Heirlooms Schmeirlooms, Summer 2008


By Brook Le Van






Heirlooms schmeirlooms. Heritage this and heirloom that. What’s
the big deal? What does all this talk about heirloom varieties have
to do with feeding people, the long-term health of our families, or even
the revival of our long lost friend, flavor? Who cares if a tomato variety
goes back to Grandma whatever of Northeastern Pennsylvania Dutch
country? So what if the Cherokee Trail of Tears Pole Bean with purplestriped
pods and shiny black seeds was actually carried by Cherokee Indians
on the “Trail of Tears.” It’s really just a bunch of food snobs boasting
gastronomique trivia to impress someone.
Or is it?

Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of
plant foods were grown for human consumption. Many of these older
varieties we call heirlooms because they have a history of being selected
out of all other plants in the annual gardens of our ancestors and were
passed down within the family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or
furniture. With this lineage heirloom vegetables have adapted over time
to whatever climate and soil they have grown in. Thanks to their diverse
genetics, they are also often resistant to local pests, diseases, and
extremes of weather. These unique qualities differentiate these heirloom
vegetables in today’s world of hybrids and Genetically Modified Organisms

The use of the term “heirloom” is first attributed to Professor William
Hepler at the University of New Hampshire, who used the term
“heirloom” to describe some local beans that people had given him back
in the 1940s. Some say heirloom vegetables are those introduced before
1951, when modern plant breeders introduced the first hybrids developed
from inbred lines. Many of the varieties are 100 to 150 years old;
certain heirlooms are traditional Native American crops that go back
to pre-Columbian times. Some heirlooms are old European crops that
have been in cultivation for almost 400 years. Other heirlooms trace
their ancestries to Africa and Asia with roots so far back they are hard
to follow.

To be an heirloom, a plant must also be “open-pollinated,” meaning
it will grow “true to type” and produce plants like the parents from seed.
Open pollination allows the same cultivar to be grown simply from seed
for many generations. This trait excludes nearly every hybrid and GMO,
which are designed to be sterile so you have to buy seed every year from
the companies that own that variety. Yes, they own the germplasm!
Heirlooms’ ability to reproduce by open pollination keeps these varieties
in the commons, available for regular folks like you and me to grow
and share them with our neighbors. That means these heirlooms cannot
be patented, like hybrids and GMOs. This keeps heirlooms out of the
reach of corporations that are increasingly controlling the world’s food

An heirloom vegetable also does not fit nicely into modern largescale
agricultural production systems. Heirlooms are quirky. Seeds may
germinate slower than their modern counterparts. As they grow, some
heirlooms have traits that are absolutely strange. For example, three
years ago I grew an heirloom cabbage that tipped its crown upside down
for the first several weeks. Then it turned right side up and grew just
fine. Most heirloom tomatoes, the ones that blow your taste buds wide
open, can barely make it to a local farmers’ market they are so fragile.
Because of these oddities, heirlooms are not used in modern industrialized
agricultural processes—they just don’t scale.

As a matter of fact, and as a rule of thumb, good food does not scale
up. Good-for-you meat, good-for-you veggies, good-for-you dairy does
not scale up. By that I mean you cannot take seed of most heirloom
vegetables and fill a gigantic, 50-foot-wide planter and run it across a
field and expect the crop to yield much. They just haven’t been raised
that way; it isn’t in their blood. The ones that can survive the industrial
system are selected for their productivity, their ability to withstand
mechanical picking and cross-country shipping and their tolerance to
drought, frost or pesticides. Nutrition, flavor and variety are secondary
and even tertiary concerns, if concerns at all. The priority given to this large-scale

agro-industrial method of farming has, in a very short time,
made certain varieties extinct. Many varieties have fallen out of favor in
the food system and we are loosing a vital gene pool.
This may sound odd, but if we do not eat these heirloom vegetables
and fruits we will lose them. If we do not get these varieties back in our
diets as part of our food chain they will not be grown out enough to save
their seed and be passed on to the next generation.

This loss of varieties is called genetic erosion. The genetic diversity of
the world’s food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating
rate. In the U.K. and Europe alone, more than 2,000 heirloom varieties
have been lost since 1970. These vegetables and fruits currently being
lost is the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selection in
diverse ecological niches around the world. Each variety is genetically
unique. Plant breeders use these old varieties to breed resistance into
modern crops that are constantly being attacked by rapidly evolving
diseases and pests. Without these infusions of genetic diversity, food
production is at risk from epidemics and infestations. Lest we forget the
Irish potato famine.

Just how dangerous is genetic erosion? The late Jack Harlan, worldrenowned
plant collector who wrote the classic Crops and Man while
professor of Plant Genetics at University of Illinois at Urbana, said,
“The genetic material locked up in these heirloom seed resources stand
between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In
a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on maintaining the
diversity of our seed stock. The line between abundance and disaster is
becoming thinner with each passing year, and the public is unaware.”
The Mayan word “gene” means “spiral of life.” The genes in heirloom
seeds give life to our future. Unless the 100 million backyard gardeners
and organic farmers keep these seeds alive and unless we choose to eat
these heirlooms, they will disappear altogether. This is truly an instance
where one person—a lone gardener in a backyard vegetable garden—
can potentially make all the difference in the world.

What this means is that we have yet another tactic in the ever challenging
search to help us find good healthy food for our families. If you
seek out and buy heirloom veggies and heritage breeds that produce
meats, eggs and dairy, you have a far better chance that those foods are
produced safely on small-scale farms, are richer in nutrient density, and
are far healthier for you and yours.

Brook Le Van, driven in life
predominantly by flavor, is
the co-founder and director of Sustainable Settings, a
nonprofit land-based demonstration and research institute—a
Whole Systems Learning Center—near Carbondale, a place
and program devoted to reviving small-scale diversified farms
and ranches, the bedrock of local food and energy security.