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Victory Heirloom Seed Company - Preserving the future, one seed at a time!

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A Case for Gardening with Heirloom Plants

By Mike Dunton

I. A Historical Background

When humans ceased their reliance on nature for sustenance and began to raise their own food, agriculture was born. These first farmers began domesticating wild animals for work, companionship, and for food. They also began a process of selecting plants with specific, desirable traits thus developing new plant varieties.

For eons, societies of the world have been agrarian at their roots. Farming practices evolved but generally remained grounded in the dynamics of nature. Our ancestors knew their soil and their climate intimately. Their life depended on their success in the gardens and fields.

Every spring, they planted. Every summer, they cultivated. Every fall, they harvested. Every year they selected and saved their best seed for next year's planting. And every generation passed these treasures on to the next.

As America entered the 20th century industrialization prompted migrations to the cities.  The remaining farms began a spiral of increasing in size, mechanization, and efficiency.

The large seed companies that catered to farmers began to shift from standard seed varieties towards more profitable F1 hybrids. These unstable hybrids were marketed for specific traits that are beneficial to commercial farming operations, i.e. disease resistance, consistent ripening, etc. However, if the farmer were to save and plant seeds from his harvest, the resulting plants generally did not have the same characteristics of the previous or parent generation. This insured a steady cash flow for the seed companies.

Since home gardeners do not typically have the same requirements as commercial farmers, seed companies continued to provide open-pollinated (standard) varieties.  For example, we like to harvest tomatoes throughout the season and not all within a three-day window.   Additionally, some families continued the tradition of passing along treasured varieties or what are now termed, "heirloom seeds".

II. Threats to Biodiversity

As the 20th century progressed, the small regional seed companies began a process of merging and consolidating. This consolidation often included the dropping of less profitable or similar varieties from the line of the new company. These mergers accelerated at an alarming rate through the 1970s and 1980s. Thousands of old varieties were dropped and unless they were in the holdings of the USDA seedbank or a private collection, forever lost.

Over the past couple of decades, mergers and consolidations have resulted in a handful of large, international, agri-chemical conglomerates gaining control of the mainstream international seed industry and ultimately the food supply of the world 1. The stakes are enormous both financially and politically.

These corporations are no different from any other business sector. They are driven by shareholder's interests and motivated by the bottom line to work towards increasing their influence (power) and income (profits).  As a result, new scientific technologies and processes have been used to quickly create novel, and in some cases, controllable seeds (refer to the 'Terminator Technology' article).  These genetically modified products are now in everything from the clothes that we wear (cotton) to the food that we eat.

Since our society has moved so far away from its agrarian roots, educating people is critically important. If we do not fundamentally understand agricultural processes, we can only superficially grasp the gravity of the threats to our food supply. It must be understood that diversity of available plant varieties is important to all of us. We must ensure that a repeat of the "Irish Potato Famine" never again happens.

III. Actions for Preservation

Ultimately, it is about personal choice.  As consumers, we should be allowed to make our own decisions about genetically modified organisms, their benefits or threats, and whether we want them as part of our personal diet.  The pro-biotechnology corporations are well funded and well connected within government.  We must support grass-root efforts at passing laws requiring the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients.

Additionally, we believe that we must work to preserve old seed varieties for future generations to enjoy.  In response to the degradation of our biodiversity, many organizations and small alternative seed companies have answered the call to help fight this erosion and have pledged to not knowingly sell genetically modified organisms. The Victory Seed Company is an early signer of this pledge.

Our mission as an organization is to educate people about seed saving practices, organic gardening principles, and the importance of preserving old plant varieties.  Additionally, we intend to create and maintain a seed bank, coordinate a network of committed growers to aid in maintaining the viability of the collection in the seed bank, and commercially offering these seeds to ultimately ensure their preservation.

Although many varieties have been forever lost, it is never too late to start saving what we still have. There are many ways that each person can work towards this goal. You can start by supporting the work of the Victory Seed Company and other like-minded organizations.  By gardening with open-pollinated, heirloom seeds, you can connect with our past and continue a process as ancient as our oldest recorded history. Ultimately, by using these seeds, you create or maintain a demand for them.  This is perhaps the most important part of  working towards saving seeds for future generations.

  1. The Seed Giants: Who Owns Whom?, Seed Industry Consolidation - Update 2000, RAFI, 21 December 2000, (This document is available as a PDF file only)


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Updated on April 22, 2021