December 29, 2010

Heirloom Vegetables -a Better Choice? Yes, and No

My Heirloom seed order has already arrived from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. The packaging is spectacular, as usual. 
Seed packets don't get more perfect than this. 

Here we are in late December, and the seed catalogs are filling my mailbox, It's been interesting to watch how popular the craze to crow heirloom varieties of vegetables from seed has become. But what really are the benefits of growing heirloom varieties? This is not a discussion about non GMO, or Monsanto Alfalfa, or Corn, nor is this a rant about Organic vs conventional methods, this is just some thoughts of mine about why I am moved to grow heirloom seeds, and, is my response purely emotional? Are my reasons the 'right' ones? Or are they just for nostalgia's sake? There is something cool about growing a squash that Ben Franklin grew, but is it really any more nutritious? Am I saving the planet? Basically, is it worth it  or am I just following a trend because it makes me appear as if I am more 'sustainable' (even though I drive a SUV to Whole Foods)?

I care deeply about the environment, but at the same time, I admit that I am a little selfish ( I mean, I heat a glass greenhouse with propane all winter long, just to grow rare bulbs that were most likely illegally collected in South Africa). Am I supposed to feel good about this? OK, I do recycle my vegi trimmings in soup, but I know that I am not saving the world. But we all do little things that make us feel better about our excesses, so, in this New Year, I am thinking about the little things that I do, and if, they are actually helping me, or the planet for that matter.
The Asian heirloom cucumbers are impressive in the Baker Creek Catalog, and my next order has a long list of these since I feel they will sell out early.

Regardless if there are indeed real dangers in the progressive practices of companies like Monsanto  or out government, what should you believe about the trend to grow heirloom vegetables over conventional ones? Are they really any better than new and improved varieties that are disease resistant, and, do they really taste any better? Are they a better health option? Basically, are they worth growing?

First of all, what are heirloom vegetables? 

The term “heirloom” generally refers to plant varieties passed down by families from year to year, thereby preserving particular characteristics. Simple, right? Well, yes. It is true that heirloom vegetables are trendy now, if not critical for those who are conscious about the health of our planet and our species, theoretically. Heirloom vegetables don’t always taste better. Heirloom tomatoes certainly do, but not all heirloom vegetables do, in fact, many taste worse, especially corn and squashes that have a lower sugar content. The real benefits appear to be in that some have a genetic 'purity', (which confuses me because most are mutations of wild plants) but some are not actually proved to have any more nutrition, many new varieties are bred to be more nutritious. 

What I watch for is whether a modern variety was chosen through selection or cross-breeding rather than through in-vitro or gene modification. That where things get scary for my, even though there has been no real proof that GMO seeds are actually dangerous, the risks just seem logical from my personal perspective until proved otherwise. I may even like glow in the dark salmon.
Small heirloom melons in the Baker Creek catalog. How beautiful are these?

Second, don’t confuse heirloom vegetable selections with heirloom poultry or farm animals. I agree, heirloom meat is better, but remember, there are no wild cabbages or true ‘wild’ green beans that we can economically grown as food crops ( OK, there is ‘that’ Cherry Tomato from Mexico), but as far as most ‘heirlooms’ go, they are simply selected vegetables that come true from seed, and thus, those seeds are passed down through generations, whereas heirloom farm animals are indeed older purer varieties, even though they too were essentially passed down through generations and 'created' through human selection. 

Which brings me to dogs. At one time, they were all wolves.  It's a little ironic that the only un-pure creature that is socially acceptable today, is a mutt from the pound, even though all heirloom vegetables are mutts. My purebred Irish Terriers are frowned upon when I walk them in Cambridge, MA but it's totally fine to eat purebred heirloom tomatoes.

It’s not as if our ancestors didn’t know any better, it’s just that they didn’t have any other options. They chose the best that they had, and they measured ‘best’ by qualitative results, their lives depended on it. They had to depend on varieties that had proven to be the most productive, the most disease resistant, the most hardy, and I am certain that many of them would have chosen some of our new hybrids over our rose colored glass addiction to ‘heirloom’ varieties.

Don’t get me wrong, I love many heirloom varieties that are available to today, and indeed, I am addicted to them, ordering far more than I could ever grow. I am even fantasizing about moving to Vermont or New Hampshire some day so I could grow most of my own fresh food. But at the same time, I am not opposed to some modern practices in food production, since I know it is necessary on a large scale. Like politics, I lie somewhere in the purple, middle ground waiting for clarity. Like ice cream, I like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.

Heirloom tomatoes may be ugly and deformed, but when it comes to squash, the heirloom varieties really are visually superior.

Back at home, my favorite heirloom vegetables to grow, like many of us, are heirloom tomatoes, but I also grow new tomato varieties too, I learned my lesson two years ago when I lost my entire crop of tomatoes to wilt. We didn’t starve to death, but I did have to purchase some at my local farm stand for $7.00 and pound.

So what can you do? Since it is late December, the seed catalogs are arriving, and I encourage each of you to support the newer and most interesting seed companies, as well as the classics. Heirloom seeds now seem to be everywhere, but I recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seed (and their newly acquired Comstock, Ferre and Co.) as the best mail order sources for heirlooms. I just discovered Sand Hill Preservation and I have always loved ordering from Annies Annuals, which offers both heirloom flowers and new varieties, but don't confuse them with a new source for heirloom seed that I have yet to try,  Anne’s Heirlooms, ( no relation).  Their selection looks wide but I need to try them first. If there are others that you like, please let me know.

I order most of my vegetable seed from Johnny’s Selected Seed in Albion, Maine, my number one choice for northern grown seed, for two very good reasons, they grow much of their own seed, and the seed is northern grown. In this way, I know where my seed is coming from, and I feel that they offer the best quality and service of any retail seed competitor. Best of all, they offer only the finest, tested varieties, be they heirloom or not, they offer both, as well as organically grown seed options.

To be honest, it can be more simply said that I just feel better growing my food organically, and as for heirloom seed, I just find the stories and history fascinating, and I view any health benefits as a nice bonus, since any are difficult to prove. I guess it’s similar to why I take vitamins or maybe a holistic medicine drink like EmergenC every now and then, I’m not sure that they actually provide any tangible benefits, but I feel good doing it.

Planting an heirloom bean and seeing it fruit, is like seeing a piece of history come to life, like shaking the hand of someone who was born in the 19th century (my grandfather was born in 1889) that just fascinates me. Why not grow some history?

1 comment :

  1. The concept of 'purebred' heirloom vegetables - or any other open-pollinated seed-raised plant - is to me somewhat dubious. There is continuous genetic drift away from the original's characteristics, visible and invisible, and it takes real diligence to select for the same characteristics year on year. It may never have been a particularly uniform selection to begin with, so what we see today of most heirloom vareties is an approximation of the original. They do, of course, preserve a diversity of genes, but 'purebred' is pushing the point too far.

    Purebred animals are somewhat different, in that (usually) there are (now) written standards for each breed and the animal is expected to conform to these; also, far fewer individuals result, so culling to type is easy. Even so, genetic drift occurs and King Charles II would probably not easily recognize his spaniels today.

    John Grimshaw


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