Fruit o’ the Heirloom

Petaluma sows the seeds of a revolution


It’s hard to talk about heirloom seeds without a little end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it creeping in. With Monsanto pushing a genetically modified agenda; with the USDA approving genetically modified Roundup Ready alfalfa, which could kill organic dairy practices; with organic giants like Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farm surrendering to Monsanto; and with cross-contamination from GMOs threatening the foundation of food as we know it, where’s a person to turn?

Well, Petaluma, actually.

With a proliferation of heirloom seed companies, Petaluma has become ground zero for a growing revolution in farming. Unlike many hybrid and genetically modified varieties, heirloom variety plants—generally more than 50 years old and open-pollinated—contain viable seeds. Before WWII, most plants would have been considered “heirloom,” and while many “new” heirloom varieties are becoming available to consumers, there are several varieties lost each year via cross-pollination or other means. Saving and protecting heirloom varieties, especially in light of Monsanto’s raid, is more important than ever.

Petaluma is home to two separate seed houses that do just that, specializing in cataloguing, propagating and protecting heirloom variety seeds.

In downtown Petaluma, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company occupies some of the best real estate in the city with its Petaluma Seed Bank. A former bank, the building is stately and imposing, an amusingly ironic place for a company with a mission-before-profit attitude. Paul Wallace, manager, says the location is perfect.

“When you go to any city,” Wallace says, “it’s like the bank is the focal point. In San Francisco, you have the Bank of America building, and it’s the same here. In this town, the bank is the focal point, but for a different reason.”

Baker Creek Seed Company was founded in Missouri and expanded into the Petaluma location in 2009. This fall, it holds the first-annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa. Christian Dake recently joined the company to plan events like the expo, and says the renewed interest in heirlooms is natural, given the state of agriculture in the United States.

“People are realizing what we have right now, and what we have to lose,” Dake says. “It appears that corporations want to have control over what we grow. Once a corporation owns your right to plant a seed, you lose a lot of freedom.”

Like many in the heirloom movement, Baker Creek and its founder Jere Gettle are concerned about just such a corporate takeover of food; genetically modified crops, particularly corn, have been known to cross-pollinate with non-GMO varieties, often rendering them sterile and unsellable. Because of this, the company tests every batch of corn that comes in, and has taken a stance that every heirloom seed is valuable, from marshmallow flowers to the African jelly mellon.

“We’re not gong to get rich selling African jelly melons in Petaluma,” Wallace quips.

A couple miles away, in an old barn on a three-acre farm, employees at the Sustainable Seed Company are filling orders that come in through their online-only catalogue. Founders John Fendley and Theo Bill say they started the company in 2009 because they saw a space in the market for preserving heirloom varieties.

“I looked out there,” Fendley says, “and there just weren’t very many companies selling seeds that were open-pollinated. It really made me nervous.”

Fendley says the company’s focus is on preserving and developing the right seeds for California growers. His company has taken to resurrecting grains developed by Luther Burbank—barleys that require little water to grow, for example—and other crops that can tolerate foggy nights in coastal regions or dry summers in the Central Valley.

“You try to take a tomato that is grown in the hot parts of China,” Fendley explains, “and try to move it here. It’s not going to do well with the foggy nights.”

Proponents of heirloom varieties say that’s one of the great things about old strains. They were developed by generations of people who farmed in the same area, who selected for traits that made certain plants desirable for specific locations. Fendley says that today, many seeds are grown outside the United States and sold to consumers without much thought to matching varieties with optimum growing locations. Also, he says, it’s hard to monitor overseas farms. Even crops with organic and heirloom labels may be grown using destructive slash-and-burn agriculture techniques, he says.

“We’ve been trained in California to ask where our food is coming from,” Fendley says. “But we’re not yet asking where our seeds are coming from, or were they grown sustainably?

“We’re supporting American farming,” he adds. “American farm families are going extinct.”

Within blocks of Sustainable Seed Company’s farm, yet another major seed house is scrambling to fill orders, during what’s the busiest season of the year for seed companies. The Natural Gardening Company sells both live plants and seeds, mostly organic with some heirloom varieties. It has another distinction—the company’s owner, David Baldwin, claims the Natural Gardening Company is the oldest certified organic nursery in the United States.

Started in 1986 in San Anselmo, the company moved to a half-acre Petaluma farm in 1993. Baldwin may have been ahead of his time, but he doesn’t quite fit the conventional image of an organic pioneer. He wears a cordless phone earpiece and slacks, and doesn’t sing the same gospel of dying bees, corporate Frankenfoods and vanishing heirloom strains that’s so common in the modern organic food movement.

“The heirloom thing has gone through cycles. In my lifetime, this is probably the second cycle,” Baldwin says. “When I was young and I thought I was hip, it was rock and roll. Now, if you’re young and hip, you want to have a garden. I think it’s great.”

Of the 300 or so varieties sold through the Natural Gardening Company, Baldwin says 20 to 25 are grown on-site. “I didn’t go into this because I wanted to rage against the machine,” Baldwin says. “I guess you could say it’s more of a personal interest. We don’t go around trying to proselytize. We try to offer good products and offer compelling information.”

Baldwin says Petaluma was a natural choice for a location, with a rather plain explanation. “It was affordable,” he says, “at a time when we needed space for additional greenhouses.”

All three seed companies had similar rationales for choosing their home base. Why Petaluma? Good weather, affordable land and the area’s agricultural history all play a role. “Honestly, we were looking for something that had enough structures on it,” Fendley says. “Petaluma, because of the history of agriculture, it was perfect.”