The Great Siberian Adventure

 Written By Bill Mcdorman

Written By Bill Mcdorman

Siberia 1989

In 1980, while attending the University of Montana, I chose to devote myself to starting a seed company. The reasons were at first practical as much as environmental and philosophical. The new hybrid varieties of vegetables filling the seed catalogs in those days didn't perform well in my Montana garden. The "old, good-tasting" varieties my north side neighbors had grown since they were kids had disappeared.

Before unraveling the mystery of how to find varieties for my own backyard I began to see the threads of a larger, global problem. Plant patenting in North America and Europe in the 70's had touched off a series of events leading to definitive predictions. 80% of the vegetable varieties in Europe would be extinct by the mid-nineties. The genetic center for wheat would be completely wiped-out by the nineties. We were in danger of destroying in one generation, the agricultural diversity that took mankind 10,000 years to create. The centralization and hybridization of the seed industry made gardening in my yard more difficult and seemed to be affecting the whole planet.

I remember looking at a map of the world trying to find cold climate areas which might still have a intricate web of active seed savers, saving old varieties. The Soviet Union leaped out. Maybe the Iron Curtain had hidden and protected an unbroken link to some ageless genetic heritage.

Toward the end of the 80's I began to speak to a number of people coming back from the USSR. My questions were always the same. Seeds? Did you see any seeds? Little by little glasnost was allowing me to piece together a picture of what a seed-gathering trip to Russia might really look like. Finally, in 1989 I opened an invitation by Earth Stewards Network of Eugene, Oregon to accompany them on a garden tour of Siberia.

My first question for Earth Steward's Network was again about seeds. Was the web of seed savers intact? Yes, answered one of the guides who had just returned from Siberia. In fact, some people there estimated 80% of the fresh vegetables produced in Siberia were grown in small, personal gardens where seed saving played a central role. I trembled with anticipation.

Three months later in August, 1989 (thanks to a grant by a wonderful, visionary woman) I found myself in Soviet airspace being warned it was illegal to photograph Soviet clouds. For the first time I could feel the heaviness of the iron curtain. I thought about my goal.  If I could bring back the seeds to just one good variety of tomato, the adventure would be a success. Many questions remained about the legality of taking seeds out of the USSR. All I could do was try.

One of our first tours in Siberia was a long bus ride south of Novosibirsk (New Siberia) to the foothills of the Altai mountains and The Siberian Institute of Horticulture. Working amidst 80 acres of botanical display gardens and organized flower and vegetable trials were 23 doctors of horticulture. Their mission involved testing new fruits, vegetables and flowers that survive a climate with winter temperatures as low as minus 65 degrees F°. I was excited because in all of North America, I was unaware of this level of resources devoted to what we would call a fringe climate. Most US corporate and academic research targets the more moderate climates stretching across middle America.

After a classic but unintelligible propaganda film on the institute's merits and a sampling of their many fruits (including golfball-sized gooseberries), we were finally led to the gardens. A proud but rather stern, white-haired woman was introduced as the director. Through a translator, in an official manner, she explained the history and goals of the Siberian Institute of Horticulture. I raised my hand. "Would it be possible to obtain seed samples of any of the Institute's varieties?" I held my breath. She wrinkled her brow when listening to the translation and I knew the answer before she spoke. "All inquires for seed samples must be direct to Lenningrad. Next question." She should have said it was impossible. Leningrad was 5,000 miles away guarded by the walls of bureaucratic hurdles.

The gardens were spacious and beautiful. I stayed behind our tour group to video some interesting variations of recognizable flower families. Many had gone to seed and I found myself alone. I fantasized sneaking some seeds into my pocket. I was thinking about Thomas Jefferson's quote about the greatest service one could do for one's country was to bring home the seeds to a useful new plant. I could hear my own breathing. Spy movie visions of cameras and microphones hidden in the woods made me reconsider. I could feel the heavy curtain again. I ran down the winding path through the woods to find the rest of the group. There they were walking with Galina, one of the institute's scientists. I caught my breath, heavy with anxiety and an exhilarating run.

After regrouping and helping to plant a small tree in honor of this first tour visit from the West, we began to board the bus for our return trip to the city of Novosibirsk. After sitting down I heard a quiet knock on the bus window next to my seat. I jumped up and looked out to see Galina's anxious face. She checked both directions and quickly pulled a notebook-sized package from under her lab coat and quickly pushed it through a narrow slit in the partially opened bus window. I quickly grabbed the secret parcel and covered it with my jacket. Hearts pounding, I simply looked forward pretending nothing had happened. The bus was filling and everyone seemed caught in the confusion of reclaiming seats and saying good-bye.

After several minutes I carefully peeked at the package to find nothing less than a miracle. Neatly arranged and labeled with names, description, small drawings and observations was a stack of news print, cheese cloth and scraps containing the seeds to no less than 50 Siberian tomato varieties. I had the Institute's annual research on tomatoes sitting on my lap. We looked up to see Galina with one of those teary-eyed smiles familiar in this country of deep emotion. The director stepped onto the bus for a final good-bye. With a sparkle in her eye I had not seen before, she remarked that gardeners, of all the people in the world, should be the ones to understand peace. "Please take back a message of peace from the Soviet Union to your gardening friends in the United States."

Thanks to Galina and other special friends, Gregori, Marina, Dima, Tatyana, Hank and Sasha to name a few, we came back with more than 60 varieties of tomatoes of every shape and color imaginable. All have been hand selected for fresh-picked flavor, cold tolerance and earliness. Siberians adore tomatoes and every dacha (country cottage) boasts at least one large cold frame to encourage the earliest possible crop. Hundreds of side-by-side dachas form dense little villages where competition for the first and best tasting tomato is intense. Saving seeds has taken place for generations in Russia and Siberian dacha gardeners continued this heritage with fervor. Siberia alone was home to hundreds of thousands if not millions of seed savers. The web was intact. I have been lucky and proud to share the fruits of these efforts with the world.

Alisha Wenger