Attractive and colorful seed packets are blooming in garden centers. The constant promise of seeds is that they will germinate and grow providing us with healthy foods, zesty herbs and colorful flowers.
Some companies like Burpee have been around for over 100 years. Others are newer. Stories about beginnings are always fascinating and today I have stories about three newer seed companies.
When we lived in Maine in 1974-5 I learned about Johnny’s Selected Seeds when I was a member of the wonderful Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners (MOFGA) organization. Johnny’s was founded by the 22 year old Rob Johnston in 1973 and I usually buy some seed from them every year. A visit to the johnnyseeds.com website tells the story of Johnston’s first inspirations when he was a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and worked at the Yellow Sun Food Cooperative and goes on to tell the history of the farm and the business.
The history of the farm includes prizes for their plant breeding which includes Sunshine kabocha squash, Bon Bon buttercup squash, Honey Bear acorn squash, Baby Bear pie pumpkin, Diva seedless cucumber, and Carmen sweet pepper, all of which were chosen as All America Selections, and all were bred by Johnny’s. They are also one of the nine original signers of the Safe Seed Initiative which pledges they will not knowingly sell GMO seeds, and in 2015 Johnny’s became an employee owned company. In 2016 Johnny’s breeder, and Johnston’s wife, Janika Eckert, was awarded the 2016 All America Selections Breeders Cup.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com, is a newer company, founded by another young farmer in 1998 with a particular passion for heirlooms. Jere Gettler was only 17 when he sent out his first catalog; nowadays he offers nearly 2,000 heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers. This is the largest collection of heirloom seed in the United States, and it includes varieties from Europe and Asia.
Many of the vegetables pictured in his large catalog are not likely to be found anywhere else. It’s fun to browse through and find wonders like the French Jaune Paille Des Vertus, a long keeping onion introduced c. 1793; the large Old Greek melon; Italian Verde de Taglio chard; Turkish Striped Monastery tomato; and Thai Chao Praya eggplant. There is also a variety of herbs, and even flowers.
Gettle must be an amazing businessman as well as a great seedsman. In addition to their farm and headquarters in Missouri, they opened a store, the Petaluma Seed Bank in California that sells 1800 varieties of seed, and more recently bought the Comstock Ferre Seed Company in Wethersfield, Connecticut. He also instituted the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California. His concern is that we all need to know where our food comes from, and we shouldn’t have to worry about GMOs. In addition to selling seeds from his outlets in Missouri, California, and Connecticut he and his wife, Emilee, have written The Heirloom Life Gardener and the Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook.
Gettle is not averse to anyone saving their own seeds. The staff at the Seed Savers Exchange farm in Decorah, Iowa hope you will save your own seeds and pass them on. This non-profit was founded in 1975 by Diane Ott Wheatley and Kent Wheatley because they were concerned about the shrinking of the gene pool of our vegetable food supply.
Any tour of our local supermarkets over the course of a year will show you how few varieties of vegetables are available. We certainly have a good supply, but all the supermarket broccoli (here and everywhere) is likely to be the same variety. The Wheatley’s considered the danger if that broccoli, or any other vegetable, was hit by a blight. In 1845 much of the extremely poor Irish population was subsisting mainly on a certain variety of potato. Potatoes are a good healthy food and you can live on them alone, but in 1845 the potatoes were destroyed by a blight that was not defeated until 1851. Over a million people died from malnutrition and another million left the country, many to the United States.
The Wheatleys worked to connect gardeners with old, open pollinated varieties with others who would also grow that variety and pass it on. Nowadays the Heritage Farm in Decorah has a refrigerated seedbank that holds 20,000 varieties of seeds at below freezing temperatures. It also sells packaged seeds that you might see at a garden center, but it is till possible to contact an individual gardener to get seeds to an unusual variety. For example they offer 495 beet varieties, each named with an indication if it is commercially available, if it is rare, or if it is only available through personal contact. The list is available on line, but you have to be a member to purchase the seeds through the Exchange.
The work that Kent Wheatley did was important enough that he was awarded one of the ‘genius’ MacArthur Fellowships in 1990.
Of course there are other reputable and wonderful seed companies. I was given a link to a post about other good sources for heirloom seeds. http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/10-best-seed-companies-selected-by-readers.html like Kusa Seed Society, Territorial Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds and the Organic Seed Alliance that lists other organic seed companies.
Between the Rows January 14, 2017