Heritage seeds: A good save

In many ways, Jen Montgomery and her husband, Greg Boulos, are throwback farmers. They save their seeds from year to year and grow many of their own seedlings.

But their ambitions stretch beyond the wooded boundaries of Blackberry Meadows Farm, their 85-acre organic operation in Fawn. They also want to grow the seed-saving community, in a venture that marries a time-honored agricultural practice with 21st-century technology.

This spring, they're rolling out the Heritage Seed Collective, a project designed to bring back the lost foods and flavors enjoyed by our Western Pennsylvania ancestors.

They're starting small and local, eventually growing in their greenhouses 32 varieties, all culturally and historically linked to this region and listed on the U.S. Ark of Taste, Slow Food's compendium of more than 200 rare and endangered regional foods.

They're selling the plants at Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District, the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze, Whole Foods Market in East Liberty and Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery in Wilkinsburg.

For anyone interested, the collective will provide empty seed packs and instructions on how to save the seeds. Ask for them at the above stores.

The colorful, sturdy seed packets were designed by Paul Fireman of Fireman Creative and printed on heavy stock by Alisa Dix at her Third Termite Press in Oakland, they feature vintage lithographs of a barn, chickens and a fawn.

Tomatoes are the first available varieties and include Sheboygan, German Pink, Amish paste and Chalk's Early Jewel, a meaty, juicy, deep red variety created by James Chalk of Norristown and introduced in 1899.

Another is Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, a large beefsteak with few seeds, developed in the 1930s by radiator repairman M.C. "Charlie" Byles of Logan, W.Va. He sold the seedlings for $1 each, which helped pay off the $6,000 mortgage on his house.

Hot peppers will include the thumb-sized, multicolored Fish and the Pennsylvania Dutch Hinkelhatz, a rare, red or yellow heirloom cultivated by Mennonites for more than 150 years. The name means chicken heart, which describes its size and shape.

Seed Savers Exchange, the Iowa-based seed bank founded in 1975, is contributing four varieties of bean seeds.

"We'll grow them out to increase the seed bank and have them available next year," Ms. Montgomery said.

Mr. Fireman is developing the website, heritageseeds.org, that will be an essential component of the project.

"Instead of a physical place, which is harder and harder to make happen in our busy lives, there will be a digital place to meet," Mr. Fireman said.

Ms. Montgomery said, "You're identifying who's growing what and how you can start sharing that seed collection."

Anyone growing one of the 32 Ark of Taste varieties will be able to access the site and enter information about where it was grown and how well it performed.

"But we don't want to just stop there," Mr. Fireman said. "Let's say you live in Sewickley and have a great zucchini variety; you can share the seeds for that and maybe we can come up with a name if it doesn't have a name."

The website will have an educational component, with information about seed-saving drawn from or linking to agricultural extension websites.

"Our goal is to get more seed banks started in community gardens," beginning with the garden at the Hazelwood YMCA, Mr. Boulos said.

The collective is supported by a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation through the Sprout Fund's biodiversity program.

To launch the website, they're raising money through Kickstarter.com, a funding platform for creative projects. No money will change hands unless the project meets its $10,000 fundraising goal by July 1.

There will be a Facebook page, too, Mr. Fireman said, inviting all those Farmville farmers growing virtual seeds to take up the real thing.

Patricia Lowry: plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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