It’s an irony of agribusiness: Over the past decades, as small independent farms have been subsumed by larger and larger corporate farms that produce more and more food to be shipped farther and farther away, we’ve lost thousands of varieties of food plants and livestock.
Industrial farms rely on a few specialized crops and breeds, typically hybrid plants that contain two or more “desired” qualities.
Fortunately, there are some small farms and organizations interested in sustainability and our culinary heritage. They’re working to preserve some of the remaining lines of crops and livestock—heirloom and heritage varieties and breeds—that have been passed down through the generations.
What Are They?
The terms “heirloom” and “heritage” describe varieties of livestock animals and crops that have unique genetic traits, were grown or raised years ago, and typically are produced sustainably. “Heirloom” is generally used in reference to plant foods, while “heritage” is used in relation to animals.
What’s the Appeal?
Not surprisingly, novelist and gardener Barbara Kingsolver is drawn to heirloom fruits and vegetables because of the poetry of their names and the stories behind them. “I swoon over names like Moon and Stars watermelon, Cajun Jewel okra, Gold of Bacau pole bean, Sweet Chocolate pepper, Collective Farm Woman melon, Georgian Crystal garlic, mother-of-thyme,” she writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an account of her family’s year of locavore eating. These names, she notes, stand for real stories—histories the vegetables acquire when they are preserved as seeds over the generations, passed from one gardener to the next.
Heritage and heirloom crops and livestock are typically well suited to thrive in regional conditions where they’ve traditionally been grown, making them particularly sustainable.
Chefs and foodies alike are enticed by heirloom and heritage foods because of the unique colors, textures, and flavors they offer. “Exceptional taste is the number one reason many gardeners cite for choosing heirloom varieties,” writes Amanda Kimble Evans of Mother Earth News.
Tired of Florida tomatoes that are grown to withstand commercial shipping but taste like cardboard? Bite into a just-picked, vine-ripened heirloom. An extra bonus is that heirloom veggies tend to be more nutritious than their mass-produced counterparts.
Where Can You Find Heirloom and Heritage Foods?
To add some tradition to your diet, think local. Farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs), co-ops, and other natural foods stores often feature produce and meats, and poultry in heirloom and heritage varieties. Or think really local and grow your own. Organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange are working to preserve heirloom varieties of plant foods.