Heirloom Seed Project

Ferry Seed Display

Great Lakes Heirloom Seed Trial

About the Trial

Slow Food Huron Valley will develop and help conserve the biodiversity of foods adapted to the Great Lakes region by educating the public about the environmental benefits of open-pollinated heirlooms and by enlisting growers (farmers and market growers) in providing feedback in a Great Lakes Heirloom Seed Trial. We will promote regionally-adapted foods, seed saving, and food security through biodiversity with this trial.  We also hope to foster an “heirloom community” by sharing information and hosting several events.

This project is a continuation of the 2011 Slow Food Huron Valley Great Lakes Region Heirloom Seed Trial. This pilot project is a response to the community demand and enthusiasm for heirloom seed varieties. Washtenaw County residents are active in the “Eat Local” movement, which calls for community members to buy locally grown food. Because the heirloom seed trial uses seed from the Great Lakes Region it is considered part of the “Eat Local” effort.

Participants will receive free heirloom seeds from the Great Lakes region as well as growing and marketing information in exchange for their participation and feedback. They will report on a variety of criteria including: germination rate, soil and growing conditions, pest and disease resistance, irrigation requirements, taste, yield, and comparison to similar varieties. This information will be used to create a Great Lakes Heirloom Seed database, providing descriptions of these varieties and refining instructions for growing and marketing for growers and tips for eating and cooking for the public.

Participant feedback will be used to create seed descriptions and will influence what seeds we will use in the future. The seed trial will allow SFHV to compile a database of information on different varieties through participant involvement. By identifying ideal heirloom varieties, farmers will not have to take risks to see if a particular variety is right for their farm, growing conditions, and their customer’s demand. Type of soil, amount of water, inputs needed, and taste will be reported on so that farmers can choose varieties best for their farms.

Why the Trial is Important

Conventional seed companies currently mass-produce only a few genetic varieties of each crop that are widely used in our food system. These commercial crop varieties are specially bred for uniform appearance, disease-resistance, and for their ability to endure lengthy transport. Farms have shifted their choice from traditional or heirloom varieties to commercial crops, displacing the use of many traditional crops often leading to their extinction.

A few huge companies now produce most of the seed used by conventional farmers; ETC group reports that the 10 largest seed companies controlled about 67% of the global seed market in 2010. These companies typically sell only the widely used commercial varieties of plant seeds. This makes it difficult for farmers to buy non-commercial seed varieties, which speeds up the disappearance of traditional plant varieties.

When traditional and heirloom varieties become extinct, our food system loses the distinctive flavors and appearances of these fruits and vegetables as well as the genetic diversity that they otherwise contribute to the plant stock. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, since 1900, approximately 75% of the world’s genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been eliminated; on a global scale crop, genetic diversity is being reduced at the rate of 1-2% per year.

Many heirloom varieties grown during earlier periods in human history are not used in large-scale agriculture. The USDA defines heirlooms as varieties that are at least 50-100 years old. In addition to their long history of use, heirloom vegetables that are routinely grown from seed are open-pollinated, meaning that they set seed “naturally,” often aided by wind, rain, or pollinating insects, and can thus be renewed by sowing the seeds harvested from each generation of plants. This is in contrast to hybridized or genetically modified seeds are created by human manipulation.

A small fraction of varieties of seeds make up a large proportion of our food. A few types of seeds dominate our food system because of their uniformity and shipping ability. Despite impressive yield gains in modern production agriculture, widespread adoption of simplified farming systems with low genetic diversity carries a variety of risks. In the short term, such systems risk potential crop failure, and in the longer term, they encourage the demise of the broad genetic base that contributes to high yields, and thus compromise the future genetic health of crop populations. This is because our food system is dominated by only a few varieties of seeds, which leaves our food susceptible to pests and diseases. Many heirloom varieties display combinations of traits that make them especially responsive to local or regional conditions, or well-suited to particular growing methods (such as those used in organic, low-external-input, or permaculture systems), or tolerant of local pests and diseases, or tolerant of other stresses and constraints.

This project is important because it focuses on varieties that are adapted to our region. As crops become adapted to climate and soil conditions, they also develop defenses against local pest and diseases. This also means they will need fewer inputs, like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Regionally adapted foods are also in a better position to continue to adapt to potential climate change effects. By conducting this trial, we will help to market heirloom seeds and in turn increase specialty crop sales.  We have chosen varieties that originate from the Great Lakes region as a response to market demand for local unmodified seed varieties. Market growers and famers desire these seeds because they have identification and history with our area.

This seed trial will provide market growers and farmers with seed varieties in order to develop and conserve the biodiversity of foods adapted to the Great Lakes region. With this trial, we want to familiarize the community with regional foods, seed-saving varieties, and heirloom varieties. We want to educate people about specialty crops and environmental conservation. We also hope to foster an “heirloom community” by sharing information and hosting several events. Ultimately we will grow the market for open pollinated and heirloom specialty crops that have a history in the Great Lakes region for which the public has demonstrated distinct interest.