Restoring Vermont’s Heritage
of Wheat and Seed-Saving
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
“The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.”
This insightful statement could have been written in the shadow of today’s rampant consumerism, climate change, and depletive agriculture. However, it was penned back in 1868 by Cyrus Guernsey Pringle (1838–1911), a visionary Vermont plant explorer who not only bred wheat, grapes, potatoes, and oats well adapted to Vermont, but combed Vermont’s hills, and many lands beyond, to assemble one of the largest botanical collections of his time. Cyrus Pringle’s legacy is being re-discovered today as more Vermonters are seeking to restore traditions of seed-saving and to create artisan breads made from local heritage wheats.
As a seed-saver and plant breeder, I was thrilled to discover Cyrus Pringle five years ago. In the University of Vermont herbarium that bears his name, I read his eloquent instructions on how to cross tiny flowers of wheat, his descriptions of the traits of grape plants and the habits of potato flowers, and his commentary on state-of-the-art breeding methods for crossing plants with good traits to create robust gene pools for local adaptation. Pringle amassed a vast collection of botanical samples from throughout the U.S. and Mexico, and exchanged seeds with scores of Europeans. The Pringle Herbarium today houses over 20,000 samples of his great collection, and more are stored in the Smithsonian and Harvard University, which funded him in the 1800s.
What are the grain varieties that Pringle developed? Following are the three wheat and one oat variety I’m aware of:
Defiance is a cross of White Hamburg from England and Golden Drop from Germany, made by Pringle in 1871. This club wheat was popular on the Pacific slope in the late 1800s.
Champlain, a delicious, early maturing hard red spring, is a cross of Golden Drop and Black Sea, a now-extinct, hardy, and deep-rooted wheat from the Transcaucasia region.
Surprise is a cross of Big Club and Michigan Club wheat. Lower in protein than soft white wheats, club wheats make premier cake and pastry four. The roundish club kernels have a golden hue and soft texture.
Pringle’s Progress is an oat well-adapted to Vermont climate and soils.
Fortunately, these Vermont-bred varieties are not lost to us today. When I learned of them, I searched for them through the United States Department of Agriculture gene bank. Eureka! Off they were mailed, entrusted to the good hands of Heather Darby, agronomic specialist at UVM Extension, to farmer Jack Lazor in Westfield, to educator Gregg Stevens, farm manager at Merck Forest & Farmland Center in Rupert, and to Sylvia Davatz, seed-saver extraordinaire in Hartland. They are currently being trialed by these growers and community members throughout the state.
In 1863, Pringle’s botanical work was interrupted by the Civil War. With an abiding belief in nonviolence, Pringle, a Quaker, was imprisoned by the U.S. military that year for refusing to bear arms. He kept a journal during his imprisonment:
“In the early morning damp and cool we marched down off the heights of Brattleboro to take the train for this place. Once in the car the dashing young cavalry officer, who had us in charge, gave notice he had placed men through the cars, with loaded revolvers with orders to shoot any person attempting to escape, or jump from the window, and that any one would be shot if he even put his head out of the window” (28th, 8th month, 1863).
“How beautiful seems the world on this glorious morning here by the seaside! Eastward and toward the sun, fair green isles with outlines of pure beauty are scattered over the blue bay. Though fair be the earth, it has become tainted by him who was meant to be its crowning glory. Behind me on this island are crowded vile and wicked men, the murmur of whose ribaldry riseth like the smoke and fumes of a lower world’ “(6th, 9th month, 1863).
President Lincoln later pardoned Pringle. After recovering from his ordeal, he returned to breeding plants on his farm in Charlotte and to his extensive collecting.
The Northeast Organic Wheat Project, funded by the USDA’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NESARE) grant program, is conducting wheat trials in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. We have found that heritage wheat yields higher in organic systems than the best-yielding modern wheat currently grown in Vermont, AC Maxine. We welcome farmers and gardeners to contact us for samples of these rare heritage wheats to multiply and select on your own land.
What other Vermont heritage wheats do we know about? Pringle’s are not the only ones. The 1885 diary of Arthur Judd, a farmer from South Stafford, describes his fields of “Hungarian wheat,” a beloved landrace wheat known as “Bankuti” in Hungary and as “Hungarian wheat” in Russia. We received samples of this seed from the Hungarian Cereal Genebank and have planted it in our winter wheat trials for the past two years. We are pleased to report that Hungarian yielded among the highest in our Vermont trials last year, with robust stalks and sturdy stands of fat, golden seed. It is beloved in Hungary for high baking quality.
Pringle also described a delicious, high-yielding soft wheat hybrid of two Canadian heritage varieties, “Bearded Fife” x “Early Arcadian,” that was entered in the USDA gene bank in 1898 by G.A. Read from Charlotte. The exemplary winter wheat hybrid described in Pringle’s papers, sent to him by Charles Arnold of Paris, Ontario, may be this very one, since there is no mention of Read’s breeding work in Pringle’s papers. (Anyone with information please step forth!) This exemplary soft Vermont winter wheat yielded among the best in our trials during the past two years.
“The peck of seed received from Mr. Arnold was sown the middle of September last on good wheat soil, which has been prepared in the usual way. The plants showed great vigor during the Fall, and passed the severe winter without loss or injury. At harvest which occurred very early, the stand was very thick and beautiful. Though the seed was sown thinly and the crop is not yet threshed so I cannot report the yield. But it is estimated to be a superior one. The kernels are plump, thick and white. I esteem this variety highly from one season’s trial of it, and anticipate the highest food to the country from Mr. Arnold’s untiring labors in cross-breeding wheat.”
Although the “Snowflake potato” bred by Pringle is lost, other seeds of his are safely sleeping in cold storage, awaiting the hands of more Vermonters who can bring them alive. How can we get this precious seed to more farmers and gardeners ? It is our hope that Vermonters themselves, especially school garden programs, will help restore these rare Vermont heritage seeds.
Let us celebrate Cyrus Pringle’s legacy of Quaker war resistance and his brilliant work on plant breeding—state-of-the-art to this day—by bringing back our community traditions of seed-saving.
Photo courtesy of the Pringle Herbarium, Plant Biology Department, UVM
New Seed Catalogue Offers Locally Grown Varieties
Vermont gardeners face particular challenges—a short growing season and increasingly wet summers are just two examples. But a gardener’s chances for success are greatly increased if they plant varieties that have been grown out right here in Vermont for several years, a process that allows the seed to adapt to Vermont’s unique conditions. Locally grown seed allows gardeners to preserve varieties that might otherwise disappear from commercial sources, as well as varieties that have personal, cultural, or historic meaning. This seed also tends to have more vigor and a better germination rate than seed grown in distant places. And it produces vegetables that are more resistant to disease and store well in root cellars, helping us extend the growing season.
With these benefits in mind, Hartland seed saver Sylvia Davatz recently started a small seed company aimed at offering a selection of local vegetable seeds to gardeners. The Solstice Seed Catalogue, now in its second year, includes roughly 80 open-pollinated varieties of everything from amaranth to watermelon. Originally collected from both near and distant sources, all have been grown and trialed in Hartland. Each variety is grown organically and evaluated according to several criteria, and the seed is stored under ideal conditions. Seed packets are sized for the home gardener.