In just the last 100 years of farming, seed diversity in the United States has been almost entirely wiped out. Vicki Nowicki thinks that's a problem.
The Downers Grove woman and her husband, Ron, joined farmers and gardeners from Illinois, Indiana and Iowa Sunday at the Garfield Farm Museum just outside of Geneva for the 23rd Annual Heirloom Garden Show. Seeds for old varieties of vegetables and flowers were for sale as well as harvested heirloom produce and all natural, organic wine and tea for tasting.
"All of us growing heirloom varieties are just clinging to heirloom as the future of our farming," Nowicki said.
The lack of diversity is cause for concern because of the potential for disaster -- a disease could strike an entire crop and leave farmers without other varieties to turn to or the more modern varieties of certain vegetables that produce sterile seeds could become the norm. Then, of course, there's quality -- many gardeners argue the older varieties simply taste better.
Nowicki has worked to bring organic vegetable gardening to suburban homeowners for years, offering to do the work in their backyards. She more recently started the Liberty Gardens Project where her team installs a garden and then she offers constant online access as she tends the same garden through the entire growing season so people can learn along with her.
At Garfield Farm vegetable and flower gardens are planted based on varieties the Garfield family would have had pre-1859. Parsnips and lettuce didn't do so well this year with so little rain, but the garden still has incredible variety, including pumpkins, squash, carrots, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, potatoes and onions. Bill Wolcott, museum director, said the animals on the farm are also rare breeds that were common in the 1800s.
Karin Roberts, of St. Charles, made her first visit to the farm Sunday to purchase seeds with plans to double her own garden space. She just picked up gardening again about a year ago and is experimenting with canning her harvest too.
Visitors like Roberts got ideas and tips from master gardeners at the show, which more than 200 people attended despite a slow, steady rain.
And while the average gardener may be more interested in the tastiest variety, arguing for maintaining genetic diversity in agriculture is key to the museum's mission.
"It's all about preservation," Wolcott said.