It's the dead of summer, and at a friend's farm near Twin Falls, Idaho, Bill McDorman is planting tomatoes. These are special tomatoes, descendents of tried and true varieties. But it's the seeds, not the tomatoes, he's most interested in. Bill McDorman is a seed saver.
"This isn't industrial agriculture," he says. "These aren't the new things. These are the old things people have seen that are so valuable that they have saved them and passed them on down through the generations."
For twenty years, McDorman has been selling all kinds of seeds that grow at high elevations and in cold temperatures. He has traveled around the world in search of the perfect tomato to grow in places like Hailey, Idaho, where he has his business.
His passion eventually took him to Siberia in 1989, to buy high-altitude tomato seeds. "I figured roughly there were two million gardeners in Siberia at the time; and so it was like a genetics library the world may never have again, for flavor and for earliness in tomatoes." He brought back 60 different varieties; 24 of them are now available commercially.
People are now sending him seeds. "Seeds are treasures to a lot of people, and one of their first impulses is to share them." He gets seeds from places as diverse as Laos, South Africa, and Latin America. "Usually you will get a note and sometimes you will get a five page essay."
McDorman offers more than tomato seeds. Native grasses from Idaho's Boulder Mountains are also a big seller for him. "The things I come out and gather I do because there is simply no other source for them." He says the large seed corporations are centralizing their production and targeting their largest markets. "Unfortunately, for many of us, they've left us out. We are in what is called a fringe climate, a fringe market. We're not large enough."
McDorman is fascinated by the potential of a single seed. "Each one is magical," he says. "Each seed is a living embryo. It breathes and inside of it is packed a software and hardware program.... What we're trying to do here is to tap back into this 10,000 year-old system where humans picked the fruits of their labors in the gardens and saved only the seeds from those things that tasted the best, that worked in their local environments, that were most resistant to the things that attacked them."
Seeds can last for decades if kept cool, dark and dry. "People call me all the time and ask me about seeds one year old. 'Are they still good?' I ve been in this now for over twenty years, and almost all the things I started with are still good. I always encourage home gardeners to save their seeds and keep them cool, dark and dry, and they will last for decades, probably."
It's now fall, and McDorman is harvesting his tomatoes and their seeds. He bites into a juicy one. "My God, you've got to try some of this," he says.
"Seed saving is re-entering the past in what I think now is the most profound and directly rewarding way I have ever found. What we have here is the way it used to be, the tried and true, tested 10,000 year old good tasting way!"