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By Amy Bowen, Published August 12 2013

Heirloom seeds lead natural food movement

RICE, Minn. – History is growing at Johnson Heritage Farms.

Rows of tomatoes, beans and peppers are slowly ripening in Rice. Each tomato, bean and pepper is slightly different. Some have dents. Others are bigger. Colors range from deep reds to vibrant greens.

That’s the beauty of them.

Julie Johnson manages the 150-acre farm, even though the garden only takes a portion of that.

Every piece of produce is grown from an heirloom seed. These seeds are not hybrids or genetically modified, and they were often passed along by generations of growers.

“It’s seed (that) people have grown forever,” Johnson said. “They are true seeds.”

Johnson grows seeds naturally. The crops are open-air pollinated, and she does not use fertilizer.

She buys seeds through Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa nonprofit that promotes the preservation of heirloom seeds.

The exchange hopes to secure a genetically diverse crop. Traditional crops are engineered to have the same taste, color and shape. Heirloom seed crops are all different.

“I like true seed,” Johnson said. “I like biodiversity. I don’t particularly care if it doesn’t have the same color or shape. Every tomato has a different, unique flavor and its own shape.”

Johnson also gets seeds from friends or acquaintances. She grows four kinds of beans, including a long pole bean called the Kratzke bean.

The bean seed was from the farm’s soil vendor. He gave Johnson a snuff tin full of bean seeds.

Another friend gave Johnson red potato onion seeds. It’s a hearty winter onion that was made into an onion soup.

Crops, such as the Kratzke bean and the red potato onion, are much like the seeds sowed by Johnson’s grandmother years ago.

Johnson spent summers with her in the garden.

“She got me hooked,” she said. “The fun of it grew into a passion and then it grew into an obsession.”

Heirloom seeds are part of a movement for locally grown and natural foods, Johnson said. The Seed Savers Exchange’s 2013 yearbook offers almost 12,500 seed varieties. All seeds are from members.

“The whole local-food movement has exploded,” Johnson said. “People want to know what’s on their food. People have figured out that food should not have to look the same or taste the same.”

Johnson credits a healthier diet to medical benefits, too.

She says an organic diet helped her mother-in-law live with advanced lung cancer.

She said her family member was told she would live no longer than three months after her initial diagnosis.

Johnson’s mother-in-law lived two years before dying in 2007.

Heirloom seeds are coming back into vogue, but for Johnson, it’s always been a way of life.

“I grow food like my grandma did,” she said. “Food isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. It needs to be grown well and taste well.”