A neat grid of plain white paper plates covers the table and sideboards by the dozen in the dining room of Amy Goldman's elegant yet homey farm house in Rhinebeck, N.Y., 120 miles north of the city. The center of each plate is mounded with seeds, each rim neatly notated with seemingly nonsensical names such as "Carry On, Carry On," "Jiarg," and "Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter."
While it looks as though Ms. Goldman has set up an elaborate game for a child's birthday party, she's actually engaged in a high-stakes survival match. Many of these seeds, extracted from more than 500 varieties of tomatoes she grew last summer on a sunny knoll on her 200-acre farm, carry the genetics of little-known heirloom species.
The plants were started from seed in her greenhouse this past April. After the last frost, the seedlings were planted in her garden on a sunny knoll and harvesting began this past July. Diverse in appearance and taste, all they have in common is that their futures are endangered. "Thousands of heirloom vegetables and fruits are dead and gone due to consolidation of seed companies," Ms. Goldman said last week. "There's more profit in selling new hybrid and genetically modified seeds than the good old varieties." Ms. Goldman, whose family had large real estate holdings in the city, has no need to profit from the bounty of her garden. It all goes to friends.
All that keeps many heirloom strains of fruits and vegetables extant is a nationwide band of dedicated home gardeners and family farmers. At harvest, they preserve seeds and pass them on to others, notably through the Web site of Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decora, Iowa. Ms. Goldman is a leading force in that organization, where more than 20,000 heirloom seeds repose. The organization's splendid new, barn-style visitor center is named for her late mother, Lillian.
Some heirloom seeds came to America sewn into the clothing of immigrants who wanted to keep a gustatory connection to their former lives. Other seeds, such as those of acorn squash, are New World natives. All contribute to "the agricultural diversity necessary to our very survival," Ms. Goldman said. "They also often taste so much better than the supermarket stuff."
She pointed to a plate of tomato seeds marked "African Queen," a big, pinkish-skinned variety that she got from a seed saver named John Coykendall who lives and farms around Knoxville, Tenn. African Queen is unlikely to be found commercially. "It's got high sugar content and blood-red flesh," she said. "This is a tomato that's so delicious that you want to slather it all over your face."
For the last five summers, Ms. Goldman — who may be an upstate farmer but dresses like she is on Fifth Avenue — has been focused on growing heirloom tomatoes for a book called "Homegrown Tomatoes," to be published by Bloomsbury Books in July 2008. She previously authored "The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds" (Artisan) and "Melons for the Passionate Grower" (Artisan). "I was so busy growing tomatoes last summer that I wasn't going to grow any melons," Ms. Goldman said, "but my daughter, Sara, who is 15, begged me to grow some, because they're her favorite thing. So I planted her favorite, Blacktail Mountain, a cannonball type whose dense, scarlet flesh is the standard by which we both judge all other watermelons."
As an 18-year-old, Ms. Goldman created her first kitchen garden in her backyard in Oyster Bay, L.I. Though primarily self-taught, she admits that her family's Italian gardener "showed me how to ramp up the heat in an enclosed space in order to grow better melons," she said. For years, gardening took a backseat to Ms. Goldman's stint as a clinical psychologist in the Rhinebeck area. "But the interest was always there," she said of gardening, and in the late 1980s, she got serious about growing prize produce. "I was meshugge enough to grow zucchinis and straightneck squashes in plastic bags to preserve their perfect complexions," she said.
One year, at the Dutchess County Fair, she won 38 blue ribbons and the grand championship. Her entries also won top honors at the New York State fair. "For me, those awards were like winning another doctoral degree," she said.
Those harvest season triumphs put a premium on "form and size over flavor," she said. Preserving heirloom varieties was not Ms. Goldman's priority. But even as she accumulated blue ribbons, she began "falling in love" with heirloom produce, the tastes of which could leave supermarket varieties far behind. The beloved American field pumpkin, for example, may be ideal for carving jack-o'-lanterns — but it's mediocre in pies unless rescued by heavy cream, spices, and even maple syrup. "That stringy, watery flesh in its raw form makes me gag," Ms. Goldman said. "It's for livestock, not pie stock."
Her favorite pie pumpkin is called Winter Luxury Pie, a small variety with an "outrageous trophy fruit stalk," she said. Winter Lux, as heirloom farmers call this pumpkin, "holds its shape, color and flavor long after the competition has keeled over and died," Ms. Goldman said. She lists four seed sources for Winter Lux in "The Compleat Squash."
Despite exhaustive research for her books, Ms. Goldman is constantly discovering new heirloom varieties. On a table in her roomy kitchen last week rested a large tan pumpkin covered with pale green bumps. Called Miller's Cove, it did not appear in "The Compleat Squash" because she had yet to come across it. The seeds had been sent to her by Mr. Coykendall, the Tennessee seed saver. His own source was a farmer in the remote hills of western North Carolina. "John told me that this man [in North Carolina] still spoke with cadences of Elizabethan England," Ms. Goldman said.
As she walked a visitor toward her greenhouse, a large deer bolted from the herb garden and raced off between the rows of the apple orchard. "Don't the deer eat your vegetables?" she was asked. Ms. Goldman insisted that they didn't. And what about her flowers?
"They can eat all the flowers they want," she answered. "The only kinds of plants that I can relate to are ones that I can eat."