The Call and Times, Column 6 – A Family Heirloom

17 03 2014

(March 7, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

A Family Heirloom – Why Local Seed-Saving Can Feed the World

“There’re some benefits to heirloom tomatoes…But can you imagine if you want to feed nine billion people, and you only get three tomatoes per plant?” Thus went some of the more passionate testimony, given by the major opponent to a proposed GMO labeling law at a hearing in the Rhode Island State House in January.

My less-than-enthusiastic opinion on genetically modified seed aside, this speaker’s anti-heirloom remarks bewildered me, because they completely contradict my own experiences. As far back as I can remember, my uncle Harry, great aunt Petrula, and great uncle Demetre have grown tomatoes from their own saved seed, planting and improving on the same lineage for the past four decades. And these heirlooms, well-known by my family simply as “the Russian tomato”, just so happen to yield more fruit than any other variety I’ve grown.

As you might have guessed, it’s seed-starting time, and I want to celebrate this most important part of the urban gardener’s year with a special column. I will discuss the benefits of heirloom seeds and seed-saving, of course, but this column also marks the first time that I will be including the voices of some skilled urban farmers from our community. Those farmers, it just so happens, are my great aunt Petrula Zervas, my uncle Harry Zervas, and my cousin Andrew Martel, who has worked extensively in his grandparents’ garden over the past few years. My great uncle Demetre passed away in 2011, but the heirloom legacy that he and his son, Harry, began so many years ago, survives and thrives with his family today.

And quite a legacy it is. The three of them recounted the story of how “the Russian tomato” came to be; of how the visit to a family friend’s garden nearly 40 years ago revealed some of the nicest tomatoes they’d seen, and some extra seed to boot; of how they planted those seeds that year, and every year after, religiously selecting only the healthiest plants and plumpest tomatoes to carry on the lineage; of the tradition that blossomed, that has led, all these years later, to 500 Russian tomato plants per year, and a lot of well-fed family, friends, and neighbors; and of how a new generation of growers and seed-savers, my cousins and even myself, is picking up the practice from our forebears.

There are numerous benefits to heirloom seeds, especially varieties that you have meticulously adapted to your own locale. Petrula couldn’t say enough about the value of saving seed. “With those seeds you save, you know exactly what you’re going to get.” Indeed, heirloom crops “come true from seed”, which means that you can plant the seeds over many generations, and they will always yield predictable quantities and qualities, similar to the characteristics of the parent generation.

And years of careful selection result in some pretty remarkable characteristics. “Heirloom vegetables are tender, sweet, juicy, and just plain delicious,” said Harry. “And the plants produce so many tomatoes,” added Andrew. Because heirloom vegetables are not bred for shelf-stability, easy harvesting, and a long ripening process, like industrial varieties, the focus is instead on nutrition, taste, and yield in the gardener’s particular area. The number of tomatoes per plant and the size of the tomatoes themselves were some of the most significant factors in my interviewees’ appreciation of their heirloom crops. In notable contrast to the testimony in the State House, the general rule is that an heirloom that is well-adapted to one’s area will yield more, higher quality produce than hybrids and genetically modified varieties.

A lot can also be said of the value of local adaptation. “You keep growing them in the same area”, explained Andrew, “They have adapted to the same environment.” Harry added, “by selecting seeds from the plants that performed best, and continuously growing them in our local soil and climate, heirlooms provide us a seed strain more resistant to local diseases, more adapted to the local soil conditions.” This is probably one of the more alluring aspects of heirloom seeds – by their very nature, they grow well where they were developed. These adaptations include resilience in the face of the local climate and microclimate, an affinity to the local soil, and, most helpfully, a specific resistance to the area’s diseases and insect pests.

For those who don’t have a familial Russian tomato of their own, similar benefits can be found, and further incorporated into, bought heirloom seeds. These seeds are available in a much wider variety of characteristics – colors, sizes and shapes, and even tastes and nutritional benefits – than are hybrid or genetically modified varieties. In addition, they tend to be significantly less expensive than hybrids, because the seed company does not need to put effort into hybridizing their crop each year. Furthermore, buying heirloom seeds from a seed company in your own area (let’s say New England), you often get the benefit of that meticulous local adaptation – and over the years, you can turn that heirloom tomato from Small State Seeds or Fedco, into your own ultra-locally-adapted masterpiece.

So what does all of this mean for the “three tomatoes per plant” dig? When I asked Petrula whether there is truth in the statement that heirloom crops can’t feed the world, she promptly replied, “No. We could feed everyone with just saved seeds.” Her pointed words resonate true, as studies are now showing that organic agriculture, of which heirloom seeds play a major role, is actually able to produce more food per acre than industrial agriculture. Andrew went on to describe the disadvantages of industrial agriculture, namely the use of pesticides, the nutritionally-deficient crops, and the long shipping distance. “The best thing you can do,” he said, “is plant them yourself – right in your own backyard,” where you can reap the benefits of organic, heirloom production.

One of the most extraordinary qualities of heirloom seed is its power to foster community and familial pride. My mom accurately described the Zervas’ story as “three generations of seed-saving”, but I would go further than that – they have tapped into a long history, filled with countless families like their own, all with the shared goal of feeding themselves by their own hands, while leaving more for Nature than she had before. Demetre, Petrula, Harry, and Andrew own the last 40 years of this tomato’s history, in which their family and friends, as well as the natural environment of Northern Rhode Island, play a requisite role. And the community’s role shouldn’t be taken lightly – as Petrula recounted, a friend of their family would bring tomatoes from the Zervas’ garden to his home in Bridgeport, “and brag to his friends – ‘look at the tomatoes they have in Woonsocket!’” Our city may not be in the best part of her history right now, but our local produce is clearly something that we should be proud of. And this is essentially what urban agriculture is about: local adaptation, on the part of the plants, and the animals, and the farmers themselves – and I, for one, wouldn’t trade that deep-rooted connection to my community and my land for anything.

The GMO bills that I mentioned above are still active in the RI General Assembly. The passage of these bills, H7042 and H7093, would make Rhode Island the third state to require the labeling of GMO foods, so I urge you to contact your Representatives and express your support.

Before I wrap up: Tomorrow, March 8th, at St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center in Woonsocket, the Blackstone Valley Independent Business Alliance will be hosting their annual Expo and Home Show. Buying from local businesses stimulates the economy, helps the environment, and results in a better standard of living for our community. More information about the expo can be found on their website, buylocalbv.org – I hope to see you there!

Demetre Holding Grapes
Demetre Zervas, holding grapes from the family’s grapevines

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.