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Heirloom seeds bring forgotten tastes back to Great Lakes region

Apr 6, 2017

As we ease our way into spring, gardeners might want to consider planting heirloom seeds.

The emerald gem melon.
Credit Courtesy of Nature and Nurture Seeds

That's Erica Kempter's advice to growers this year. She's co-owner of an organic seed farm called Nature and Nurture.

The result could be a chance to taste surprising and often forgotten foods that belong here in the Great Lakes region. 

Though exact definitions vary, Kempter said heirloom seeds can usually be traced back at least 50 years. They’re also typically associated with a cultural tradition or place.

These seeds bring growers, and consumers, “a lot of different things” usual store-bought seeds don’t, she said.

“You are getting, oftentimes, more flavor,” Kempter said. “Which is really exciting. You know, the amount of food that’s available in our grocery stores is quite limited compared to what’s actually out there and available to eat.”

Take the emerald gem melon, for example. It’s an heirloom fruit from Benzie County grown from heirloom seeds.

“It’s sweet and juicy and fruity flavored,” Kempter said. “It’s kind of a whole-body experience when you eat it. The flesh is really soft and that’s why you don’t find melons like that in the grocery store, because they can’t be packaged and shipped. But when you eat it, it kind of melts in your mouth and it’s just incredible – delectable.”

The early Detroit tomato is another example.

“It looks similar to a standard, kind of medium-round red slicing tomato,” she said, “but the flavor is just pop-in-your-mouth and it has this incredible balance between sweetness and tartness…”

But Kempter said she had to go “to extraordinary measures” to find early Detroit tomato seeds.

“In the last 100 years, we’ve lost thousands and thousands of heirlooms,” she said.

Part of Nature and Nurture’s goal is therefore to preserve these seeds. That's because we need genetic biodiversity in our food, Kempter said.

“In the Irish potato famine, what happened was there was only one type of potato that was grown throughout the entire island,” she said. “And then that year, there was a blight that came through – that’s a disease – that knocked out all those potatoes. And because they were all genetically identical, they all died and people starved.”

To maintain diversity in our food system, Nature and Nurture also works to created “heirlooms of tomorrow” – new, evolved seeds.

To hear how seed diversity could strengthen our food system in the face of climate change and dramatic weather events, listen above.

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