Heirloom varieties of endangered fruits and vegetables make a comeback

By Maureen Aylward

The drive behind growing many heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables being grown in small backyard gardens and large CSAs is to save endangered fruits and vegetables from going away forever. We asked Zintro experts to tell us about their favorite non-GMO seeds or seed sources and comment on the heirloom trend among foodies and chefs.

Darrel Suderman, a food and beverage technical consultant, says that heirloom plants like vegetables, herbs, ancient grains, and microgreens are becoming the latest trend in the food industry. “Combine heirloom genetics with organic farming practices and you end up with the next powerful menu marketing tool in a restaurant near you,” says Suderman. “According the reputable Living Seed Company, the National Seed Company retained hundreds of seed varieties in 10 major groups 100 years ago; now only a couple hundred seeds are retained. But, that’s about to change as seed companies expand the availability of heirloom plan seeds.”

Suderman says that currently 75% of the global seed market is governed by 10 companies. These companies follow a business model that conserves the genetic diversity, historic preservation, bio-diversity, and soil enrichment. Some common characteristic terms include heirloom varieties and seeds, open pollination, rare seeds, seed saving techniques, ancient grains, and hybrids.

“Heirloom traditionally means that the seed variety has been bred for its desirable traits, superior taste and vigor, that is passed down from generation to generation,” explains Suderman. “But where do hybrids fit in if they do not provide a fertile seed from the parent plant? First, they must be destabilized. Stabilized or de-hybridization can take eight generations of growing it out until the plant variety is completely stabilized. The well known Early Girl tomato is an example of stabilization, but it is still sold as a hybrid.”

Open pollination is also a core term in heirloom discussion, says Suderman. “Open pollinated plan varieties are non-hybrids and originate from two open pollinated parents that will create an offspring similar to the parent plant with desired characteristics,” he says.

The Living Seed Company as well as Baker Creek Seed and Gurney’s are some of the largest heirloom seed companies. “Other companies like the Seed Saver Exchange represent another category of heirloom seed management and distribution. These companies and trade organizations tend to group heirloom seeds into four categories: family heirlooms, commercial heirlooms, created heirlooms, and mystery heirlooms,” says Suderman.

Rodrigo I Bermudez Grave de Peralta, an agribusiness consultant, says he has been fascinated with vegetables and their shapes colors flavors since he was a child growing up in south east Asia. “I would just drop seed into the soil just so see what would come out,” he remembers. He has worked in organic and conventional vegetable production on a large commercial scale and is currently a papaya farmer in Southern Mexico.

It’s important to de Peralta that people have begun to appreciate vegetables and older varieties for new tastes, colors, and textures normally found in natural food stores. “However, it is important to know that many heirloom varieties never existed in the wild and for the most part were hybrids and actively bred for their characteristics 40, 60, or even 100 years ago when the first seed companies and breeders began crop genetics,” says de Peralta. “Some are true selected varieties that great grandfathers or grandmothers identified and nurtured and passed along to the next generation, but more often than not a genetic mapping would show that certain varieties can be traced to a company or breeder of recent origin.”

de Peralta says a great deal of the wonderful flavors from heirloom vegetables is because the food does not have to travel much farther than your garden to your kitchen and can be picked at maximum ripeness. “This is when you get all the flavaniods, alkaloids, acids, and sugars are at perfection,” he says. “But often the same varieties do little for the local farmer who cannot pack more than a few items to a basket because he or she does not have the ability to make a trip into the city market.”

Farmers are increasingly becoming more productive as well as conscientious of consumers, says de Peralta, but many are faced with a harvest of quickly diminishing returns. They must choose to sell what their buyers want, a product that has legs, or products that can be stored at a premature stage to ripen so the farmer can continue to sell it.

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