Where to Buy Heirloom Beans

I got introduced to heirloom vegetables from a blurb in Sunset Magazine, in 1995, and. I’ve been fascinated ever since. There are lots of places to buy heirloom seeds, and only a handful of places to buy heirloom beans for eating. Here are the places that I trust and rely on:

Native Seeds/SEARCH (nativeseeds.org)
This group is doing a whole lot of really important work. Located in Tucson, Arizona, Native Seeds/SEARCH is a nonprofit conservation organization. Per their mission statement, “NS/S works to conserve, distribute and document the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seed, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwestern and northwest Mexico.”

NS/S maintains 2000 varieties of arid-land adapted agricultural crops (which means that many of them don’t grow well in my Midwestern climate), and most of these are indigenous. They grow the crops at their Conservation Farm in Patagonia, Arizona, and they offer seeds and several food items. Currently they offer 350 seed varieties and 9 varieties of eating beans.

One of the most interesting things this group is doing is studying the effect of native foods on Type II diabetes in the Native American population. Diabetes is epidemic in the Native American communities, and NS/S believes that it is because their bodies are particularly adapted to these indigenous crops. More so than Europeans, the Native American body is requires a diet of beans, grains and drought-tolerant crops. They have conducted many studies on the ability of native foods to reduce blood sugars in this population, and the results have been dramatic. This work is a real exploration of ethnobotany.

The website is a treasure trove for innovative cooks. They carry a wonderful array of hot peppers and chiles, mesquite flour, corn and corn flour, various seeds and herbs, and lots of gorgeous beans. Check them out at nativeseeds.org.

Seed Saver’s Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/)

My first-ever heirloom seeds came from Seed Saver’s Exchange, and I’ve been a steady customer ever since. The organization was founded in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, after Diane’s terminally-ill grandfather gave them the seeds of two garden plants that his parents brought from Bavaria in the 1870s. These seeds, Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory and the German Pink Tomato, are available through SSE’s catalog today. Their stated mission is to “save and share the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.” They do the bulk of this work at Heritage Farm, their 890-acre headquarters near Decorah, Iowa. The farm showcases the remarkable and strange array of plants, but they also work to preserve “heirloom” animals. One of those is the endangered Ancient White Park Cattle: These cattle roamed the British Isles before the time of Christ, and are accurately described in Celtic myth and lore. Today there are only about 800 of them alive. Abut 200 reside in the U.S, and 80 of them at Heritage Farm.

SSE offers a large catalog of seeds, but one of the happiest benefits of membership is their annual Seed Savers Yearbook. This publication provides members access to more than 11,000 rare vegetables, fruits and grains, each of which is maintained by a SSE member. Members are encouraged to trade seeds with one another and in that way build both the supply of these extremely rare, generally undistributed seeds and also relationships. According to SSE’s website, SSE’s members offer nearly twice as many vegetable varieties as are available from all of the mail-order seed catalogs in both the U.S. and Canada.

One thing that sets SSE’s heirloom collection apart from many others is that in addition to vegetables, they distribute seeds of many flowers and herbs. They also have an impressive collection of 23 eating beans, which I will most certainly make my way through this year!

With photos of the farm, the rare cattle, and all the beautiful plants and seeds, the SSE website is a feast for the eyes. Visit them at http://www.seedsavers.org/

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (http://rareseeds.com/)

While Baker Creek doesn’t sell eating beans, he carries 24 varieties of beans seeds for those among us who are inspired (or required, as I may be when I’m running out of heirloom beans I can buy in quantities big enough to eat!) to grow our own. (And okay, I’d grow them anyway — this site will expand come gardening season, I suspect). Jere Gettle is the seedsman, farmer, world traveler, photographer, and hoe-down organizer who owns and runs Baker Creek Heirloom seeds, and he alone is worth a visit to the site (trust me!) Once you’re there though, you’ll be drawn in by his 1,200 varieties of heirloom seeds, including things the Ali Babi watermelon, an oblong fruit with a grayish rind and a piercing flavor that was sent to him from Iraq by a seed collector who had rescued the seeds. This is a very personable bunch of people, and the service is fast and the seeds are generous. If you’re a gardener, you don’t want to miss this. He’s at http://rareseeds.com/