Heirloom Counterculture

The origins of heritage foods revivals from 1980 to 1985.

  • Humans have been saving and exchanging seeds for thousands of years, but a century ago, Americans fell under the spell of a collective amnesia: They began to allow national and international seed catalogs to provide them with the bulk of the seeds they grew.
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Stark Brothers catalog.
    Photo Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
  • Oscar H. Will and Company catalog
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Landreth Seed Company catalog
    Photo Courtesy Barbara Melera/Landreth
  • John Withee displays his vast and historic heirloom bean collection.
    Photo Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
  • The heirloom seeds movement is more alive today than ever and noteworthy speakers draw standing-room only crowds.
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Seed Savers Exchange 1980 catalog
    Photo Courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

A third of a century ago, an unprecedented grassroots movement emerged from American soil; it is a movement that is still alive today. It may well be worth your while to reflect on the origins of the social change movement to which you belong, for it is a wellspring of food diversity, and as such, an important counter-current to modern agriculture.

Of course humans have been saving and exchanging seeds for thousands of years, but a century ago, Americans fell under the spell of a collective amnesia: They began to allow national and international seed catalogs to provide them with the bulk of the seeds they grew, and the vast majority of grafted saplings of the fruit and nut trees they transplanted to their home orchards. While the D. Landreth Seed Company — the oldest in the U.S. — began in 1784, and the Stark Brothers began distributing grafted fruit trees as early as 1816, rural families regarded these sources of plant materials as supplemental to those they conserved in the home nursery, their root cellar, and their seed caches.

Other commercial sources of food plant diversity were initially welcomed by farmers and gardeners across the United States, but the American populace gradually lost the skills of saving seeds and grafting fruit trees gathered from their own landscapes. By around the time of the first Earth Day and the Southern Corn Blight in 1970, the consolidation of the seed industry began to accelerate.

Within the next decade, hundreds of small regional and local seed suppliers had been bought out and merged into large multi-nationals. Most of their local-adapted “heirloom” vegetable, fruit, and grain cultivars were dropped from the catalogs after these mergers and hostile takeovers occurred. When the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the corn blight of the 1970s was due to the over-dependence on monoculture, plant scientists and farmers conceded that the genetic base of American agriculture had become dangerously narrowed. One of the first to sound the alarm beyond the scientific community was the crop genetic conservationist, Garrison Wilkes. “Given the needs of the future, genetic resources can be considered one of society’s most valuable raw materials. But genetic erosion [is now occurring with] the loss of landraces and heritage crops — biotypes — that have been in families for a long time.”

While there were many heirloom seed collectors scattered across the United States before Garrison Wilkes blew his whistle — from bean collector John Withee in New England to Oscar H. and George Will in the Northern Plains and Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds in the Pacific Northwest — a growing number of conservation-oriented activists began to take up this issue in the late 1970s.

John Carr of the short-lived American Seed Conservancy was motivated by the fact that three-fourths of the crop strains grown in the New World at the time of Columbus have since become extinct. Cary Fowler of the National Sharecropper’s Fund discovered that in less than a century, 86 percent of the heirloom apple cultivars recorded by W.H. Ragan in 1905 had become extinct. Kent Whealy, who founded what was initially called the True Seed Exchange, was preoccupied with impending collapse of Western capitalistic societies, and the need of back-to-the-landers to keep seed diversity on their homesteads if they were to survive economic or military holocausts.



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