Because they're better than the hybrid plant seed which you can buy. Why this is the case will take a little explaining, but I'm sure you have noticed that increasingly you can see tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables being described as "heirloom" in stores and restaurants, particularly ones which promote healthy and organic produce. This doesn't mean that they were passed on to the chef by some dead relative who gave all their actually valuable possessions away to a cat sanctuary. It means they are non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds which have been passed down form gardener to gardener and oneHOWTO will explain why you should grow heirloom vegetables in your garden.
What are Heirloom Fruit and Vegetables?
It might be helpful to answer this question by discussing what they are not. As stated above, they are not hybrid fruit and vegetables which have been created by corporate growers to ensure uniformity amongst their crop. The reason big food conglomerates use hybrid or GMO (genetically modified organism) crops is that they can guarantee a high yield to meet the equally high demand, the fruit and vegetables will be uniform of both content and look and they can control and regulate the seeds they use to stop others from profiting from their produce. The main reason for this last point is that hybrid seeds are unstable when re-planted. They won't necessarily be true-to-type and will not grow as well as their parent fruit or vegetable. This means if you plant the seed from a Gala apple, the seed which has been destabalized by the presence of other genes will most likely not bear the same fruit. For this reason hybrid growers will have to buy not only new seed each year, but new materials to start pollination over again.
Heirloom's are "open-pollinated" plants, which mean they either self-pollinate or are pollinated by the same species. This can be done in controlled environments by the grower. Although all heirloom plants are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated plants are heirloom. This is because nature is the greatest open-pollinator and will find its own way to create life. Another mis-definition of heirloom is simply that they are old. It is generally agreed that heirloom (also known as heritage) fruits and vegetables stem from cultivars preceding 1945. This is because after WWII, hybrid growers and seed companies became the dominant practice, contributing to the loss of many heirloom variety seeds. Once an heirloom variety is lost it's lost forever and cannot be replicated. Some sellers will describe a fruit or vegetable as "heirloom" because it might date from a long time (over fifty years) ago, but most true seed growers see heirlooms as seeds which have a history of passing on from generation to generation which can be tracked back.
Unlike hybrid seeds which are inbred for a specific purpose, heirlooms adapt to their environment and find ways to make the most of their growing conditions. This will often result in non-uniform plants, some of which look different to the homogenized plants we see in the supermarket.
Why We Don't Eat as Many Heirloom Fruit and Vegetables as We Should
The main reason for this is money. Not because the seeds themselves are any more expensive than their hybrid counterparts (they might actually be cheaper considering they didn't require the expense of a lab as do many hybrids), but because food production corporations do not use heirlooms as their main type of seed. This is why when you go to an organic fruit and veg shop you will see the prices are more expensive, not just because the quality is better, although it generally is, but because it has been grown by smaller farms and growers who are better able to care for the plants and ensure quality.
Food conglomerates have created an expectation of what fruit and vegetables look like, which means when we see a carrot which is not in the perfect conical shape or color we have come to expect from a carrot, we think there is something wrong with it. Often heirloom plants will have growths or textures which are perfectly normal, safe to eat and often more delicious than their hybrid counterparts. The extent to which some food companies have created this narrow market purposefully is debatable, but the results are not. We can only really find true heirloom fruit and vegetables from farmers' markets and smaller growers. As stated before, the heirlooms found in supermarkets might not be heirlooms at all or are some pale version of them.
One of the reasons many heirlooms are not only not for sale, but lost, is because a scheme was set up to prevent dishonest seed sellers from selling counterfeit or mislabelled seeds. A registry was created which characterized distinctiveness and uniformity, but as heirlooms are naturally unstable growers some plants which looked different have been stricken from the list, even if they actually were true-to-type.
The threat to heirloom growers is not always so sinister, nature itself will not always make it easy to grow. They will not have the almost guaranteed crop which many hybrids have and they may need some more time to germinate properly, perhaps even lying dormant for a season before growing. It is understandable why hybrid plants were created as the demand for food on the planet is great, but it does appear to have come at a certain cost.
What are the Benefits of Eating Heirloom Fruit and Vegetables?
There are two main benefits in eating heirloom fruit and vegetables and they are both down to quality. The careful nurture and genetic pedigree of heirloom plants means that they flavor is more often than not vastly superior. The quick gestation and high yield of many hybrid plants means that they are a little like whisky; without due care and attention you will be able to taste the lack of quality in a cheaper version. Heirloom plants are allowed to develop on their own terms and will take time to fill their cells and casings with delicious flavor.
The other main benefit of eating these plants is down to our health. There are studies which have shown declines in vitamin and nutrient levels from 50 years previous due to agricultural methods linked to large scale food production. The soil is often not naturally replenished and will have to have nutrients added back into it by the growers, often done artificially. While this is ingenious in its own way, it seems to have had an effect on the quality of the crops and the health benefits they may contain. This is not to say that hybrid plants lack nutrition or are de facto bad for us, but it does mean that the apples your grandmother claims were so much better back in her day, probably were. It also may inform children's preference for junk food over food that is good for us, although this is probably theoretical so far and doesn't consider other relevant factors contributing to childhood obesity.
Where Can You Buy Heirloom Seeds for Fruit and Vegetables?
There are many seed distributors who have catalogues online of heirloom seeds including Seed Savers Exchange and Territorial Seed. They will have extensive lists and descriptions of the seeds you want to buy and can provide advice on how to grow it.
A more personable way is to find out your nearest farmers' market or organic produce seller. They will be able to answer your questions on their suppliers and will maybe even be able to put you in contact with them. As helpful as we hope this article has been, there is little better place to find your information than straight from the horse's mouth.
It's always good to be informed and there generally seems to be good reason in going out and looking for better plant produce to use in our kitchen. They may not only be healthier for us and the food production industry, but they even taste better too.
If you have any thoughts or disagreements, please feel free to make a comment below.
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