Thinking Beyond Heirlooms

Image: An image of a farmer planting crops, drawn in the Medieval style

Heirloom varieties and the stories they carry have come to hold an almost mythical status in farming and gardening culture. We sing their praises for superior flavor, nutrition and history as compared to their modern and hybrid counterparts. An heirloom, by definition, is an object of value preserved and passed down from generation to generation. When applied to plants, the definition becomes slippery. Some say a cultivar must be at least 100 years old to be considered an heirloom; some say 50 years; while others pinpoint the year 1945, which marks the end of World War II and the beginning of the widespread introduction of hybrid varieties. After that, seed companies helped solidify the concept of heirloom varieties by listing them alongside their stories, and distributing them far and wide.

For many of us, the stories seed catalogs tell of heirlooms are as delectable as the vegetables themselves. While these varieties and stories are invaluable, the ways heirlooms have been preserved commercially is not fully serving them or us. While heirlooms like fine china or jewelry can be preserved on a shelf or in a museum indefinitely, our living seed heirlooms are not well poised to withstand the changing conditions of the next 50 to 100 years.

Chris Smith of the Utopian Seed Project is passionate about seeds, seed-saving and helping build resilient and equitable food and farming systems. He says, “As a community of seed savers, we are grasping onto something that is lost but we are missing the important part. What we have to grasp onto is the one-paragraph stories in seed catalogs because they feel important, but the bigger picture is that there has been an entire collapse of the connection. We need to be connected to the land and the seeds and the people. Not to somebody else’s story.”

Often when we talk about seed saving, we’re talking about preserving genetics that worked for someone else, somewhere else, a hundred years ago. This static approach has consequences. At this point, many heirloom varieties have undergone years of inbreeding. Due to this lack of genetic diversity, they are not able to stand up to the current pressures of disease, pests and climate chaos. These plants are finding themselves in a world they don’t recognize and don’t know how to survive in.

So where do we go from here? Chris advocates for “relational seed saving” and selecting for the future. He reminds us of what people have known and practiced for generations: that ongoing coevolution of seeds with people within communities keeps varieties dynamic. “A fluid process of saving, preserving, and exchanging seeds allows for regional adaptation and transformation over time,” he says. “This process results in seed diversity at the crop, variety and genetic level.”

This approach is playing out in The Utopian Seed Project’s Collard UltraCross. A community of seed savers is helping to select 21 inter-crossed heirloom varieties towards a cold-hardy, beautifully diverse and delicious collard mix. Seeds for Collard UltraCross—offered through Southern Exposure Seeds, Ujamma Seeds, and Working Food—have the ability to jump-start community-based seed keeping.

Some Seeds with Diverse Genetics:

Relational seed saving and genetic diversity transcend the charming nostalgic idea of a time before the commercialization of seed. Diversity is essential for biological success, especially in these times of climate chaos, and is therefore essential for a resilient and sovereign food system. We must move past the goal of purity and uniformity, and of recreating that same one-paragraph story over and over, and instead allow for a more imaginative approach.

Human beings are meaning-making creatures; we crave story, which is why the heirloom holds such a deep appeal. But instead of continuing to treat heirloom seeds as treasured unchanging objects, we can shift our view and see ourselves as part of their ongoing stories. Let’s get seed back into a community process of selecting, saving and exchanging, that looks different all over the world. Let’s write the next paragraph.