Like any treasured family keepsake, seeds for heirloom fruits and vegetables have been preserved, protected and passed down through generations so others may continue to enjoy them the way they were meant to be.
“Heirloom fruits and vegetables are a sequence of genetics that haven’t changed in 50 years, or 100 years, or 200 years,” said Josh Orr of La Minga Cooperative Urban Farming in Prospect. “The genetic composition of that vegetable is the same as it was a long time ago.”
He said farmers will look for certain traits when growing produce and when they find them, they work to continue to reproduce them season after season.
“The reason that is important as a trait in fruits and vegetable, those genetics often have the ability to produce, for example, a tomato, which has such a different flavor than any tomato you will find at the grocery store,” Orr said. “It was bred over 1,000 years and when they finally found something really amazing 100 years ago, the Cherokee Purple tomato for example, instead of changing those genetics any further, someone said, ‘Hey, this has amazing flavor, it has amazing color, it grows really well, it has amazing disease resistance, let’s keep this, let’s preserve this genetic code.’”
Jenny Vaughn of Pink Elephant Farm in Henry County, said it is difficult for heirlooms to be grown on a large scale.
“In most cases, the varieties we know as heirlooms were saved and selected for flavor and/or regionally specific adaptabilities,” she said. “As gardening and agriculture changed, other considerations such as durability in shipping and yield became more prevalent, while flavorful heirloom varieties usually do not yield as well as newer varieties and can sometimes be more susceptible to diseases.
Orr said produce grown in an industrial setting are bred for different traits. “Can these things be grown in massive quantities, to withstand being sprayed with very toxic chemicals? Can it withstand being in a truck for 10 days, and can it stand being refrigerated,” Orr asked. “Those are traits that are really important to an industrial system, but are those traits important to the people eating the food? Often times it’s not.”
He said heirlooms weren’t bred to be that way. “They were bred to be an amazing tomato that’s really good to eat and really good to grow with organic methods. It’s really just the difference in intentions.”
And when grown where they were bred, heirloom seeds can produce amazing results.
“In Kentucky, there are a lot of these varieties that produce much better,” Orr said. “At La Minga for example, we grow an heirloom garlic that my friend Brian grew for five years in Kentucky, but he got it from his neighbor who had grown it for 20 years in Kentucky, and they got it from their neighbor, but they don’t know how long they’ve had it. Since the story for this garlic began, we haven’t bred it, we haven’t changed it, we haven’t bought new seeds from Maine, we haven’t crossed it with anything else, and it grows so much better than any other garlic I’ve tried.”
Vaughn, who farms with her partner, Justin Owings, said heirlooms are more than just a great tasting alternative.
“We like the idea of participating in the historical aspect of heirloom vegetables, learning the stories behind certain varieties, and learning the culinary traditions that often surround them,” she said. “In a small farmstead, it’s helpful for us to learn which cabbage was understood to be a fresh eating cabbage, or a storage cabbage, or the best one for turning into sauerkraut.”