By: Gary Paul Nabhan
Heirloom Gardener • Summer 2013
A third of a century ago, an unprecedented grassroots movement emerged from American soil.It is a movement that is still alive, one for which Heirloom Gardener magazine has become the freshest and mostly-widely read source of information and inspiration. It may well be worth your while to reflect on the origins of the social change movement to which you belong, for it is a wellspring of food diversity, and as such, an important counter-current to modern agriculture.
Of Course , humans have been saving and exchanging seeds for ten millennia, but a century ago, Americans fell under the spell of a collective amnesia: they began to allow national and international seed catalogs to provide them with the bulk of the seeds they grew, and the vast majority of grafted saplings of the fruit and nut trees they transplanted to their home orchards. While the D. Landreth Seed Company — the oldest in the U.S.—began in 1784, and the Stark Brothers began distributing grafted fruit trees as early as 1816, rural families regarded these sources of plant materials as supplemental to those which they conserved in the home nursery, their root cellar, and their seed caches.
Other commercial sources of food plant diversity were initially welcomed by farmers and gardeners across the United States, but the American populace gradually lost the skills of saving seeds and grafting fruit trees gathered from their own landscapes. By around the time of the first Earth Day and the Southern Corn Blight in 1970, the consolidation of the seed industry began to accelerate.
Within the next decade, hundreds of small regional and local seed suppliers had been bought out and merged into large multi-nationals. Most of their localadapted “heirloom” vegetable, fruit and grain varieties were dropped from the catalogs after these mergers and hostile take-overs occurred. When the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the corn blight of the 1970s was due to the over-dependence on monoculture, plant scientists, and farmers conceded that the genetic base of American agriculture had become dangerously narrowed. One of the first to sound the alarm beyond the scientific community was the crop genetic conservationist, Garrison Wilkes:
“Given the needs of the future, genetic resources can be considered one of society’s most valuable raw materials. …But genetic erosion [is now occurring with] the loss of landraces and heritage crops—biotypes—that have been in families for a long time.”