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Seeds will carry on Ashworth's work

Pioneering farm-to-fork farmer helped popularize heirloom crops

Suzanne Ashworth holding bin of cherry tomatoes
Suzanne Peabody Ashworth was
instrumental in the growth of Sacramento's
farm-to-fork movement. (Photo courtesy
Del Rio Botanical)

Sacramento lost a force of nature with the passing of Suzanne Peabody Ashworth. But many of the rare and heirloom crops that she championed will live on.

Ashworth, who died at age 70 on Dec. 23, grew produce at her West Sacramento farm that was beloved by local chefs and countless diners. Her Del Rio Botanical gourmet organic vegetables became a well-known brand and a cornerstone of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement.

A third-generation farmer, Ashworth did a lot more than sell great arugula. She grew more than 1,200 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit. Just as important, she kept and shared the seed so others could grow those rarities, too, via the Seed Savers Exchange.

"I've lived here all my life," said Ashworth in a 2009 interview. "I saw the changes, from picking tomatoes by hand to really rock-hard tomatoes that have to withstand being dumped into concrete bins.

"Those changes in the industry affected what's available," she added. "I found myself saying, 'I can't get that anymore.' That's when I got involved with the Seed Savers Exchange. (For example) people could only get three cucumber varieties. But to get others back, you had to save seed. It all ties together."

Ashworth grew varieties rarely seen anywhere else. She filled chefs’ offbeat requests (as well as those from crafters). By preserving the past, she helped secure food’s future.

"I'm not doing anything new," Ashworth explained. "Seed saving used to be something that everybody did. My grandfather did it."

Through the Seed Savers Exchange, Del Rio offered amazing diversity. For example, Ashworth sold seed for 43 varieties of heirloom cherry tomatoes. Her peppers numbered in the hundreds.

Through her seed pursuit, Ashworth became the go-to gourd lady. She sold seed for 75 distinct gourd varieties, a favorite for crafters.

Seed Savers Exchange still offers many of the varieties that Ashworth helped “bring back.” But selling rare seed doesn't necessarily save a species. "We had to create demand," she said. "That's where the restaurants come in."

Ashworth built a demonstration kitchen in her Old River Road home and invited chefs and food pros to dine. Her adjacent dining room sat 20. She cooked what she grew, so she could educate her visitors about the assets of each variety and why these unusual crops were worth celebrating.

"We can get a restaurant's whole staff in here, so they can taste what we're talking about," she said.

Ashworth also developed innovative programs with local chefs such as "Adopt a Squash." Del Rio grew rare squash varieties, including some giants that dated back to the Aztecs. Restaurants adopted and featured those heirloom squash on their menus. The first year, Del Rio sold about 1,000 pounds of adopted squash. The second year, that figure grew to 10,000.

Ashworth also was tremendously generous with other farmers, chefs and women in food. She was among the founding members of the Sacramento chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, the organization devoted to helping women in the food industry.

Alzheimer’s disease stopped this one-woman dynamo way too young. But as she noted, Ashworth planted and grew for the future. Some heirloom varieties still exist thanks to her nurturing.

Besides all her crops, she sowed many seeds of food wisdom including this pearl: Don’t be afraid to grow something different. You might discover a new favorite.

Read Ashworth’s full obituary here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/obituaries/article257041087.html

Members of Seed Savers Exchange get free seeds and discounts. Learn more here: https://www.seedsavers.org/ .

Ashworth's 1991 book "Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners" was updated in 2002 and can still be found at used-book sellers online.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Feb. 18:

It's wet to start the week. When you do get outside, between or after storms, concentrate on damage control:

* Keep storm drains and gutters clear of debris.

* Clean up tree debris knocked down by wind and rain.

* Where did the water flow in your garden? Make notes where revisions are necessary.

* Are any trees leaning? See disturbances in the ground or lawn around their base? Time to call an arborist before the tree topples.

* Dump excess water out of pots.

* Indoors, start peppers, tomatoes and eggplant from seed.

* Lettuce and other greens also can be started indoors from seed.

* Got bare-root plants? Put their roots in a bucket of water until outdoor soil dries out. Or pot them up in 1- or 5-gallon containers. In April, transplant the plant, rootball and all, into the garden.

* Browse garden websites and catalogs. It’s not too late to order for spring and summer.

* Show your indoor plants some love. Dust leaves and mist to refresh.

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