British Columbia

Harold Steves' seed collection preserves the roots of B.C. agriculture

Harold Steves' family has been involved in B.C. agriculture for 139 years, and with his collection of rare locally-adapted seeds, he hopes to remain so well into the future.

Longtime Richmond councillor, ALR founder hopes to preserve regional seed diversity, promote food security

Living agricultural legend Harold Steves maintains a collection of seeds for rare plant varieties specially adapted for the Lower Mainland. (MPMG)

The black Russian sunflower. The yellow mangel. The alpha tomato.

Harold Steves' family has been involved in B.C. agriculture for more than 130 years, and with his collection of rare locally-adapted seeds, he hopes to remain so well into the future.

That collection is currently on display at the Museum of Vancouver as part of the museum's exhibit on collectors, "All Together Now."

"We've probably got half a dozen varieties of vegetables that are not listed anywhere [else] on the planet," Steves said.

A longtime family business

Steves is no stranger in the Lower Mainland agricultural world. A Richmond city councillor since 1977, Steves was instrumental in the establishment of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) system during his time as an MLA.

The Steves family — for which the town of Steveston is named — first ran a seed bank since 1877, when they began farming in the area. Steves' interest in that aspect of the family business was reignited in the 1980s, when B.C. agricultural supply giant Buckerfield's stopped maintaining a seed bank of its own.

"I got really concerned about the loss of seed diversity," Steves said.

"The replacement seed that we're seeing in the stores comes from California and places to the south, and they're not necessarily varieties that are adapted to our climate and our soils."

So, Steves set out to establish a seed bank of his own to replicate the lost Buckerfield's catalogue — which fittingly included varieties first offered by the Steves catalogue.

The Steves family has sold seeds in the Lower Mainland for more than 130 years. (MPMG)

B.C. born and bred

One of Steves' most popular plants is the alpha tomato, which dates back to the original Steves catalogue from 1877, bred to thrive in Lower Mainland soil and weather. According to Steves, it blooms a week earlier than other varieties, and produces red tomatoes a full month earlier.

Another point of pride in Steves' collection is the black Russian sunflower. Steves believes he may be the only source of seeds for this particular strain in the world.

Steves' collection also houses a number of more obscure vegetables, including parsnip, mangel and salsify.

"Most people have never heard of a mangel," Steves said of the root vegetable that was originally grown to feed cattle.

"The yellow mangel that we grow actually has now become a gourmet food because it's a fairly sweet type of beet and the leaves are really good to eat."

Salsify is a unique carrot-like vegetable with a taste that resembles oysters — which Steves says is perfect for seafood lovers on a tight budget.

"If you couldn't afford oysters and clams for your clam chowder, you simply pulled this out of the ground," he said. "You dice it up and put it in and you've got oyster soup."

Steves' family lives off his farm's produce, saving enough seeds for the following year and selling the rest. He encourages anyone involved in any level of agriculture — even backyard gardeners — to do the same.

"Learn how to save your own seed, and you'll have your own food security."

Steves' collection — along with many, many others — will be on display at the Museum of Vancouver until Jan. 8, 2017.

With files from CBC Radio One's North by Northwest.