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Heirlooms

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July 16, 2011 by wcobserver

You may have heard of the new trend in gardening of using heirloom varieties of veggies and even heirloom breeds of livestock. (In fact, producing heirloom varieties is not a new trend. Actually it’s a very very old one.) What does that mean and why are folks using them?

​Heirlooms are seeds that have been passed from generation to generation in family farms. Most have origins dating back to the early part of the 20th century or before. They were the seeds of our family farmers. In the past 40 years, we’ve lost many of our heirloom varieties, along with the many smaller family farms that supported heirlooms. These seeds were usually very localized and grew very well in certain regions; they were adapted to that area’s climate and environment. Recently (within the last fifty years) heirlooms that had adapted to survive well for hundreds of years were lost or replaced by fewer hybrid veggies and animals, bred for their commercial friendly characteristics.

Unfortunately, these same characteristics might not be the same qualities that you look for in a product. For example, tomatoes grown commercially usually are desired to have a tough skin and hard flesh so they can travel and transport well. Heirloom varieties were never bred for transport purposes but rather for taste and environmental conditions like pests. Every heirloom variety is genetically unique and has evolved resistance to pests and diseases and an adaptation to specific growing conditions and climates. With the reduction in genetic diversity, food production is drastically at risk from plant epidemics and infestation by pests. This is called genetic erosion. Here are a few numbers I found in this month’s National Geographic comparing the number of varieties of seeds found in 1903 to 1983 (the last time a count was made):

                        1903      1983
Lettuce:         497          36
Beets:             288          17
Cabbage:       544          28
Peas:              408          25
Tomatoes:    408          79
Cucumbers: 285          16

This is not limited to just veggies. It is estimated that nearly 1/3 of our chicken breeds are at risk of extinction. The Kerr Center in Oklahoma works hard in trying to promote heritage breeds of cattle. One of these is called the piney woods cattle which are pretty small yet rugged and do not require hay feeding or any human assistance.

Relying on a small number of food crops or breeds is risky, as Irish farmers discovered when the Lumper potato succumbed to blight resulting in the great Irish potato famine that began in 1845. Many believe the Irish potato famine would have never happened if they had grown a larger variety of potatoes, not to mention if they had grown more diverse food products and not just potatoes. Farmers in the Andes Mountains avoid this problem by growing a huge variety of potatoes in different areas to avoid the problems of drought or pests. Many organic farmers will tell you they grow diversified vegetables to distinguish themselves from the huge monocrop production machines we now call farms.

So the next time you talk to someone who actually grows food, ask them about heirlooms and give them a try. You will see and taste the difference.

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