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You may have noticed that summer tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes these days. The variety of small cherry tomatoes to rainbow colors to lopsided oval shapes is all thanks to heirloom seeds. You may not have thought about where those tomatoes come from.
Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that educates gardeners about heirloom seeds, defines an heirloom as any garden plant with a history that has been passed down within a family. It’s just like a piece of furniture or jewelry. Some definitions say the seed variety has to be 50 years old, while others say it has to be passed down through a family.
“We say that with heirlooms, every seed has a story to tell,” said John Torgrimson, executive director of Seed Savers. “This variety was created somewhere by someone and was maintained over time, so there must be a reason. I think the most common reason is it was saved because this is a tomato somebody liked, and it was saved by a family.”
Seed diversity remains an important issue today. As large-scale farms take over family farms, many heirloom varieties have been replaced with hybrid tomatoes known for their commercial appeal.
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s is an example of what happens when farmers rely on only a few plant species to feed a society. The entire crop was taken out and led to the death or displacement of more than 2.5 million people.
The genetic diversity of the world’s food crops maintains thousands of years of adaption and selection. Each variety has developed resistance to disease and pests, and plant breeders use these older varieties to breed resistance in modern crops. Without these infusions, our food supply is at risk to epidemics and infestations like the potato famine.
Seed Savers Exchange was founded in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy after Diane’s grandfather gave them garden seeds from Bavaria from four generations earlier.