The Heirloom Primer: Five Things You Need to Know About Heritage Seeds

There’s a magical quality to a family heirloom. Whether it’s an object passed down through generations or something stumbled upon at an antique store, it comes with a story attached and connects us to our heritage and collective past. While you’ve likely heard of heirloom tomatoes, you may not have thought about what makes them “heirlooms.” So we are here to tell their story.

Growing heirloom, also known as heritage, produce may seem like the hip new way to garden, but what we now distinguish as organic farming and gardening was actually the norm for many growers, including many of our grandparents, for centuries prior to industrialization. Passing down the family heirloom seeds was common practice, and many families had their own varieties of vegetables and fruits, giving us amusing tomato varieties like Aunt Ruby’s German Green and Box Car Willie!

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As we transition back to the old (out with the new), here’s what you need to know about the heirloom revolution!

  1. Heirloom seeds are super old. Heritage seeds are old seed varieties created by centuries of open-pollination by birds, insects, wind, or other natural means. They are often passed down through generations in a family, but can also be obtained from companies or local farmers. Some in the seed saving community say a seed must be at least 100 years old to be considered an heirloom, while others say it must have originated before widespread plant hybridization in the wake of World War II.

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  1. There are major differences between heirloom produce and what you find on the supermarket shelves. The fruits and vegetables you typically find at the grocery store are more likely to come from hybridized or GMO seeds than heirloom seeds. Hybrids are created through cross-pollination of two different varieties of a plant. Scientists began experimenting with hybrid plants in the late 1800s, and by the early 1950s farmers predominantly grew hybrid crops. Why did they become so popular? Thanks to the advent of the supermarket, produce needed to be high yield, durable to withstand travelling long distances, uniform and aesthetically pleasing. Created for similar reasons, GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are made by genetically altering the plant’s DNA so that it has a longer shelf life or a higher concentration of specific nutrients that might be lacking in a region’s diet.
  1. We’re in the midst of an heirloom seed renaissance. While hybrid and GMO seeds once seemed to be a saving grace for farmers and consumers alike, there is now growing concern about the sustainability of the farming practices used to produce these crops and the possible long-term health consequences of eating them. On a worldwide scale, heirloom seeds and the genetic diversity of heirloom plants are crucial to obtaining global food security. Since heritage seeds have evolved in their specific regions over generations, they adapt easily to climate and soil variations in those regions unlike hybrid plants, which are engineered to produce the same product across a wide range of growing conditions. Therefore, heirloom seeds may be better able to thrive in times of draught, disease and pestilence.

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  1. Growing heirloom seeds may be better for farmers. The seeds inside heirloom produce can be saved and planted countless times over with nearly the same result. For most farmers this makes heirloom farming more stable and economical. Farmers who grow hybrid plants may have to buy seeds every year because the seeds from their crop may be sterile, produce an entirely different offspring, or contain no seeds at all. Thanks to generations of open-pollination, heirloom seeds have also evolved to be more resistant to disease and pests typical in the areas where they’re grown. This reduces the need for farmers to buy pesticides and prevents soil and water contamination from pesticide use and leakage.
  1. Eating produce grown from heirloom seeds may be better for you. Heirloom produce most often is grown organically and benefits from maturing in soil uncontaminated by pesticides. It often contains more minerals from healthy soil and more overall nutritional value than hybrid and GMO produce. This higher concentration of nutrients and minerals can actually makes heirloom produce much more flavorful.

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Young farmers are challenging the idea that a vegetable is a vegetable is a vegetable. They’re working hard in the fields to provide us eaters with top quality, delicious, beautiful, seasonal produce while preserving history at the same time. The heirloom movement has also expanded beyond produce to heritage meats and now it’s moved on to ancient grains.

Stay tuned for more on how the history of wheat has effectively mirrored the history of agriculture in the U.S.!

By Guest Blogger, Carla Seet

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