Monday, May 14, 2012

Heirlooms of Importance

By Kathleen Ernst

I didn’t set out to write an “issue” novel when I began The Heirloom Murders, second in my Chloe Ellefson series.

I did want to include a plotline about the importance of preserving heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  Historic sites like the real outdoor museum Old World Wisconsin, where my fictional protagonist Chloe works as a curator, play a key role in perpetuating these heirlooms.

And as I’ve written here before, it is important.  When I worked at Old World Wisconsin back in the 1980s and ‘90s, I learned how much genetic diversity we’ve lost in the last century or so—over 90%, by most estimates.  

Small seed companies have been overrun by big ones.  Small family farms have been gobbled by huge factory farms which practice monoculture.  Consumers have come to expect produce that looks good after long traveling half-way around the planet, which encourages growers to focus on only those varieties that can make the trip.

Educators at historic sites help visitors consider that some endangered variety might be the only one that can stand up to the next pest, disease, or drought.   

And happily, more and more home growers are raising heirloom verities.  I try a few new ones each year in my own garden.  Initially, I hoped that The Heirloom Murders would help introduce the fun and of raising heirlooms to a few more gardeners, perhaps in turn keeping a few more varieties vibrant.

But when I started writing The Heirloom Murders, I discovered some pretty scary stuff.  A few mega-companies have been working hard to take control of the world’s food supply.  They promise farmers in rural areas that their company’s genetically-modified seeds will produce better yields and resist drought, parasites, and insects.  If the sales pitch works, people stop growing their time-honored varieties of grain or vegetables and buy the genetically-modified seeds—sometimes taking out loans to do so.

Tragically, things don’t always work out as promised.  In India, for example, many farmers who purchased genetically modified seed have experienced total crop failure.  Traditionally, farmers would save seed and replant the following year, but the new genetic modifications force farmers to buy more seed from the company each year.  According to a watchdog organization, an estimated 125,000 farmers in India have committed suicide after crop failure and financial ruin.

The situation so frightening that a number of countries around the world, from Poland to Peru, are banning the sale and use of genetically engineered seeds.

So as it turns out, the importance of preserving heirloom seeds is even greater than I knew.  I felt good about including that theme in my mystery.  And that made it especially rewarding to learn that The Heirloom Murders was being awarded the Anne Powers Fiction Book Prize by the Council for Wisconsin Writers.  (That's me at the awards ceremony, below.)

By the way, if you’d like to learn more about heirloom gardening, check out Putting Down Roots:  Gardening Insights From Wisconsin’s Early Settlers, by my friend Marcia Carmichael, Historic Gardener at Old World Wisconsin.  Marcia’s book earned Honorable Mention in the Outdoor Writing Category of the CWW’s awards.

And if you’ve got some space in your garden, why not try some heirloom seeds?

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You can learn more about the Chloe Ellefson mysteries at


Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks, Dru!

Shannon Baker said...

This is a fascinating topic. 10 or 15 years ago I started to write a thriller involving giant ag corps and their quest to control the food supply. Well, I decided it would be an evil quest. I never finished it but the research was scary and compelling. Can't wait to read your book.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Definitely scary, Shannon! It would certainly provide plenty of material for a thriller.