Nestled in the hills of rural Waldo County lies a family farm dedicated to preserving heirloom plant varieties, pure plant lines, equitable access to vital seed and food security.

In 1981, Sandy George and her late husband purchased the 85-acre North Ridge Farm for the purpose of maintaining the land as a farm.

Today, George and her daughter, Diana Chapin, operate The Heirloom Garden of Maine, providing hundreds of varieties of heirloom annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables to consumers around the United States. The plants are grown to order right on the family farm.

On the land lies a home built in 1804 by Phineas Bean, a Revolutionary War soldier, and his wife, Hannah, who cleared and cultivated the land. Many of the plant varieties grown at the farm stem from that time period, and some are much older.

George, who has lived at the farm since she was 21 years old, said the history of the land provides her with a good sense of how difficult it was and how they used what was local to prosper.

That gave George a life lesson to live out, preserve plants and seeds for future generations and thus the heirloom gardens were born.

“It’s no question it is the only thing we would do,” she said of growing heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are plants that are passed down over time, passed down in families, passed among people.

Today, the farm offers more than 300 plants that originated between ancient times and the 1940s, Chapin said. The farm has hollyhocks grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, the vegetables also date from the 1700s and they offer geraniums dating from 1845.

Historical accounts document the plants’ age, Chapin said. Plants also are well documented through poetry and scientific documents.

Chapin said she has done considerable research on the Lewis and Clark expedition and how the explorers would take plant seeds to Philadelphia to prosper.

“Lewis and Clark were going west as Phineas and Hannah were growing here,” Chapin said. The Beans may have seen those varieties from Lewis and Clark in Montville 10 or 15 years later, she said.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and General Henry Knox also were interested in landscapes and propagation, she said.

The Heirloom Garden of Maine also belongs to the nonprofit Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, which is a network of 10,000 gardeners who collect seeds just like the Montville farm. There is also a seed bank in Norway that preserves seeds for future generations.

“We think of it as a local thing, but it is a worldwide movement,” said George.

Food purchased in stores is bred for transportation, Chapin said.

“What you give up when you want the immediacy of strawberries in December is taste,” she said. “You can buy locally, store it and preserve it.”

Many of the fruits and vegetables purchased in supermarkets are genetically engineered, they said.

Chapin said genetic engineering takes genes from one plant or animal and randomly shoots them into another plant or animal. For example, some corn varieties have been modified to include genetic information from bacteria.

“So you’re eating corn with bacteria in it,” George said.

The fallout from consuming genetically engineered food is unknown, Chapin said. They have heard from people who suffer from a wide variety of health problems, from autism and Asperger’s syndrome to attention deficient disorder and stomach problems, that when they reduce the amount of genetically-engineered food in their diets by eating organically-grown foods, the symptoms of the diseases are not as severe, she said.

George said she understands industries have to prosper and that globally there is not enough tilled land to sustain all the people of the world, but she believes that genetically engineered foods should have to be labeled.

“It should not just be infused in food so we do not know what we are eating,” George said.

In 2008, Montville residents passed an ordinance to ban the cultivation of crops with genetically modified organisms or GMOs in town.

George and Chapin offer educational events at the farm, with programs on topics such as seed-saving and gardening for butterflies. They also speak at garden clubs and participate in Open Farm Day, which this year is scheduled for July 25.

“What we enjoy most is the intimate relationship we have with our customers,” Chapin said. “We know them by first name.”

Customers know them too, she said. Often times, customers will call up to see how their plants are growing and other people will send seeds for George and Chapin to grow for them that were passed down in the customer’s family.

“It’s neat to have that kind of connection,” Chapin said. “That’s the beauty of a small family-run operation.”

The farm has three catalogs that are sent out annually to hundreds of gardeners across the United States: The farm annual, which is currently available, a fall book with mums and bulbs and a holiday catalog with wreaths and garland.

Most of the plants grown at the farm are already spoken for and being raised for gardeners who have ordered through the catalog. They do have a small space for walk-in customers.

The plants are typically started in Chapin’s home before being moved to the greenhouse in April. Then in May, customers come to the farm to pick up their orders. Orders are also shipped to customers from out of the area.

For more information, The Heirloom Garden of Maine may be reached by calling 342.2116 or by e-mail at info@theheirloomgarden.com.

The Republican Journal reporter Kim Lincoln can be reached at klincoln@villagesoup.com or 338-3333.