What’s an heirloom and why should I eat one?

The RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Grow-Out project centers on encouraging farmers to grow and chefs to use rare heirloom varieties of vegetables.  So, what is an heirloom and why would you want to eat these funky-looking fruits and veggies?

Today, many vegetable varieties are bred for industrial agriculture.  Many seed developers seek to breed plants that will grow well in large monocultures, stand up to mechanical harvesting, produce large volumes of product with a uniform appearance, and travel well across great distances without spoiling.   Farmers growing for a marketplace that values uniformity and shipping quality grow a relatively small range of varieties that meet these criteria.

There are several major downsides to this, including the loss of crop biodiversity, the sacrifice of flavor and other qualities, and the lost ability to save seeds.

Biodiversity has lost out big-time in our move to a standardized and industrialized food system.  As a few standard varieties replace thousands of unique types of plants and animals, we risk losing our crop biodiversity for good.  Biodiversity is essential to a resilient food system that can withstand climate change and diseases.  For example, the Irish potato famine took place when the one widely-grown variety of potato was wiped out by a disease.  More genetic diversity of crops equals more ability to withstand threats, be it pests, diseases, weather, drought, climate change.

And then there is flavor.  Who wouldn’t rather have a tomato that melts in your mouth than one that can travel cross-country?  Speaking of which, heirloom tomatoes have gotten the most hype in recent years, but in fact, there are heirloom varieties of just about every plant.  Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Peppers, Boston Marrow Squash, and the Gilfeather Turnip are just a few examples of endangered heirloom vegetable varieties.  And then there are thousands of varieties of heirloom wheat, corn, beans… the list goes on and on.  Heirloom varieties often have a specific attractive quality that led generations of gardeners to save them: they are great for canning or pickling; they are cold-hardy and withstand a light frost; or they have excellent flavor.  If we lose an heirloom variety, we lose a whole culinary and cultural tradition associated with it.

And finally, there is the critical ability to save and share seeds. Heirlooms are open-pollinated and seeds can be saved, shared, and grown again, as opposed to hybrid varieties, which reproduce via controlled pollination and cannot be grown from saved seed. To many, heirlooms must have a long history, and for some literal-minded folk, a variety can only be considered an heirloom if the seeds have actually been handed down from generation to generation, but open-source seed breeding is a crucial part of every definition of what makes an heirloom.  Thousands of heirloom varieties exist thanks to generations of farmers and gardeners who have carefully saved and propogated seeds over the years.

Of course, hybrid varieties have their plusses as well: many hybrid seeds have higher yields, and others have been bred for resistance to specific diseases.  Few farmers are growing solely heirlooms; many farmers who appreciate heirlooms for their flavor and history also choose to take advantage of the qualities of hybrid seeds.   The important part is making sure we are keeping the diversity alive by growing a wide range of crops that includes plenty of open-pollinated heirlooms.  If we only grow a few kinds of hybrid crops, we risk losing our genetic stock for future seed breeding, losing our right to save and share seeds via open pollination, and losing the flavors and traditions associated with these foods.

By growing, buying, cooking, eating, and appreciating heirlooms, as the RAFT collaboration encourages, we can support the farmers who are choosing to help keep biodiversity alive, while enjoying the flavors, and cultural context of these unique and interesting food crops.

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

One Response to “What’s an heirloom and why should I eat one?”

  1. Chef Ernesto` Says:

    Great informative article I must seek to use more heirloom varieties of vegetables, I have tried them but hard to find.Thanks for your article it awakened me once again.
    Chef Ernesto

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