The seed packet instructions say, "Store in a cool dry place." How about the North Pole? The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway’s Arctic Svalbard archipelago is one of the world’s largest depositories of our planet's genetic plant record in the form of seeds. There copies of seeds from other seeds banks around the globe are stored for free to help ensure plant diversity for future generations.
But we have seed savers close to home too. Farmers like Fred Hempel and his team at Baia Nicchia Farm and Nursery in Sunol, CA (Alameda County) are preserving heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and squash. And they don’t just save the seeds, but plant them too, and grow unique and outstanding heirloom vegetables.
Why do we even need seed savers? Biodiversity activist Cary Fowler says it’s the only way to protect the future of food. For millennium, it has been a farmer’s job to save seed for the next year’s crop. The techniques include letting some plants go past harvest and “to seed,” then threshing and sieving the seeds, and cataloging and storing them. This process is at the heart of farming which is to make selections for improving the plants. Save the seeds of the best plants and plant those next year. But very few farmers save seeds anymore. And many plants have been patented so you can’t use their seeds, if they even have any.
Why did we stop saving seeds? In the modern agricultural era, what was neighbor-to-neighbor seed exchange became the business of seed catalogs and then larger seed companies. Mechanized cultivations of vast amber waves of grain and the changing American appetite precipitated a demanded for uniformity of crops. The 1930 Plant Patent Act allowed for the patent of asexual, hybrid, or sports (mutants) after the work of master botanist Luther Burbank. This paved the way for a commercial bonanza for some companies, as farmers had to buy seed each year since hybrid plants are often sterile.
Heirloom seeds are seeds with stories, often favorite varieties brought to the U.S. by immigrants, and special features of taste or color. Baia Nicchia grows many heirloom varieties such as the Bianco di Palermo, a white zucchini that, contrary to green zukes, is best at 10”-14" long. Their Potimarron Squash, originally from France, is a bright vermillion winter squash that Fred Hempel harvested in summer and found it to have a delightful chestnut flavor. Part historians, part librarians, part chefs, and part scientists, Fred and his team exemplify the current small farm movement. Fred has a PhD in plant biology, his partner Jill Shepard is a gardener and chef, and farmers Caroline Geubels and Dan Swansey are soil scientists. They farm at the Sunol Water Temple AgPark, which is managed by the non-profit SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Education). They select their vegetables to grow based on taste, Fred says, "We don't work on a project unless it has top end flavor."
On the nursery side, Baia Nicchia (which means “Bay Niche” in Italian) fills the niche for rare tomato and pepper seedling varieties for Bay Area gardeners. They have been recognized by seed organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange for their impeccable growing methodology. The seeds from their exquisite Maglia Rosa tomatoes are now being sold nationally by Seeds of Change, a seed catalog dedicated to organic and sustainably grown heirloom seeds.
Since the tomato season is a little late this year, you still have time to attend Baia Nichia’s workshop and tomato tasting, "Seed saving, variety selection and backyard breeding," on September 18th.
- Heidi Lewis