Demonstration Project to Promote Niche Farming in Heirloom Vegetable Varieties

Final Report for FW00-041

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2000: $4,425.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Michael Seraphinoff
South Whidbey Tilth
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Project Information


The project seeks to generate renewed interest in the cultivation, sale, consumption and seed saving of open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable varieties through a demonstration garden on land of the new South Whidbey Tilth. With open-pollinated crops, the saved seed, unlike with hybrids, will grow true to parentage.

The loss of heirloom and older traditional crop varieties, estimated at more than 90% between 1903 and 1983 by the Rural Advancement Fund International, increases the risk of broad-scale crop failures from disease or other problems. Increasing reliance on hybrids and patented genetically engineered crops compounds the problem.

The project showed heirloom and traditional open-pollinated vegetable varieties growing in the South Whidbey Island demonstration garden. Visitors to the Tilth Market sampled the harvested and labeled produce. At the same time, the SARE-funded research team planted comparable popular hybrid varieties, logging information on growth, nutrition, appearance, taste and other qualities. The information was to be published and disseminated to growers and consumers in the region.

The selected heirloom varieties proved quite marketable and generally easy to grow in Whidbey Island's maritime Northwest climate.

The project team planted Bull's Blood beet, a rare heirloom variety (1840) and Detroit Dark Red beet, the industry standard. The standard variety yielded moderately higher. Two hundred taste tests had mixed responses, but about two-thirds preferred the heirloom variety. Customers at the farmers market also liked the appearance of the Bull's Blood beet, which has copper red leaves.

Two comparable carrot varieties were planted at the beginning of May, Topweight, a rare heirloom variety from England, and Imperator, also an heirloom but the popular standard for commercial U.S. growers. Both varieties grew well and yielded the same. Blind taste tests conducted at the county fair yielded a clear preference for Topweight, by a 5-to-1 margin.

Two heirloom corn varieties, Hooker Sweet Corn and Mandan Red Parching Corn, were planted in May along with a popular hybrid sweet corn called Jubilee. The Mandan Red variety proved hardy and capable of germinating in the cool early May weather. However, the Hooker, a white corn developed by a Washington State grower in the 1930s, and most of the Jubilee failed to germinate. Despite drought conditions, the Mandan Red produced ears that were passable for roasting or boiling. In addition, the ears proved attractive for ornamentals.

The final comparison sowing, in September, was a modern hybrid spinach variety called Tyee and the heirloom Bloomsdale variety. Both germinated in less than a week and by late October were producing comparable yields of rich, dark greens.

The project team also planted three unusual tomato varieties, the best being an heirloom variety from

Czechoslovakia called Stupice. The plants produced tasty red tomatoes 2 to 3 inches in diameter. In October, when some varieties in the area were succumbing to late blight, Stupice showed no signs of the disease. A number of other crops - Painted Lady scarlet runner beans, Bolivian Red Amaranth and Black Seeded Sunflowers among them - were planted for decoration and demonstration.

Growing and increasing heirloom seed not only protects the genetic diversity of open-pollinated vegetable varieties, it provides a relatively easy-to-grow and marketable variety option for Pacific Northwest growers.

The project team recommends the heirloom vegetable varieties as part of the crop mix in home and market gardens.

"As our advisors and collaborators at the Abundant Life Seed Foundation explained at the seed-saving workshop," says project coordinator Michael Seraphinoff, "hybrid varieties have their special values, but open-pollinated heirloom varieties have theirs." He lists those values as preserving diversity, providing history and unique characteristics and preserving a certain self-reliance and independence through the saving of seed for planting next year.

Information on the heirloom varieties being grown was disseminated every Saturday through the growing season from a booth at the farmers market. In July, the project team began selling and handing out samples of the produce from the garden, along with a brochure. In late August, they took the booth to the Island County Fair for four days, where they conducted blind taste tests on the beets and carrots grown in the demonstration garden.

The project was also featured in articles in two local newspapers, and information from it was integrated into the Seed Saving Workshop presented at the garden by the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. The final report has been sent for possible reprinting to the foundation, the Washington Tilth Journal, Washington State University Island County Master Gardener Program and WSU Sustainable Agriculture.

Local market gardeners made frequent visits to the demonstration garden to observe the growing varieties.

Four of the Tilth Market's gardeners report that they plan to increase their sowings of selected heirloom varieties as a result of the project. Frank Parente and Sally Nelson say they plan to sow Bull's Blood beet. And Molly and Anna Peterson intend to sow the Stupice tomato.


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.