Monday, May 20, 2013
Sam Birch's favorite heirloom seed is called Jacob's Cattle, which produces mottled white-and-maroon-splotched beans.
Sam Birch, of Whitefield, grows over 300 varieties of dry beans. Pictured are, clockwise from top: Jacobs Cattle - Gasless, Friol De Raja, and French.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
The Maine Tree Crop Alliance, the Maine Seed Saving Network, Fedco and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association present the 10th-annual combined Seed Swap and Scionwood Exchange from noon to 4 p.m. March 28 at MOFGA's Common Ground Exhibition Hall in Unity. For more information, call 568-4142 or visit www.mofga.org.
The retired Cony High School science teacher has saved heirloom seeds for 20 years -- he now grows more than 300 varieties of beans at his home in Whitefield -- and is enthralled with their beauty.
Roberta Bailey started saving seeds 32 years ago, when she received a sample of an heirloom tomato called Sochulak, which was farmed by a Washington County family for generations after its arrival from Italy.
"The only way for me to continue to grow it was to start saving the seed each year, which I have done for 32 years now," Bailey said. "It yielded well in a cold climate and it has a very good taste."
Swapping seeds is becoming a rite of spring for Maine. The culmination is the upcoming 10th Seed Swap and Scionwood Exchange, set for March 28 in Unity.
Scheduled workshops include grafting techniques and basics of seed saving. Gardeners may bring their seeds and scionwood -- cuttings from a tree that are grafted onto another tree or root stock -- and swap them.
"If you're just getting started, seed exchanges are a great way to get a lot of beans and other seeds, and it's free," said Birch, 77. "I like the varieties. I get different colors and shapes and patterns; and the genetic material is being saved, which is important."
Bailey, 52, of North Vassalboro has helped establish the Maine Seed Saving Network and joined the Seed Savers Exchange, a national organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds.
Bailey also works for Fedco Seeds in Clinton, where she runs the germination test laboratory and manages the seed inventory.
"With the consolidation of the seed industry, there's a lot of varieties that do get dropped," she said. "(Commercial seed companies are) offering varieties that do well in the entire country, but not in your own little niche, your own little eco-environment."
Will Bonsall of Industry, founder of the Scatterseed Project, is on a one-man campaign to fill those niches. Scatterseed collects, preserves, propagates and distributes regionally suited varieties of vegetables, grains and fruit trees.
Its collection is rich in cool-season crops and root vegetables such as fava beans, peas, potatoes and rutabagas. Plants neglected by other conservation programs are a primary aim of Scatterseed.
It also works closely with Seed Savers Exchange -- Bonsall, 60, is its peas and potatoes curator -- and offers seeds and other plant materials from an inventory of more than 1,700 organically grown varieties.
Buyers are expected to become seed archivsts, not just gardeners. Seeds samples ordinarily cost between $3 and $6.
"We ... make them expensive enough as an incentive for people to save their own seeds, not just simply buying seeds, planting them and eating the produce," Bonsall said. "For us, it's (about) you being happy with them and saving your own seeds."
The other aspect of saving seeds, besides maintaining genetic strains, is their heritage. For example, in Bonsall's stock, he has a bean variety Cherokee Indians carried on the Trail of Tears in 1838.
"During that whole marathon odyssey, one of the few things they took with them to the reservation was a black bean," he said. "We also have a variety in our collection of chard from Bosnia that was grown in the town where Serbians were massacred by Bosnians. There's a very good chance it could be extinct in the homeland and may not be grown there any longer. We also have a Thomas Jefferson apple variety. The gardener curator at Monticello got in touch with me and wanted it. He wanted to have it in the garden, but didn't know where it was. All they knew was the name from Jefferson's diaries."
Without local seed savers, he said, varieties such as these could disppear.
"Twenty years ago, commercial growers would not have cared if they were lost," said Bonsall. "You don't know what will be popular in five years or 50 years from now."
Mechele Cooper -- 623-3811, ext. 408