers and family members have donated thousands of varieties to Seed Savers Exchange. Each year SSE grow between 500 and 700 varieties from about 40 different crop types and observe them closely in the field.

What’s wrong with genetically engineered seeds?

Genetically engineered seeds have been developed as a vehicle to extend the sale of weedicides and pesticides. Totally reliant on the protection of patents, they give corporations, for the first time, ownership of life forms, turning seeds into software!

Relying on evolutionary improvements developed over 12,000 years, GM corporations have been granted complete ownership over plants with only one laboratory-spliced gene inserted into hundreds of thousands of naturally evolved genes.

These genetically engineered organisms (corn, cotton, soy and canola) confer herbicide tolerance to proprietary-owned chemicals such as broad spectrum RoundUp™, so that a blanket spraying kills all green life except the GM crop.

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