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Slow Food is saving heirloom seeds for future generations.

Words by Vivian Whitney and Alison Magill
Interview by Anna Mulé

“Within our food system, people don’t think of seeds…
They are the ultimate part of the food system. They are the beginning and the end of the food system.”

“Within our food system, people don’t think of seeds… They are the ultimate part of the food system. They are the beginning and the end of the food system,” says Alison Magill, seed saver and leader of Slow Food Seacoast. That’s why Slow Food Seacoast, based out of Southern Maine and New Hampshire, partnered with organizations in the community to create the Piscataqua Seed Project (PSP), named after the Piscataqua River and Abenaki word meaning rapid water.

The Long Pie Pumpkin was brought to New England from São Jorge Island in the 1830s and named for its long, cylindrical shape, but fell into obscurity by the 1980s. Seed savers in New England got to work to revive the heirloom variety, and the Piscataqua Seed Project has helped to preserve the unique pumpkin and pass its seeds along to farmers in New Hampshire and Maine.

Slow Food Seacoast grew and cooked the Long Pie Pumpkin for their annual Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner, and it’s now become a favorite for the chefs involved in the meal. It is grown at two gardens run by the Heirloom Harvest Project, in collaboration with the Piscataqua Seed Project (PSP).

With a mission “to empower people to grow food locally and save heirloom seeds for future generations,” PSP focuses on open-pollinated heirloom seeds and distributes them at no cost to anyone who wants to grow them. They host workshops around seed saving techniques and heirloom varietals like the True Red Cranberry Bean, the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Jacob’s Cattle Bean, and Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry. “Many of these varieties have a history of regional use. For example, a seed of True Red Cranberry Bean was found in the walls of a 17th century house at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. This inspired PSP to test its viability and is currently experimenting with growing it on corn, with the next step being to introduce it to cooks and eaters,” Magill notes.

The Piscataqua Seed Project is a collaboration of Slow Food Seacoast, Seacoast Permaculture, Strawbery Banke Museum Horticulture Department, and Bedrock Gardens, and came from two projects that merged together to become the Piscataqua Seed Project.

HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED

In 2009, Slow Food Seacoast hosted an Ark of Taste experience with Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet Restaurant in Portsmouth. The tasting, as well as the overarching mission of the Ark of Taste, inspired Evan and farmer Josh Jennings to begin the Heirloom Harvest Project, with support from Slow Food Seacoast and Chef’s Collaborative. This project connected chefs and farmers by providing farmers with Ark of Taste seeds to grow, then partnering them with chefs who prepared the crops for the Heirloom Harvest Barn Fundraising Dinner. 

Proceeds from the Barn Dinner were awarded to community members who were making an impact on the local food system. Within a few years of this project starting, it was decided to create a specific garden for trialing heirloom varieties — in addition to the products farmers were growing — to increase the supply of produce for the project. The funds from the dinner were used to pay a stipend to the gardener running the garden. As of 2020, there are two locations growing out heirloom varieties for the project on a trial basis. 

Slow Food Seacoast invited a speaker to our 2017 Seed to Soil Garden Conference to share her experiences with seed libraries and seed saving. From that workshop, several organizations collaborated to create a community-based seed saving organization they called the Piscataqua Seed Project (PSP). The PSP encourages the sharing of skills and knowledge, and believes that a healthy food system is critical for creating resilient communities and connecting us to our cultural heritage. 

In 2018, participants of the two projects realized that the Heirloom Harvest Project garden could offer opportunities for saving seeds as well. All crops had the potential for seed harvesting since the gardens were growing only open-pollinated and Ark of Taste varieties. Gardeners began to leave some of the produce in the field to grow out for seed, and PSP held seed saving workshops in the gardens. They used both the saved seed and purchased seed to give away to the community. Funding for the seed came, in part, from donations and also from the large annual events. 

The Piscataqua Seed Project received a grant in 2019 to expand, which allowed the collection of data on the specific crops that were being grown in the heirloom gardens, the opportunity to get feedback from chefs regarding their flavor and preparation, and capacity to make informational brochures for farmers to use at the markets or their farm stands to promote the foods they were growing. 

Of course, 2020 has brought about a completely changed world! Without public events as venues for seed distribution, PSP created Veggie-Go Earth Day Seed Kits that contained six seed packets, and distributed them for free through farm stands, restaurants and CSA pickups. The brochures are still under construction, but the gardens are growing.