November 11, 2005
As we move into the cool season, some of the most eye-catching and tasty vegetables at the market – sweet red carrots, black turnips, bright green Romanesco, gigantic radishes and red greens – all have something in common. They’re heirlooms!
Plant cultivars can be grouped into two general categories: modern and heirloom varieties. Modern varieties are those developed through a formal system of breeding and selection, usually by plant breeders. These varieties tend to be high yielding and genetically uniform. Heirloom varieties, also called farmers’ varieties, traditional varieties or landraces, have been selected and developed by farmers through years of cultivation and seed saving for the next season. Farmers hand them down through generations. These varieties are often specifically suited to a certain climate and soil type, and have been selected for flavor, pest resistance, productivity, and even beauty. Heirlooms are typically very genetically diverse and variable.
Since the industrialization of agriculture, a staggering number of traditional varieties have disappeared. Over 95% of the vegetable cultivars one could find in 1903 are now extinct. With the loss of these farmer-developed varieties comes the loss of the genetic diversity they contain, which is crucial in the development of modern varieties. Without a diverse genetic pool from which to pull to create modern cultivars, world agriculture is in trouble. Several organizations and many farmers and gardeners work to preserve genetic diversity by keeping heirloom varieties under cultivation. Many farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market grow heirlooms, and these varieties, rare to find in a conventional supermarket, are part of what make produce from the market so different. One farm that has wholly dedicated itself to growing traditional cultivars is Heirloom Organics. The farm tests varieties for Seeds of Change, a company that grows and sells heirloom seeds, and their offerings are entirely organic and heirloom. At any one time, farmer Grant Brians estimates that Heirloom Organics offers somewhere between 30 and 50 different varieties.