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Heirlooms preserve farming’s past
May 06, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Photo by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Nathan and Beth Corymb, owners of Meadowlark Hearth farms east of Scottsbluff, talk about the rich genetic diversity of Heirloom seeds.

In some ways considered a niche market, there might be something to organic farming.

Heirloom seeds, a big part of the organic movement, give the rudimentary gardener pause for thought, and motivation to Nathan and Beth Corymb, proud owners of Meadowlark Hearth farm a few miles East of Scottsbluff on Highway 26, where such natural seeds are sold.

Nathan said, Heirloom seeds are important because of their rich genetic diversity, valuable to the farmers and gardeners who have planted them over time. Eventually, they become “locally adapted,” which means, because people keep them over generations, they can grow more readily in different kinds of climates, while over-the-counter seeds, which are centrally produced, may not be as well-suited.

In the past, farmers would save their seeds, which turned out to be tens of thousands of breeding projects. There’s a process of selection, which is determined in part by what a farmers decide they like, and what crops they end up producing, or yield. After each growing season, those seeds which are favorable on both counts – the best seeds – end up being saved.

As an example of the genetic diversity, the Barassica oleracea (latin for ‘potherb’) or a species of plant that includes kale, underwent a process of selection. As Nathan described it, “there were some cultures which preferred the leaves, bulbs, or stems, over other parts of the plant, and therefore grew the plants which produced those parts. As a result, farmers and gardeners developed strains of Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, cabbage, and kohlrabi all from the same wild plant.”

For those who produce Heirloom seeds, it is called a process of “mass selection.”

Nathan added, that the process of mass selection thus enriched a gardeners’ experience. “The seeds adapt to the grower and the grower adapts to the seed,” Nathan said.

The Corymbs estimate they have about 150 different varieties of Heirloom seeds. Beth walked through the couple’s greenhouse explaining how, so far this growing season, the couple has had four to six different plantings. “Once they show a true leaf, they are transplanted to another flat with more room, and greater exposure to the natural light,” Beth said, describing the optimum conditions for bringing the seedlings along. Temperature also plays a role. She pointed to plants on a table, in the middle of the green house, explaining that some plants are not cold tolerant.

Describing the practical aspects, Beth said in 2014, they harvested 30-40 cabbage plants to produce an adequate population. “Population is important because it diminishes the chance of inbreeding,” Nathan said. “Recessive traits could emerge, which could result in yellow leaves, or no flowering.”

The plants were then stored in a root cellar. Those same plants were replanted in April of 2015. After being pollinated by friendly insects, the plants yielded about three pounds of seed.
Those same seeds were planted for the 2016 cabbage crop.

Nathan and Beth learned about seeding from their training in Switzerland and Germany. They also have visited seed conferences in several states, usually events supported by organizations such as the Organic Seed Alliance in Oregon, and the Seed Savers Exchange, with its membership growing steadily since the early 1980s. “People have been returning to saving their own seeds,” Nathan said. According to its website, Seed Savers, found in Winneshiek County, Iowa, has roughly 13,000 members and 20,000 plant varieties.

Beth added, a grant through the Department of Agriculture for specialty crops and teaching seed growing has helped promote Heirloom seeding. To teach more about Heirloom seeds, and why they are beneficial, Meadowlark Hearth is offering several workshops through the summer and fall. The next scheduled workshop is July 9-10 and will give a guided tour of vegetables going to flower: carrots, parsnips, turnips, onions, beets, kohlrabi to name a few. Nathan and Beth also announced that spring bedding plants can be sold by appointment with the farm, or by stopping by on May 20 or May 27 between 4:30-6:30 p.m.

Stay tuned for fall workshops in September and October.

To order Heirloom seeds locally, visit www.meadowlarkhearth.org or email Beth and Nathan at bcorymb@gmail.com.
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