Selling Great-Tasting Heirloom Plants and Vegetables

Heirloom vegetables are hot these days, thanks to their superb old-time taste. Here's how the Garden State Heirloom Seed Society is helping growers cash in on this market gardening opportunity.

  • Heirloom Plants
    Heirloom plants bring the old-time taste back to vegetables.
    Photo courtesy RICK WETHERBEE

  • Heirloom Plants

Heirloom vegetables are all the rage right now. Edible nostalgia, they've been called. For good reason: Heirlooms bring the old-time taste back to vegetables, and call to mind all the romance of country living at its best. People who've never planted a seed in their lives are seeking heirlooms out at farmers markets, and gourmet chefs are featuring the produce on their menus.

Savvy market growers, naturally, want to capitalize on this trend. Their problem: Tracking down enough heirloom seed.

For the home gardener, obtaining heirloom seed is no big thing. Many seed companies now offer heirlooms, and there are numerous seed swapping organizations and bio-diversity groups whose sole purpose is to preserve these varieties by distributing seed in one manner or another. But too often, this means providing only enough seed for a sample grow-out. The idea is that the gardener plant those seeds the first year in order to produce enough new seed for a full crop in subsequent years.

"This is difficult for the commercial grower," points out Rich Sisti, honcho of Catalpa Ridge Farm in Wantage, New Jersey. Sisti sells his produce at three different locations; one in downtown Manhattan, one in Hoboken, and one in his home town. in addition, he grows tomato transplants for a supermarket chain. "I can't deal with just 25 seeds. I mean, what am I going to do with that few?

One solution for Sisti, along with about 80 other farmers and market growers, is the Garden State Heirloom Seed Society. Like most grassroots heirloom seed organizations, GSHSS has home gardeners, market growers, and farmers among its 600 members. Unlike most other such groups, at GSHSS the emphasis is on helping the farmers and market growers.

"The hallmark of GSHSS," says founder Joe Cavanaugh, "is that we provide our growers with seed at no cost. This lets them trial out numerous varieties of heirloom vegetables, and stay up to date on what's popular." Some of his members, he points out, test 50 or more varieties a year. "We encourage them to save their own seed," he notes, "because in most areas seeds adapt to the area where they're grown, and you will get better production if you save the seed yourself." While growers are urged to save seed, it is not a requirement by any means. Sisti, for instance, does not save seed because of time constraints. "We deliver to our members through October," he points out. "When you are busy making deliveries, it's hard to spend the time it takes to save seed."

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