For a lover of words, leafing through an heirloom seed catalog is almost as delicious as eating the fruits and vegetables pictured on each page. The poetry of heirloom seeds is unabashed, starting with names such as Amish Deer Tongue lettuce, Moon and Stars watermelon, Rouge Vif d’Etamps squash, Yellow Dent corn and a personal favorite, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomatoes. Nomenclature aside, heirloom crops possess a long, distinguished past.
In the U.S., there are three major categories of seeds available for a farmer to sow: genetically modified, F1 hybrids, and heirlooms. Without delving too deeply into the subject, genetically modified seeds are typically exclusive to large, industrial farms but have consequently filtered into the American market. Cotton, flowers, corn, potatoes, rapeseed, rice, soy and sugar beets are the only legal genetically modified crops on U.S. soil; however, through the prevalence of their byproducts such as oils, syrups, flours and sugars, genetically modified foods are found in virtually every supermarket.
The second group of seeds are known as F1 hybrids. They are sterile, patented and hand-pollinated cultivars with a convoluted narrative. It is true that F1 hybrid seeds produce high yields, quickly. The seeds are developed to produce crops that are inexpensive, uniform, easy to transport without significant damage and, when they are picked unripe, have a longer shelf life. Genetically unstable, lacking in hardiness and unable to resist disease and pest, F1 hybrids are often saturated with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. The end result is a fruit or vegetable planted for profit rather than ecological benefit or taste.
The third and final group of seeds are the heirloom seeds. An heirloom plant is a cultivar that, by definition, has existed through open pollination and seed-saving techniques for over fifty years. This definition has yet to be legally cemented but those three things – age, open-pollination and seed-saving – are widely considered to be the three major components of an heirloom crop. Enduring generations of tilling and harvesting, these crops are sturdy, rich in flavor and nutrients, resistant to disease and genetically stable.
A major benefit of growing heirloom crops (besides their good looks) is the actualization of food security through biodiversity. From the global down to the microbial, all of Earth’s ecosystems are dependent on the intricate relationships between plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. If humans continue to plant hybrids and genetically modified seeds, the threat of crop failure, famine, and disease will increase. In the Northeast, a growing number of farmers are returning to heirloom crops for their ecological as well as culinary benefits. At Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge, we place high emphasis on not only sourcing local, organic produce when it’s available, but also selecting unique and interesting crops to feature on our shelves and in the kitchen. We love Red Fire Farm’s Brandywine tomatoes and Ailsa Craig onions. Sparrow Arc Farm’s Parisian Market carrots and Yuri Asian pears have become a staff and customer favorite. Although it’s still very much winter in the Northeast, we’re excited to follow the journey from heirloom seed to blossoming fruit and can hardly wait until these fascinating crops grace our shelves again.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I found some great information on the Slow Food web site and gleaned a lot from another non-profit working to educate people on our food supply system, Sustainable Table. Also, be sure to check out Seed Savers to learn more about heirloom seeds, biodiversity and sustainable farming. Founded in 1975, Seed Savers is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. If, like me, you are browsing your seed catalog with a thought to spring, you might find their gardening forum or their planting and seed saving directory helpful!
Emily Shannon is a cooking enthusiast and works in the produce department and as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.