Saving the Planet One Seed At A Time
Susan Carson Lambert
Ever wonder where the seed comes from for all those Heirloom tomatoes you see at the Franklin County Farmer’s Market? Many of those tomatoes are ancient. To be labeled an heirloom the lineage must be traceable for 50 years. The women of the Garden Club of Frankfort were curious about heirloom tomatoes so they invited Gary Millwood – otherwise knows as the “Tomato Man” to come talk with them at their August 10th meeting. The moniker is well deserved after hearing his talk about old tomato varieties. Millwood now lives in Eastern Jefferson County
Millwood learned about farming from his grandparents who were tenant farmers in South Carolina and his parents who were city folks, but still grew flowers and vegetables. His life’s work was in service to the church. He worked for children’s homes as an administrator and stockman and gardener. He grew vegetables to feed the children and staff at the home. In the 90’s he had health problems which eventually required him to retire from his staff position.
By 2000 he was recovered enough to begin growing again, but not on the same scale as before. He began to focus on heirloom tomatoes. A friend got him started by giving him some seed for the “Granny Cantrell’s German” tomato. He loved the tomato and that was it. He was off trying to find more heirloom seeds. Once word got out that he was collecting Kentucky tomato seeds people began sending him seed. Gary shared a lot of source material with me to for writing this article. It is amazing how many varieties of heirlooms there are just here in Kentucky. Here are a couple examples: Kentucky Plate- potato-leaf plant with a smooth pink beefsteak fruit, 1-1.5 lbs each. Excellent taste and good yield. Resembles Brandywine. Indeterminate. Here’s another – Kentucky Amish Oxheart - Casey County Heirloom, very large, red oxheart, great flavor, variable shape, regular leaf, solid texture, good production. These are just two examples out of many pages of reference material. This guy knows his heirloom tomatoes!
There are several organizations for saving seed, the one of the most prevalent is the Seed Savers Exchange. SSE is a nonprofit organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. When people grow and save seeds, they join an ancient tradition as stewards, nurturing our diverse, fragile, genetic and cultural heritage.
The SSE organization is saving the world’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity. Few gardeners comprehend the true scope of their garden heritage or how much is in immediate danger of being lost forever.
There are other organizations Millwood works with, the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy AHSC is dedicated to preserving Appalachia's edible heritage, this young non-profit has already added 50 regional varieties to its seed bank, and is preserving several hundred more. Since so many of these rare heirlooms came as just a few seeds from a single source, the AHSC is currently building inventory. In time, they plan offer these seeds to AHSC members and others. They published a quarterly newsletter, with info on what they grow and how you can help preserve heirlooms from the Appalachians. Their email is: KentuckySeeds@hotmail.com ACHS will have a conference this fall Oct 5 – 7 in Berea at the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center.
Gary is active in another organization the Cincinnati Heirloom Open Pollinated Tomato Associate Growers CHOPTAG. They are an organization specifically devoted to share their appreciation for heirloom tomato gardening. They have plant swaps in the spring and tomato tastings in the late summer. The most recent was August 18th. Each grower puts all of her/his tomatoes on a picnic table and everyone tastes the tomatoes.
According to the International Seed Saving Institute. We are on the verge of losing in one generation, much of the agricultural diversity humankind created in the last 10,000 years. The International Seed Saving Institute, a non-profit, non-governmental educational organization was founded as a response. Central to their strategy is the seed saving ritual, a ritual as old as civilization, a ritual in many ways responsible for civilization. Saving heirloom seed, not just tomatoes, is very important. Biodiversity in the agriculture community is vital for all the same reasons as in natural communities. If we grow only a few varieties of anything there is a good chance the variety could be wiped out if some killing disease came along which affected it. If there are many kinds of plants growing with different strengths and proclivities - where one variety may fail, another might be unaffected and flourish. Monocultures of anything are generally not a good idea. For the welfare of our future and to maintain our genetic heritage saving heirloom seeds is imperative. If you save your own heirloom seeds you are saving money because you don’t have to purchase seed next spring, you can give them as gifts (other gardeners love this) and you know what kind of tomato you’re going to get when you grow them next year - because they are your own seeds. AND in a small way you are contributing to the welfare of the planet.
Here is a site that tells how to save tomato seeds.
Like Gary Millwood, I am a gardener. I have first hand experience with heirloom tomatoes as I grew 5 varieties from seed in my greenhouse this spring. They are coming in right now. They start and grow well. They are not fussy and grow on strong vines and produce like crazy. Unlike some hybrids I’ve grown that demand water and pout and wilt when they don’t get enough, these heirlooms have survived this wretched summer we’ve all lived through and are pumping out so many tomatoes its overwhelming.
If you have not experienced heirloom tomatoes (note I did not say EAT) go down to the Franklin County Farmer’s Market Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday morning and pick some up. Heirloom tomatoes compared to the insipid tomatoes available in the grocery store is like the difference between driving a ‘66 GTO and a ’66 Dodge Dart. Go for the GTO and the Heirlooms!
As a side note, I would take a Dodge Dart over a GTO any day. I have owned a couple in my life and really love the ugly little Darts. But I will always choose an heirloom mater over an insipid round red orb