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Fresh Sheet: Prime seeds the essence of heirloom produce feast

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While many of us make local foods a priority, our focus rarely goes beyond what’s in our basket — the bouquet of kale, creamy leeks, magenta beets, yellow peppers, or the cilantro that sings, “Deliciosa!” But the essence of the foods that keep us healthy are, of course, the seeds from which they sprout.

And within each seed are years of challenges from too little or too much rain, extremes in weather and debilitating pests. But it’s those challenges that make that basket of produce so hearty. Fortunately, cultivating prime seeds is a passion for a select few — and some of the best of them live right here.

The Willamette Valley climate produces world-class seed for food crops. Names familiar to gardeners from Oregon State University’s Department of Horticulture, William “Tex” Frazier and Jim Baggett, are behind the seeds in countless catalogs that we thumb through on winter nights, planting our best gardens in our heads. Jim Myers and others carry on their legendary work.

But not all seed developers are from OSU. Some are legends in their own fields — the plowed kind. Their seed businesses are intentionally small and hand-processed, but they combine the traditional with the high-tech in their distribution methods. In addition to traditional seed swaps, their heirloom seeds are available online, which reflects both a business strategy and a philosophy: Heirloom seeds need to remain in the public domain. That’s a critical point because the world’s food “system” teeters on mass distribution, licensing and other controls on a very few, primarily patented, crops.

Dr. Alan Kapuler, a microbiologist who co-founded Peace Seeds with his wife Linda, is world-renowned for his knowledge of seeds, plants and the essential life forms we don’t see. They share their research on maintaining and developing organically grown heirloom seeds. Their daughter, Dylana, and Mario Dibenedetto carry on their work through Peace Seedlings. Both of the following Web sites offer information to satisfy the most savvy seed enthusiast (www.peaceseeds.com and www.peaceseedlings.cn) and order forms. Peace Seedlings will be at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market, beginning April 17.

Frank and Karen Morton started saving and developing stronger seed varieties almost by happenstance when they owned Shoulder to Shoulder Farm, growing greens for restaurants nationwide. Their passion for seed selection led to a partnership with Gathering Together Farm in Wild Garden Seeds. Aimed primarily at farmers, gardeners also anticipate each new variety and the stories behind them. Catalog and ordering is on-line (www.wildgardenseed.com), although some are available in the bulk seed section at First Alternative Co-op’s south store, and through other seed catalogs.

One of those other seed catalogs belongs to Nichols Garden Nursery, celebrating their 60th year of featuring many heirloom, certified organic and locally-produced seeds from all the aforementioned breeders and their counterparts. Peruse their catalog and order at www.nicholsgardennursery.com or visit them at 1190 Old Salem Road N.E. in Albany.

Another of the budding generation, mentored by Kapuler, Morton and the Seed Ambassadors is Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger of Adaptive Seeds (www.adaptiveseeds.com) near Sweet Home. Their hard work, passion, and the generosity of current and previous seed savers (many simply frugal home gardeners) will help maintain the flow of healthful foods into our baskets.

Next time we’ll meet the experts at the other end of a seed’s life: chefs.

Fresh Sheet alerts readers to the seasonal foods that make the mid-Willamette Valley such a rich culinary area. Through tips from farmers, ranchers, fishers, cheese-makers and other food producers, as well as chefs and restaurateurs, Chris Peterson tracks what’s flowing from soil and sea to local plates. Contact her at localfood@peak.org.

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