Heirlooms of Tomorrow: Breeding and Selection for Adaptation to Climate Change

by Don Tipping

Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Biodynamics. Don Tipping's "Seed Saving" column is a regular feature in our journal.

Heirloom vegetables hold a special place in many people’s hearts. Often they bring us a pleasant nostalgia of our ancestors in different regions preparing scrumptious feasts with garden-grown treasures. Technically a vegetable variety can be considered an heirloom once it has been cultivated for over fifty years. Some consider the year 1951 to be a cutoff point for heirlooms because many modern hybrid varieties were introduced at that point. Often a variety achieved heirloom status by virtue of its flavor, appearance, and general ability to perform well in a given region. Characteristics such as disease resistance, cold hardiness, and vigor were very important before modern crop supports came to dominate the food supply. With respect to vegetable varieties, heirlooms were synonymous with place.

Nowadays, we tend to view heirloom vegetables differently. We want to taste the garden culture of the whole world in our own backyard, despite where we live. Because of the relative youth of our displaced, transplanted culture, we conveniently overlook the reality that many of the traits for which heirlooms were selected had to do with a varietal’s adaptation to a regions climate, pests, diseases, and cultural preferences. Internet shopping, mail-order commerce, FedEx, and cell phones have placed the whole world’s wealth within our grasp. Nonetheless, we still can’t dial up our desired climate or day length; there are limits to our technological prowess. Thank goodness!

Take red and purple carrots, for instance. In India there exists a cultural preference for these colors in carrots, which are predominantly used for cooking. The average climate in India is too warm to produce the crisp, sweet, fresh eating carrots that we clamor for at farmers’ markets across the country. So, what do we do when we desire a rainbow of colors for our bunches of carrots for fresh eating? Well, we turn to the heirloom of another culture and try to use it as we would an orange, fresh market variety. Sadly, the results are somewhat lackluster. The flavor of red and purple carrots doesn’t hold a candle to the sugar-on-a-stick sweetness of “Nantes” type carrots to which we have grown accustomed. A plant breeding failure, or a misguided application for a fine heirloom cooking carrot that grows well in warm subtropical climates? You decide. I’ll stick to my proven regional favorites, thank you.

John Navazio and Matthew Dillon at the Organic Seed Alliance have coined the term “Heirlooms of Tomorrow” to describe a bioregional-based approach to selection for varieties that perform well within their intended marketplace. While many of our traditional heirlooms are certainly worthy of preserving for their cultural significance and fine attributes, we tend to glorify them based on their heritage alone. I would be happy to put five or six of our favorite tomatoes up to a flavor test against the current “best flavor” titleholder, “Brandywine,” anytime. They would also have more crack resistance and late blight resistance than that “Brandywine” seed I might otherwise buy from some national seed company. This speaks to the sad fact that many of our available heirlooms are no longer being grown in their region of origin or with attention to selecting them for a diversity of important traits.

Trialing different varieties (or even different strains of the same variety for that matter) is an excellent way to assess the merits of a given variety. While the trial results from a trial performed in the northeast United States may provide some interesting insights, they cannot be relied on as an accurate litmus test for a country as large and climatically varied as the U.S.

I was fortunate to recently acquire a large established seed collection from the SOW Organic Seed Company that operated here in southwest Oregon from 1974 until its founder, Al Vanet, passed on in 2008. SOW Organics began back in 1974 as Stone Broke Hippie Seeds in Ruch, moving to Williams as Peace Seeds in 1978. This vegetable, flower, and herb seed collection represents the best repository of locally adapted, open-pollinated vegetables in southwest Oregon, if not the entire state. When you consider that seeds of many of the varieties in this collection have been continually reproduced here for over thirty years, starting a garden with this genetic adaptation to climate, pests, soils, and diseases is a huge advantage over using seed produced in a different bioregion. Many noteworthy individuals have been involved with this genesis, including Gabriel Howearth, Dr. Alan Kapular, Alan Vanet, Alan Adesse, Chi Scherer, Frank Morton, and Munk Bergen, to name a few. SOW Organic Seeds also helped give rise to another early organic seed pioneer, Seeds of Change.

We have been going through the formidable task of performing germination tests and field trials to assess lot purity and uniformity of the over 200 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. From the information we gather in looking through this germplasm, we hope to build upon the awesome work of Alan Vanet and grow out the true workhorse varieties, selecting to preserve the best qualities of these strains and improving upon them where we see opportunity to do so. I truly believe that this type of work will enable agrarian societies to continue to thrive amidst erratic frost, heat, and rain cycles. Domestication is not an endpoint; it is actually an ongoing process in which we are participants.

I believe that plants have the ability to imprint upon the environmental conditions within which they grow. Now consider that many of the seeds available to farmers and gardeners are grown all over the globe. While I do believe that national-scale seed companies serve an important role, if we desire to see whole-system farm agro-ecosystems thrive, we must have complementary bioregional seed systems. Ideally, seed would be grown on site as much as possible. When this is not feasible, locally produced seed would be a good alternative.

As regional climate patterns become more erratic, a well-adapted gene pool that has already been bred for adaptation to our local climate affords growers a tremendous advantage. I am curious to test these theories through the trialing of different strains of vegetable varieties in replicated field trials to determine if we are able to see differences between seeds grown in different regions. I am encouraged by stories such as those of Dave Christensen, a farmer and plant breeder in Montana who developed the Painted Mountain flour corn. Painted Mountain is the result of the intentional crossing of many different ethnic strains of flour corn, with the goal of a producing a short-season flour corn that could withstand a variety of stresses. He has a remarkable story of one generation of growing it out during which the entire crop was flattened by a cataclysmic hailstorm. A few plants managed to survive enough to still yield some seed. Painted Mountain carries this and many other special adaptive traits that benefit growers in this region, enabling them to produce crops more successfully. What is remarkable is that these heavy selection pressures also help when the corn is grown in different climates as well.

With this in mind, should we actually be producing seed under stressful, rather than idealized, conditions? A big question, but the more I consider my role as a seedsman, I see that we are in a quandary to be economically producing seed while also doing selection and breeding that yields the true workhorse varieties. Another story to reinforce this point is that of a neighboring farmer here in southwest Oregon named Jonathan Spero, who also works with corn predominately—but in this case the story is that of broccoli. He recognized that broccoli was a crop that was particularly sensitive to stress. Too much heat, cold, or weeds will encourage the plant to “button up” and produced an under-sized, small head prematurely. His hypothesis was that, if he could force some plants in a diverse open-pollinated population to produce under adverse conditions, their progeny would carry superior genetics into market farmers’ fields. The procedure involved broadcasting the seed thickly and identifying the choice specimens from the broccoli lawn that still managed to grow vigorously and produce a good head of broccoli. Sounds far-fetched, you may say; however, the results may convert any skeptics.

There are many such stories from the vanguard of plant breeding that inspire hope and reverence for the elasticity of the plant kingdom. Raoul Robinson shares many compelling examples of horizontal or population breeding in his book, Return to Resistance. Plants want to reproduce themselves; sometimes on-farm conditions can be fairly challenging. We must acknowledge this reality and steward in a new understanding of the intricate relationship between plants, climate, and people. The heirlooms of tomorrow? Perhaps. Nature’s road signs are there. The question is: can we follow them?

Don Tipping and his family have stewarded Seven Seeds Farm for the past twelve years on the north slope of Grayback Mountain in Williams, Oregon (42.5 degrees N latitude). They produce fruits, vegetables, seeds, wool, eggs, and lamb with biodynamic and organic methods.