Heirloom seeds exist only because of the heirloom seed movement. True heirloom seeds are not available commercially. The only way they can be obtained is from gardeners, farmers, and seed exchanges dedicated to saving and sharing precious seed resources with others interested in joining and expanding the heirloom seed movement.
Why the heirloom seed movement began
Over the past 60 years multinational corporations have been gaining control over the availability and distribution of seeds. Modern seed production involves inbred plant varieties, genetically modified plant genes, and chemical sprays. Their patented and sterilized seeds prevent farmers and gardeners from saving and replanting.
In the 1970’s, seed patents and technology contracts forced farmers to return to the seed companies for seed year after year. Alarm grew as growers were becoming dependant on seed companies and seed varieties were disappearing. People became concerned about preserving genetic seed resources and conserving plant diversity. Many seed-saving organizations and seed exchange networks developed as a result, beginning the heirloom seed movement.
One of the first organizations was the Seed Savers Exchange, founded in 1975 by Kent and Dianne Whealy. Their heirloom seed collection started with seeds given to them from Diane’s grandfather. The seeds had been brought from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870’s by Diane’s great-grandparents. The Seed Savers Exchange has since grown into the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States.
What the heirloom seed movement is about
The heirloom seed movement is made up of backyard gardeners and organic farmers dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are seeds that have not been inbred or genetically altered in any way. Most heirloom seeds date back hundreds of years to the early colonial period; however, an heirloom seed is any seed that was introduced before the 1920’s, before hybrid crops were first commercialized.
Heirloom seeds are named as such because they can be traced back to their origins, connecting us to our own heritage. The heirloom seed movement preserves seeds used by ancient Mesoamerican and Native American peoples along with seeds brought across the Atlantic by early immigrant populations from all over the world.
Heirloom seeds provide farmers and gardeners the freedom to save seeds and breed new varieties. This in turn frees the agricultural industry from complete privatization and corporate takeover. The heirloom seed movement works to preserve plants that are adapted to specific soils of place, adaptable to climates, resistant to local pests and diseases, and produce healthier, more flavorful food. Saving and sharing heirloom seed encourages genetic plant diversity which gives us reliable food security.
Heirloom seeds are also referred to as heritage seeds, non-hybrid seeds and open-pollinated seeds. The term “open-pollinated” means that the seeds are fertile and come back year after year true to type, looking like their parent plants because of no genetic tampering or severe inbreeding.