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    Living Links | Summer 2013 Out Here Magazine

    Seeds laid out on newspaper to dry - Tractor Supply Co.
    The Heirloom Seed Project has collected 200 varieties of seeds dating from 1790 to 1940, including tomatoes, corn, beans, carrots, and flax.

    Seed Project recognized the value of heirlooms decades ago

    By Jodi Helmer

    Photography by Heirloom Seed Project

    The stories behind the heirloom seeds are nearly as remarkable as the fruit they produce.

    Some seeds were tucked into German immigrants' dress hems as they voyaged across the ocean. Others were purchased at general stores back in the 1700s and consistently passed down through several generations.

    But of all of the stories that Irwin Richman, research associate and historian at the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster, Pa., has heard about heirloom seeds, one in particular stands out.

    The Mostoller Wild Goose Bean was named for the farmers who found seeds tucked into the craw of a Canada goose that died in Somerset County, Pa., in 1865. Plant pathologists traced the bean back to Indian tribes in Canada.

    "It's one of the most romantic heirloom seed stories that I know," says Irwin, author of Pennsylvania German Farms, Gardens and Seeds.
    That bean remains one of the most popular heirloom varieties of pole beans sold through the farm museum's Heirloom Seed Project — a venture that began more than 25 years ago, making it one of the predecessors to the current wave of heirloom seed popularity.

    A group of volunteers — Lee Stoltzfus, Steve Miller, and Nancy Pippart — formed the Heirloom Seed Project at the farm museum after they realized that the Pennsylvania Germans around the county preserved their prized seed varieties that grew so well.

    The seeds — along with the stories attached to them — were living links to the past that were in danger of dying off with other remnants of a bygone era, so the three founders reached out to Amish, Mennonite, and other Pennsylvania German farmers around the county who had saved heirloom seeds for generations. From that, the Heirloom Seed Project was established in 1985 to preserve both the historic seed varieties and their stories.

    While Stoltzfus, Miller, and Pippart collected heirloom seeds, they also invited the public to donate seeds whose roots could be traced back for generations. To date, the program has collected 200 varieties of seeds dating from 1790 to 1940, including tomatoes, corn, beans, carrots, and flax.

    "We find out as much as we can about the seeds we're given and we get some great stories," says Beth Leensvaart, assistant coordinator for the project.

    The project's volunteers perform germination tests and cultivate the seeds, taking great care to avoid cross-pollination.

    "Buying seeds that are known local producers minimizes the likelihood of crop failure," Irwin says. "If a plant has been successful from generation to generation, it has withstood the test of time and proven itself to be a strong (variety)."

    The seeds are collected, dried, and cleaned, often with the same traditional methods as their original owners used — sifting the seeds through screens and storing them in canning jars.

    But saving heirloom seeds is about more than wistful stories, the wish for a simpler time, and historic significance.

    "Buying seeds that are known local producers minimizes the likelihood of crop failure," Irwin says. "If a plant has been successful from generation to generation, it has withstood the test of time and proven itself to be a strong (variety)."

    Growing heirlooms also preserves biodiversity, resulting in a rich array of unique vegetables and fruits, rather than a limited selection. Most retail and wholesale seeds are hybrids — a cross between two varieties to get the best characteristics of each — and the expense of producing them results in fewer varieties. But perhaps the most gratifying reason to plant heirloom seeds is the taste.

    "A lot of heirloom vegetables have a taste," Irwin says, "that is unmatched by modern varieties."

    Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina writer.