The Importance of Heirloom Seeds

As we work to build a local food economy in central Appalachia, our unique food heritage should be a key feature. On Monday, the Lexington Herald-Leader published an editorial from Bill Best, a farmer from Berea, KY and a preserver of heirloom vegetables. Best took exception to an article from the New York Times which cast heirlooms as an outdated marketing ploy. The editorial, posted below, details some of the wonderful varieties of tomatoes and beans that have been cultivated in Kentucky for generations.

We talk about the importance of local knowledge when building our economies; heirloom varieties are just one example of that knowledge. Pole beans "born and raised" in Appalachia are more likely to thrive here than a variety cultivated in California or Iowa because it's already attuned to the soil, the climate and the weather. (Not to mention that heirlooms sell for a premium at grocery stores and Farmers' Markets!) In the New York Times article, the CEO of Burpee (a large seed company) says, "Heirlooms were varieties that were so unsuccessful that they wouldn't be sold today." Perhaps they're unsuccessful at being grown anywhere in the country, but Bill Best counters that by citing several heirlooms that have been thriving here for decades.

Whether or not you prefer the taste of heirloom varieties, they are important parts of our past and should be important parts of building our future. Food is integral in most cultures, whether it's tamales, gumbo, or a simmering pot of soup beans. Growing and enjoying the same types of foods our grandparents did provides a touchstone to Appalachian heritage that should be preserved and honored.

Heirloom seeds thrive, grow great-tasting produce

The New York Times article by Michael Tortorello was riddled with incorrect information on many fronts.

As a lifelong farmer growing heirloom vegetables for the past 49 years, for the past 10 years I have also directed a not-for-profit organization dedicated to making heirloom beans and tomatoes of the Southern Appalachians available throughout the U.S., Canada and, occasionally, other countries.

I am the sole remaining charter member of the Lexington Farmers Market founded in 1972, and also directed the Berea Farmers Market for 35 years, from 1973 through 2007. I still actively participate in both.

The comment by Rob Johnson, of Johnny's Selected Seeds, that small market growers and home gardeners have better seed choices in modern hybrid crosses that "produce a more vigorous plant, resistant to diseases" is misleading at best.

Certainly, most hybrid tomatoes produce vigorous vines along with tough-skinned tomatoes that could double as baseballs if necessary. Many such tomatoes can survive off the vine for months in storage before being gassed to give them color and still survive on grocery shelves for another 35 days.

But who wants or needs a vitamin-free, lycopene-free tomato with the texture of Styrofoam and the taste of formaldehyde?

Johnson compares heirlooms to antique cars and wonders why anyone would be attracted to a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe. I compare the modern hybrid tomato, especially those bred for shipping, to automobiles also — the Edsel, the Pinto and the Yugo.

These were three wonderful cars in the minds of the designers and engineers, but the public never agreed and all three bit the dust, as most hybrid tomatoes do as well.

In the meantime, heirlooms survive and thrive, and I will honor four from Kentucky.

The Vinson Watts tomato was lovingly cared for by Vinson Watts for 52 years, longer than the lifespan of most hybrids. Each summer he saved the seeds of those tomatoes that were most disease resistant, tender and of exceptional flavor. His neighbors, first in Berea from 1956 through 1967 and later in Morehead from 1968 through March of 2008 when he died at the age of 78, were very aware of the improvements he was making. His tomato is now highly regarded in many countries.

Three other Kentucky tomatoes have similar stories. Brown's Yellow Giant, worked on by Claude Brown of Pike County for decades, is now known nationwide. Zeke Dishman, of Windy in Wayne County, also worked on his large red tomato for decades and continues to this day. And Willard Wynn, first of Harlan County and later of Rockcastle County, worked on his Yellow German tomato for decades.

The corporate insults to the tomato are mild compared to what has happened to the humble bean, the mainstay of so many peoples' diets for millennia and a primary source of protein.

The modern bean is tough as leather and more suited for making sandals than for food. Its designer genes were implanted so that it wouldn't break during mechanical harvest. And it is now essentially protein free since it must be harvested before the seeds appear to be edible at all.

The article quotes George Ball, CEO of W. Atlee Burpee & Company, as saying: "Today greener-than-thou gardeners crusade for heirloom seeds while unjustly condemning hybrids. Increasingly, their anti-science credo has hardened into a Luddite fundamentalism." He then follows with: "Heirlooms were varieties that were so unsuccessful that they wouldn't be sold today."

Ball needs to take a leave of absence from his CEO duties and work as an intern for me one year. After we have finished the summer and fall work of raising heirloom beans, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other vegetables and saving their seeds for distribution throughout the land, I could then take him on a two-week trip through the Southern Appalachians and introduce him to gardeners in their nineties who have been lifelong and fifth-generation seed savers.

They are also many of the people who have given me the seeds which comprise my tomato collection of over 50 varieties and my bean collection of over 500 varieties.

Bill Best is a Berea farmer.