There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to heirlooms…one being that they are a culinary delight, and should be prized above all others, the other being that they are, as one farmer put it, “yesterday’s favorites for a reason”. While praised for flavor, these varieties are also often criticized for their low productivity and susceptibility to pests & diseases. Horticulturists have been improving varieties every year, so why not take advantage of the newest, most productive and disease-resistant varieties available?
My completely biased opinion is that heirlooms are amazing. I love to think about the history, and stories behind each seed- where it came from, the hands that tended it and passed it down for future generations they would never meet. Many seeds came to America in the pockets of immigrants…for some it was the only thing of real value they brought with them to an unknown land. How important those seeds must have been- not only as food, but as a taste of a homeland you’d likely never again see. I got a bell pepper variety this year because the description stated it was one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. History you can touch, grow…how cool is that? To be a part of the chain that keeps these varieties alive for future generations is literally a way of preserving history, and our country’s heritage, and something that resonates deeply for me.
What about the bad rap as underachievers? First, there are plenty of heirlooms that are so common & productive, they are often not recognized as such- examples would be Provider green beans, Rutgers tomatoes, or Black Seeded Simpson lettuce. There is also an essential difference between commercial hybrids and heirlooms in terms of how they grow in different climates. Hybrids are grown to perform well in just about any part of the country. That’s why you’ll find the same varieties at the big box stores whether you’re in Maine or Florida, even though the growing conditions are radically different. Heirlooms, however, were generally grown in a specific region and climate. Therefore, it’s really important to find the variety that comes from a place that has weather similar to your garden. There are over 5,000 varieties of tomatoes alone available to members of Seed Savers Exchange. Many of these would do really poorly here at my farm, but others will shine. And by saving the seed from your own plants year after year, you can actually select for the plants that do best in your own garden!
An overlooked crisis in farming today is homogeneity. Nearly every commercial farm grows the same vegetable varieties, or raises the same kinds of livestock to get maximum production- be it bell peppers or beef. The problem with this way of farming is best illustrated by the Irish potato famine. When everyone plants the same thing, an entire nation’s crop can be decimated by a new pest, disease or climate change. When you plant an assortment of varieties of a given vegetable, you spread out your risk. Each year, some kinds will do better than others given the weather and other factors.
When I came to the farm, Dan helped me order seeds because I had no idea how to grow much of anything, much less what kinds were best, and the choices can be overwhelming. As I’ve grown into my role as a farmer though, I’ve taken over the job of selecting our seeds each year, pouring over catalogs for literal hours each winter, and have been continually experimenting with new varieties, many of them heirlooms. It’s a process that takes years. Some varieties are great, and immediately earn their spot in the garden on a permanent basis. For ones that don’t thrive, I usually give it another shot the following year, since every year is different in terms of weather and such. I’ve found that Riesentraube cherry tomatoes are more productive (in outdoor conditions, anyway) than the hybrids I can get, and that they and an heirloom Roma I grew were the most resistant varieties to the late blight. But it doesn’t always work out- I’ve loved the idea of having pink Brandywine tomatoes for a while now. But season after season, I get very few marketable tomatoes.
The Brandywines are large tomatoes, so a plant produces fewer of them. But they are also prone to insect damage and cracking, which pretty much make them unmarketable, no matter how tasty they are. However, I sold some seedlings last year and my neighbors raved that they were the best tomatoes ever! I think this particular one just needs more TLC than I have time to give it, and may be best suited to home gardeners. That’s OK. Selecting varieties is a trial-and-error process, not every variety (no matter how cool the back story or pretty the fruit) is going to work for every garden. I accept that there will be disappointments, and things I won’t grow again, but for me, the fun is pouring over the seed catalog, finding something new that speaks to me in some way, and engaging in a yearlong experiment. Even the failures can teach me something. There are also trade-offs to consider.
For instance, hybrid lettuce just grows more quickly & is ready to cut sooner. But lettuce, as it matures, gets bitter and inedible, and that happens quickly as well. I find that, even if my heirloom lettuces take a week longer to reach cutting size, they tend to last 2-3 weeks longer before getting bitter, even during hot weather. So, if I wait (or plant a week earlier), I end up with much more time where I can market and use that variety. Early or late, which is better? I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, just personal preference and business practices. However, lettuce is one crop I’ve transitioned pretty much exclusively to heirlooms already.
It is my hope, and a long-term goal, to transition more towards heirlooms. I love the idea of improving our self-sufficiency by saving our seeds, which in turn reduces our yearly expenses. Saving more seed than I need could also lead to sales of seed packets in the spring, or even offering hard-to-find heirloom seedlings to our customers. I also think it’s just a natural extension of what we’re already doing- preserving the historic buildings here, utilizing antique machinery in the fields…it isn’t much of a leap to choose historic varieties of plants & livestock, either. I think it adds to the beauty of what we do here, and I look forward to my heirloom experiments for years to come!