Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why Grow Heirloom Plants?

Why Heirloom Plants?

We've been busy in the greenhouse again, our onions, leeks, and kale have all sprouted, and we've seeded kohlrabi, broccoli and spinach. Soon we'll be starting tomatoes and peppers as well.  In the next few weeks we will be breaking ground outside and seeding our first spring cold season vegetable crop. While drooling over our tomato seed packets, I decided to go through and see just how many heirloom varieties we are growing this year. 

For 2013 we'll be growing 36 different types of vegetables (tomatos cabbage potatoes etc), of which we'll be growing 84 different varieties. By variety, I mean a taxonomic rank below species, or an intraspecific name.   Yukon gold potatoes and Russet Potatoes for example would be two varieties of one crop.

-36 heirloom varieties, you can see some of them here.
-84 total varieties (most of which are open-pollinated and organic)

All making up the 36 different types of vegetables our CSA members will be eating!

Heirlooms can refer to heirloom seeds, plants, and varieties, of vegetables or fruit. Heirloom plants are considered to be old cultivars, used more widely before adoption of industrial agriculture after WWII. Heirlooms are often varieties that are maintained by heirloom gardeners and farmers, particularly in isolated or ethnic communities. They are more common in the Global South

Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods and plant varieties or cultivars were grown.  In modern, industrialized agriculture, manual labor are replaced by petrochemicals and mechanization.  Most food crops are grown in large, monoculture plots. Few varieties of each type of crop are grown, each selected or engineered for their productivity, and their ability to withstand mechanical picking.  Also factors are ability to withstand cross-country shipping, be super sweet or their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. 

All heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination. Open-pollinated varieties are plats that if properly isolated from other varieties will produce seed that is "true to type." Meaning the seed will result in a plant genetically identical to the parent, and that farmer can save seed to reduce costs and preserve the genetic cultivar they prefer to grow.

If open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. While many hybrid plants experience increased yields and vigor, called hybrid vigor, seed from a hybrid variety can be saved, but will not be true to type. 

Besides the ability to save our own seed, what is at stake here is our genetic diversity.  A hybrid's biology makes them proprietary. By forcing farmers to return for new seeds each season, these seed companies have effectively taken control of the means of production. As Michael Pollan wrote in his article "The Seed Conspiracy":

"But the same uniformity that smoothes capitalism’s way into the farm and garden also violates one of nature’s cardinal principles: genetic diversity. A field of genetically identical plants is much more vulnerable to disease, as American corn farmers discovered in 1970 when a blight decimated the nation’s crop, which had grown dependent on a few genetically similar hybrids. After such blights, breeders have historically turned to traditional varieties of corn, found in places like Mexico, to refresh the gene pool and provide new resistance. But what happens when Mexican farmers have been sold on fancy new hybrids and their traditional varieties have become extinct?"

Hybrid varieties can offer better disease resistance, uniformity, yield and vigor. Whereas Heirloom varieties can offer us the ability to save our own seeds, reduce our costs, increase food and seed security, superior taste, and local varieties more tailored to our specific growing region and pests. 

Here at The Shire Farm, we heavily favor open-pollinated varieties, but think both hybrid and open-pollinated cultivars have a place on the plate


  1. This is one of the reasons we are so excited to participate in your CSA for 2013! We look forward to trying varieties that never make it on the grocery store shelf, that are bred for flavor, not to withstand cross-country shipping!

  2. That's what we feel as well! A lot of the plants are starting to sprout, and we just started 7-8 different varieties of Tomatoes and will be doing some lettuce today!