Heritage Foods: The Importance of Biodiversity

One man’s seed-saving pilgrimage builds connections and community around plant diversity and local, heritage foods.
By David Buchanan
November 2012
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“Taste, Memory” by David Buchanan follows the experiences of modern-day farmers and seed savers who are exploring and re-inventing healthy food production by protecting the biodiversity of our rarest heritage foods.
Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing


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In Taste, Memory (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), author David Buchanan unravels the stories of his personal journey with slightly obsessive gardeners, passionate cooks, environmentalists and food activists—all  leaders in the movement to defend agricultural biodiversity. Discover how his own growing project in Portland, Maine, works to explore the balance between heirloom varieties and a healthy food system by matching plant and animal biodiversity with the demands of the land and climate.  The following excerpt on the importance of biodiversity among our heritage foods is taken from chapter 1, “Seeds of an Idea.” 

August 1992. Emerenciana Sandoval greets me with a radiant smile in her kitchen and asks if she can make me breakfast. “¿Comer?” she asks as she mimes eating eggs and tortillas with her fingers. “Are you hungry?” her daughter-in-law, Catalina, adds. Of course they know this is a formality. I’m always hungry, and each of us understands that it wouldn’t be polite for me to say no. I’ve tried to refuse many times, knowing they have no money and many mouths to feed, but somehow a plate piled high always winds up in front of my place at the counter. They worry about me, living in the foothills of Washington State's North Cascade Mountains forty miles away, without a resident mother or wife to feed me and watch out for my well-being. Emerenciana warns me to beware of devils—something to think about while walking alone through the woods on dark nights.

Behind their home is a large garden ringed with nodding sunflowers where they grow plants like lettuce and tomatoes, herbs, summer squash, corn, beans, and potatoes. I stop by whenever possible to help and to learn from their experience. Everything about food production is new to me. Looking back while writing this nearly twenty years later, I recall their two sheep and the fire pit Emerenciana’s son Miguel used to cook the ram when it began to harass the children; their machete-built chicken coop, made from salvaged dimensional lumber but resembling something straight from the highlands of Oaxaca; and the perch we caught together in the alkaline lakes a few miles from their home in Okanogan, Washington. I think of the corn and bean seeds they and their friends carried with them from Mexico, and the care they took to maintain food traditions while working long hours in nearby orchards and packing houses. These are some of my earliest gardening memories.

The night before, the Sandovals set out a cot on the screened porch for me while everyone else slept wherever they found space in the two-bedroom house. Preschooler Leticia usually curls up on the couch next to her grandmother, whereas Adan and his brother Marcus share a bedroom with their parents. In the morning the blinds are pulled and it’s hot inside, noisy and crowded as the women prepare breakfast and the three children play with their father. Marcus, the oldest at six and deaf from birth, angles for my attention by hanging on to my shirt and signing frantically. We eat breakfast together without hurry. Later Miguel throws a bag in his Isuzu truck and drives away to the orchards, dropping Catalina off at a packing shed on the way. Adan and Marcus catch a bus to school, while Emerenciana stays home to make tortillas and watch over Leticia.

I grab a straw hat and head for my truck, parked in the shade of a large willow tree. It’s a 1970 Chevy half-ton pickup nearly the size of my house, a guilty pleasure for a young guy trying to live lightly off the grid. Although I’d purchased it for $600 to use as a farm truck, gradually it came to replace my less-reliable car. A friend of mine recently tore its door off while backing up at high speed over uneven ground, catching it on a stump as he leaned out to see where he was going with his good eye, but he fixed it by bolting in another door from the salvage yard that sort of fit and nearly matched. With a new engine dropped in by a local mechanic for $1,400, this truck—nearly as old as I am—roars along good as new.

My boots mirror the truck in spirit. They’re covered in leather patches stitched artlessly by a local “cobbler”—mismatched suede, cowhide, whatever scraps he had lying around. If at first it seemed that he’d ruined my favorite thrift-store boots, soon it became clear that instead he’d transformed them into folk art. Wearing beat-up cowboy boots used to feel like an affectation to me, a displaced easterner, but the year before they’d prevented a nasty fall down Miguel’s well. After I’d climbed into the concrete casing to check on a malfunctioning irrigation pump, a wooden ladder rung snapped under my weight, throwing me backward. One of my heels miraculously caught on the steel bar that bisected the well to secure the pump, about three feet below the broken rung. I landed on it light as a feather, hooked on the bar with one foot, my hands pressed against the smooth concrete walls in the half-light. Try that in a pair of running shoes.

As I pull out of the Sandovals’ driveway, my destination for the day is the town of Pullman in eastern Washington, about a four-hour drive away. Pullman is home to the USDA Western Regional Plant Introduction Station, a genebank repository for crops like beans, peas, and safflower, collected from around the world. Maybe this doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but my goal in traveling there is to broaden my gardening knowledge, to see firsthand all kinds of foods I’ve read about in USDA records—plant diversity that’s hard to imagine in the abstract. I also hope to pick up some interesting, commercially unavailable seeds to grow at home and with the Sandovals.

With spray planes buzzing overhead I cross the Omak River and follow the road as it quickly gains elevation, leaving behind irrigated orchards, alfalfa fields, and pastures to enter the dry scrublands of the Colville Reservation. The sun shines in a cloudless sky, just as it does around here most days from April to October. Central Washington lies in the rain shadow of the North Cascades (their height wrings moisture from the air as it rises, leaving this side of the range dry and clear). The land turns to arid bitterbrush and sage in the highlands to the east as the road skirts the Columbia River and the Grand Coulee Dam. The truck windows are down to catch a breeze as the day heats up. Gradually the landscape transforms into a beautiful sea of wheat in the Palouse region at the eastern edge of the state. Giant six-wheeled tractors roll over cultivated hills past abandoned barns and derelict gabled houses, signs of small farms long ago lost to competition and consolidation.

The plant introduction station occupies a nondescript warehouse somewhere on the campus of Washington State University. It’s surrounded by student parking lots, one of which I sleep in that night, in the open bed of my truck. Recalling my visit today, I have a vague memory of the handmade display rack one of the scientists used to show local schoolkids the endless variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of beans in the collection, and of his helpfulness as he answered questions and fetched requested varieties for me—vivid green chickpeas from India, fuzzy little brown chickpeas from Iran, an old unnamed bean from Tennessee, eye-catching red and white Bolivian beans, and a dozen other must-have varieties. Greedy for beans, lentils, and chickpeas, I was smitten by odd and forgotten legumes.

For several years these plants grew in my gardens. I maintained them even after returning to the East Coast to live in Boston’s North End and work for a museum as a writer and fund-raiser. They survived two seasons at my parents’ home north of the city while I gardened on weekends, hauling paper bags filled with compost and produce back and forth by train. They stayed with me after I married and moved to the nearby city of Salem, though by then the collection had diminished. Gradually, one by one, varieties began to disappear: Some failed to adapt to New England; others couldn’t germinate after long stretches stored in a cabinet. It’s hard to say exactly when the last of them went—probably after my divorce and move to Maine, where I stopped gardening altogether for a few years.

Life’s like that. Mine was for a time, anyway. In our haste and mobility we lose threads that tie us to the past, watch a season or two slip by without a much needed new coat of paint on the house, neglect those things that demand constant attention and care. This is one reason we have genebanks—to back up our inattention and shifting priorities. Today I could grow these beans again by digging up their accession numbers and ordering replacements from the government. But my collecting interests have evolved; my goals have changed. If I were to grow chickpeas now it would be mostly out of nostalgia, because staying motivated to grow dry pulses (edible seed crops) for the table isn’t easy. Why should we go to all the trouble to preserve some obscure Iranian chickpea already in someone else’s collection? It’s a lot of work! How many of us are willing to grow and thresh beans for soup, as long as we can buy pinto beans for pennies at the supermarket?

Over the years, even as my concern about maintaining genetic diversity and preserving disappearing agricultural traditions has increased, I’ve struggled with some fundamental questions. What should agricultural diversity look like, and how is it relevant to the modern world of supermarkets, giant tractors, and irrigated mega-farms? What role can the individual play, and what place should niche crops and heritage foods (also known as heirlooms—typically described as foods dating back at least fifty years and untouched by modern breeding) have in our markets and on our plates? How do we summon the energy and will to keep this bounty alive? Many years have slipped by since my visit to Pullman, and I’m looking for some answers.

Leave behind the granite and brick facades of the waterfront retail shops and restaurants in Portland, Maine, wind your way past the galleries and performance spaces that appear to sprout up overnight along Congress Street, and enter the leafy Victorian residential neighborhood of the West End. There on a side street you’ll find a small nineteenth-century house, set at the back of its urban lot under a giant catalpa tree. Come at the right time and you’ll find me and my fiancée, Karla, picking greens from our small garden, throwing sticks for our black lab, Tica, or sitting and drinking coffee on one of my carved wooden benches. It’s probably not your idea of a farmhouse.

The fact is, I’ve always lived fitfully divided between the pleasures of the city and the country. Deep inside I’m still the Princeton student who moved to a barn in western Massachusetts soon after graduation in the late 1980s, infatuated with the natural world and not ready for office life, yet not quite at home with rural living. Still torn like the young guy who lived in a tiny cabin in the North Cascade Mountains for six years, trying to hide from hippie friends my too-straight habits, like listening to Jessye Norman on a CD player rigged up to a solar panel, or my need for daily showers. (“How do you always look so clean?” my first farm employer asked at the end of a long day hoeing knee-high weeds in ninety-degree heat.)

If you tell me most farmers shouldn’t live like this, that to plant an orchard or tend a market garden it makes sense to surround yourself with a little land, I won’t argue with you. For me the words urban farming seem contradictory, strangers at the table, a mystifying idea even for someone caught up in it. My move to Portland ten years ago was motivated by a desire to live in an up-and-coming small city and eat at its restaurants, not grow food to be served in them. Days spent in Washington State tending large gardens seemed like a distant memory, and it never occurred to me that in this place the preoccupations of my time in the West might come roaring back to life.

What started innocently enough a few years ago as a small garden on borrowed land, however, has blossomed over the past two years into a quasi-farm and conservation project—an awkward, sprawling enterprise that covers roughly two acres of other people’s backyards near the city. This wasn’t something planned or exactly intended, and even now it’s hard to explain how it happened. Why I’m running around today, for example, hauling heavy coolers full of Summer Crookneck squash, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and new potatoes into commercial kitchens, cornering busy chefs. “Already in the weeds,” the first one tells me (kitchen shorthand for “Can’t talk, see you later”). At the restaurant next door the kitchen is running in overdrive, but they buy everything except the peppers while I weigh things out and dodge the prep cooks, who call out, “Step back!” “Watch out!” and “Duck!” as they fly past me.

Out by the service entrance near the trash bins sits my station wagon, filled with a grower’s paraphernalia, the clutter of a market gardener: buckets overflowing with bits of string, torn gloves, salvaged vinyl siding for tree labels, coolers, hand tools, and lists of recently planted row crops. Wads of cash from the farmers’ market lie hidden under a towel and in the glove compartment—not a good idea in our neighborhood, where once I found someone rummaging through my car at 5:30 am and chased him across the schoolyard next door, wondering what to do if I caught him. From April to November canvas tarps cover the pale beige seats of my Subaru Outback, a car purchased without farming in mind.

In practice my new enterprise is more like a collaborative community project than a working “farm,” because it’s pieced together out of a broad patchwork of shared land use and reciprocal arrangements. When I need a clean, licensed space to set up a cider press, I wrangle a deal with a friend who’s renting a commercial kitchen. If picking a few dozen bushels of apples justifies owning such a nice little press, I team up with one of Karla’s friends, the owner of a recently abandoned orchard a few towns away. All of these arrangements are informal, based on goodwill and handshakes, even for borrowed fields planted with dozens of rare fruit trees, so they depend on hedged bets and diversification. Such casual partnerships can feel tenuous and difficult, but in the end there’s a kind of beauty in the way they weave food production into the community.

There are advantages and disadvantages to borrowing land and equipment like this. On the positive side, while building connections and creating partnerships (and letting me live in the city), it keeps costs very low. There’s no need to rent a commercial kitchen, own a van to transport food and nursery plants to the market, or buy a tractor, rototiller, and mower. I make use of these things by tapping into the right networks and looking for win–win situations. If this sometimes feels precarious, cobbled awkwardly together rather than organized around a clear plan, it has the benefit of keeping me focused on what matters most while the business grows. For the time being, borrowing equipment and land helps me avoid unnecessary expenses, and saves time that can be put to better use.

It was never my goal to become a farmer, and that’s not exactly what I’m up to here. This project is more like an attempt to come to grips with an old obsession, to find a way to connect biodiversity to something larger than my own gardens. It’s as much about collecting rare varieties of fruit trees, berries, and vegetables as it is a working farm. Call it an effort to bring regionality, cultural difference, and flavor back to the plate, and discover what place these foods deserve in the modern world. I’m trying to make good on plans embarked upon long ago in Washington State and nearly forgotten, to discover meaning in unusual and forgotten foods by building something of value around them.

Determining what grows successfully in any given place, and what will be a commercial success, is the primary challenge for any grower. Throw in a desire to collect and experiment with unusual foods, and this can lead at times in conflicting directions. How much should we bend to the market and winnow out underperforming plants, at the expense of greater diversity in the field? To what extent should we emphasize efficiency and uniformity over anything odd, quirky, regional, niche? Commercial growers willing to work with rare plants and animals need to discover some kind of middle ground, and make enough profit to justify the time. What will this compromise look like?

Seven miles, a fifteen-minute drive, separate my leased fields from our house. Although it’s a good bike ride, half an hour on roads with wide shoulders and moderate hills, most of the time I jump in the car. There’s all the gear to consider, plus our dog Tica. And then riding a bike home after a long day in the fields isn’t very appealing. Today I load a few stray boxes from a vegetable delivery, pack my lunch, persuade Tica to leave her bed on the porch, and drive over the Casco Bay Bridge, the roughly half-mile span that separates Portland from its neighbors to the east and south. Its highest point offers sweeping views of Portland’s working waterfront and skyline, Casco Bay, the Fore River, and whatever weather hangs over nearby Cape Elizabeth.

The weather isn’t looking very promising on this late-summer day. Clouds are gathering on the horizon, the flag raised over the bridge is whipping in the wind, and as I reach the turnoff from Route 77 toward my fields, it’s starting to rain. A storm isn’t unwelcome after last month’s heat and drought, but the unexpected change kills plans to start bud-grafting fruit trees this morning. Although a quick search online doesn’t turn up much information to discourage me, opening the bark on young trees in the rain, potentially exposing them to fungal infections, doesn’t seem like a bright idea.

The road off Route 77 passes the first of my fields. This is a new site for me, roughly a third of an acre of newly tilled and cover-cropped ground behind a grand old barn and beautiful nineteenth-century farmhouse. Its owners are letting me grow here without charge, hoping to see the space better used, and understanding that organic fruit trees suit the character of their land better than a large expanse of lawn. Last month I hired a nearby farmer to till the sod, then raked in a buckwheat cover crop to build organic matter and provide forage for Karla’s two beehives. In two years I’ll start planting trees.

My other fields are located a few doors from each other another mile or so down the road, but they occupy very different worlds. The first, more than an acre of vegetables and fruit trees, sits behind another imposing old farmhouse and large barn, surrounded by seven acres of lawns and gardens immaculately tended by the owner and hired gardeners. The second, twenty-five acres of fields and woods, privately owned but conserved as open space by the local land trust, is more like a giant community garden, its space shared by a children’s camp, a nonprofit educational group, my third-of-an-acre nursery and gardens, the farmhouse tenant, several beekeepers, and an Ethiopian immigrant who gardens there with his family. It gets very busy, and although this is one of the prettiest little farms in the Portland area, it suffers from a lack of general upkeep.

I pull into the driveway at this last site, park by my gardens, and walk over to the nursery beds and greenhouse. Roughly four hundred recently grafted fruit trees grow in carefully tended rows, where they’ll remain for a couple of years before I can transplant them to permanent sites in nearby fields. Here I’m also growing potted fruit trees and berry bushes for market sales, and certified-organic vegetables and berries. Tomatoes, peppers, basil, and eggplant fill the nearby greenhouse, a seventy-five-by-fourteen-foot hoophouse constructed from a bent steel frame covered by a single layer of plastic.

I check my potted plants to make sure they received enough water from the rain, and a few minutes later two friends arrive: Colin Reid, a young guy interested in orchards and hard cider, and Jake Hoffman, a musician who’s been coming out to the fields in his spare time to help out. They’d been looking forward to grafting trees this morning, but understand the last-minute change in plans. We talk about other tasks to tackle instead. Colin and I start with a quick inventory of young apple trees, reviewing plans for the new orchard up the road. My goal is to develop a mix of rare and endangered American apple varieties, with a focus on the production of sweet and hard cider.

“What were you thinking of grafting this morning?” Colin asks. It’s a more-than-reasonable question, but the answer is a work in progress.

“Not sure, guess I’ll know when we do it,” I tell him, which is, unfortunately, the honest and unsatisfactory truth. They both laugh at this.

Here’s my quandary: With last spring’s sixty additions to the apple collection, there are roughly 120 varieties in these fields from which to choose for additional grafting. Until we can learn about their growing habits and sample their fruits, though, figuring out which to select is a shot in the dark. Who can say how well fruit as obscure as Fall Wine (aka Musk Spice, House, and Uncle Sam’s Best)—an antique American apple once nearly lost to cultivation and still quite rare—will grow in this location? What kind of cider will it produce? Will it yield consistently? Should we plant two trees, or twenty? Fall Wine has history and a good story going for it—no small advantage for any producer marketing directly to customers. But how much of my borrowed, limited growing space does it deserve?

While Colin and I look over apple lists, Jake transplants strawberry runners into new beds. The same question comes up. Although strawberries don’t require years of waiting to reveal their secrets, and each of these varieties has grown here for at least three seasons, deciding which to plant can be elusive. “I don’t know, let’s plant all of them, why not . . . ,” I tell him. Two of the berries are commercially unavailable and extremely rare. One of these stands out for its exceptional flavor and historical interest, but it’s nearly extinct in part because its yield is somewhat lower than the others, and the fruit is very juicy, hard to pick and handle. Does its fine flavor and rarity justify giving it equal space, or would it be more prudent to go the easier route with more forgiving strains? What exactly am I trying to accomplish?

On some level these concerns seem pretty mundane, encountered by everyone from the commercial wheat farmer looking to increase yields to the home gardener searching for flavorful varieties in the nursery catalog. From another perspective, though, they get at some fundamental truths about agriculture and biodiversity, and lie at the heart of my growing project. What place does a cantankerous old apple or too-delicate strawberry have in our kitchen gardens, farm fields, and markets? Now that the computer brings so much information to our fingertips, and access to foods of all sorts, what should we choose to grow?

The good news for gardeners is that many of the best foods will always be the province of home growers, rewarding those who go to the trouble of maintaining them by yielding the finest quality and flavor. There’s justice in that. Many rarities simply can’t adjust to the realities of the market, even at the most local of levels—a thin-skinned heirloom tomato, an ugly old baking apple, or an exceptionally juicy peach. Every garden that includes these foods has a significant role to play, and in the case of heirloom crops that’s in keeping with their original spirit. After all, it was small-scale independent farmers and gardeners who developed them, often for their own sustenance and pleasure.

I don’t consider myself an advocate for any one particular way of producing food, so this book isn’t a manifesto about how to transform the world. It’s more like an exploration of what we’ve lost while moving away from daily hands-on contact with the land, or, to put it more positively, what we have to gain by reconnecting at some level with it. My farm project isn’t about just saving seeds or old fruit varieties, but searching for a creative connection with land and plants that, until the last few generations, was at the heart of most people’s lives. In practice this means collecting not only older varieties, but also new foods—most often those developed by public breeding programs, with direct farmer participation—as long as they emphasize flavor, high yields, and natural disease and pest resistance. My goal is to create the best plant collection for this particular time and place, not develop an isolated museum of curiosities.

It’s my hope that reading about these experiences will encourage others to view healthy food production, on any scale, as a careful balance of thoughtful selection of plants and animals with the demands of a particular landscape and climate. To me, biological diversity is the driving energy behind the locavore movement, the regionalism that distinguishes the cuisine of a particular place from anywhere else. For those of us who are willing to adapt and are open to experimentation, the next heirloom peach, or a cross between some fine old pear and a wild seedling, may yield something sublime. This true sense of place in food becomes increasingly clear to me every time I taste the complex flavors of old raspberries and blackberries, the sweetness after frost of heirloom beets and rutabagas, and the snap between my teeth of an excellent green bean.

In my eyes forgotten apple trees bred on isolated Maine farmsteads, or hard ciders blended from their fruits, are among humanity’s richest creative achievements. Growing and producing such foods, and making them available to others, helps maintain long-standing traditions. Would Portland chefs have sought out the heirloom beans I grew in Washington to gain an edge in their competitive business? Will Fall Wine apples live up to their promise in my orchard? Colin, Jake, and I can’t answer such questions until we commit to grafting the trees, planting the strawberries, and seeing what happens. There’s no perfect answer. We just do it.

Ultimately, what’s more fundamental to who we are and what we believe than what we choose to eat? This book is about my efforts to live amid diversity, find a place for rare and unusual varieties in our fields and markets, and discover meaning and stories in our forgotten foods. It begins with a step back to explain how I came to this place, and then asks this question: Where do we go from here, and how can we keep this richness alive?

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Taste, Memory, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. 


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