JW’s Farm: Preserving Heirloom Plants

Jul 22, 2010 Comments Off by EcoFlirt

It’s a startling statistic. In 1981, the number of seed varieties in catalogs was 5,000; today that number has dwindled to about 500. That decline is a stark representation of the effect of corporations’ greater control over the supply and distribution of seeds. Their concern? Bottom line.

Anyone who has seen Food, Inc. knows how seed companies threaten genetic diversity. (If you haven’t seen Food, Inc., put in on your Netflix queue immediately.) Corporations develop hybrids that resist pests, endure long shipping times, create higher yields, etc. Two primary results occur: the immediate result is that we consume fruits and vegetables created for commercial viability, not flavor; the long-term result is that we lose the tradition of preserving unique varieties of plants that were grown for hundreds of years for their distinct advantages.

JW's Farm

Jim Weller and Debbi Musika at the JW's Farm booth at Atherton Market

Enter JW’s Farm. JW’s is a micro-farm that brings fresh, local produce to Charlotte while preserving heirloom varieties of plants. You can find JW at the Atherton Market in one of the most beautiful, colorful booths in the room. His produce is not the kind you see in grocery stores, which is his point exactly: these gorgeous heirloom varieties deserve to be protected. I asked JW about his work with heirlooms, what he does, and what we as consumers can do to protect genetic diversity as well.

JW: Let me begin by clarifying my position on hybrid seed. One might come away with the impression that I believe there to be something inherently evil about plant hybridization. This is not the case. I view the development of hybrid seed as a tool that can be used toward a positive or negative end. My issue is not specifically with the hybrids, but rather with the trend toward limited availability of open pollinated plant seed, and the resulting threat to genetic diversity.

EcoFlirt: Why did you begin to work with heirloom varieties of plants?
JW: Initially I became interested in heirloom and open pollinated garden plant varieties as a curiosity. Sometime in the mid ’80s I began to read articles in the homestead oriented magazines about heirloom plants. An heirloom variety is by loose definition one which was handed down from generation to generation in a family. Sometimes an arbitrary date is used as a cutoff point as to what constitutes an heirloom, but they are essentially open-pollinated varieties that have been selected and treasured for some trait. It might be taste, coloration, suitability to a specific climate, or any other characteristic that would make it worthy of preservation. I was initially lured by the colorful names and faces.

EcoFlirt: How have hybrids affected farming — and hence, the foods we eat?
JW: The use of hybrid seed has had the effect of farmers becoming more dependent upon seed companies. Where once we would have saved our own seed from season to season, the lure of more and bigger fruit, increased disease resistance, etc. had all but ended the practice of seed saving by the late 20th century. As family farms disappeared, the opportunity [presented] for big business to apply the techniques of manufacturing (which was also disappearing) to farming. Along with this trend came the focus upon plant varieties that shipped and stored well, were uniform in size and appearance, etc. The produce sections of supermarkets became filled with beautiful yet bland tasting food. As consumers, we pretty much took this for granted until the recent wave of interest in safe and healthy local food. 

EcoFlirt: How are hybrid seeds created?
JW: In a nutshell, hybrid plant seed is created by cross pollinating plants. I won’t re-invent the wheel by way of a lengthy discussion here, but will instead provide this link as a point of reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_seed

EcoFlirt: Do hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables taste or appear differently than non-hybrid varieties? If so, what accounts for these differences?
JW: They may or may not. Once again, it depends on what the breeder was selecting for. I would say the quest for profitability would be the driving factor.

EcoFlirt: What are the dangers of hybridization?
JW: The danger lies in our dependency on seed companies that are part of a conglomeration. The availability of fewer varieties (different names notwithstanding) and sources place us at risk of losing the genetic diversity of our seed stocks. Think of what might happen if we got to the point in the world where only hybrid seed were available from a single source? Unchecked, we could be looking at something analogous to the BP oil spill in terms of worldwide crop failures. Monoculture itself presents huge opportunities for specialized diseases and pests. More and more potent chemical agents only add to the unsustainable nature of the system.

EcoFlirt: How does JW’s Farm work to prevent the ill effects of hybridization?
JW: I’ve made a commitment to support those who have made it their business to preserve genetic diversity. If I don’t save my own seed, I can at least be part of the solution by letting my seed dollars go toward a worthy cause.

EcoFlirt: How can we as consumers help support the preservation of genetic diversity of seeds?
JW: As enlightened consumers, we can make a conscious effort to support seed savers. This can be done by getting involved in seed saving, by buying garden seed from seed savers, or by simply making a conscious decision to buy local produce from those of us who are trying to make a difference.

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So, enlightened EcoFlirt consumers, let’s support seed savers and genetic diversity of plants. For a good start (and a great shopping experience), visit JW Farms booth at the Atherton Market and read his very informative blog. JW’s produce will also be used at the new Luna’s Living Kitchen in South End, right next to the market. 

If you’re looking for something delicious to make with your haul of heirloom tomatoes, JW offers an irresistible recipe for Salsa – Italian Style. Delizioso!

Local Food
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