Steve Sando first thought to garden while in the grocery store. “I was a frustrated home cook,” he explains, “I would go to the store and [was] eating these awful tomatoes in August and thought, “No, I can do better than this!”’ After networking with other gardening friends in the late 1990s, Steve found Seed Savers Exchange, and the tomatoes he craved, but he also discovered what ultimately became the passion of a lifetime: heirloom beans.
“‘Rio Zape’ was the first one that totally set me afire,” recalls Steve. “Eating new crop beans was sort of a revelation: How quickly they cooked… and then just there were hints of chocolate and hints of coffee!” After a few years of selling his garden surpluses at the farmers’ market, Steve decided to go into business selling beans full-time. Now 17 years later, Rancho Gordo has flourished. They expanded from a farmer’s market and online presence to a brick-and-mortar warehouse and showroom where many Napa Valley vineyard tours often stop by.
Seed Savers Exchange has led the heirloom seed movement since 1975, inspiring a generation of seed companies to specialize in rare, regionally adapted, delicious, and irreplaceable open-pollinated varieties. Many of these companies were founded by our own Seed Savers Exchange members. Rather than allowing heirloom and historic varieties to vanish or go unnoticed, these members launched an uncoordinated, organic, and persistent resistance to the disappearance of heirloom seeds. This first wave of heirloom seed companies did not offer seed catalogs in response to consumer demand. Instead, they created it.
This is the story of one of nine small seed companies and a few of the varieties they have preserved. While each and every one of their backgrounds is as unique and bold as the varieties they share, they all have one thing in common: the passion for sharing seeds.
Bios written, interviews, and correspondence by Kelly Loud with help from Sara Straate.
Special thanks to the following people: Alan and Linda Kapuler, Suzanne Ashworth, Craig Dremann, Steve Sando, Mike and Denise Dunton, Tom Wagner, Joanne Ranck-Dirks, Sue Ellen Majer, Bill McDorman, and Glenn Drowns.