Amy Holan is the author of Seasonally Seattle, a blog about eating within a 250 mile radius of the Seattle area for an entire year — on a budget. Her blog covers the span of their journey, including recipes, DIY tips, and her diary of the impact on their lives.
Through this experiment, which began on September 22nd, they have been discovering the unexpected benefits of eating locally, including baking bread from scratch using local wheat, and knowing where all of the food on their table comes from. As part of her project, she’s been researching Heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, and today she shares some of what she’s learned.
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Buying fruits and vegetables from the grocery store can sometimes lead to disappointment. We’ve all been there – you buy a tomato, only to get it home and find that it’s bland and grainy. I always assumed it was the season. While that might have been the case, it could have also been the breed of tomato I was buying.
I had seen the “heirloom” varieties at the store before, but they were so expensive it was hard to rationalize. Instead, I opted for the perfectly-formed, albeit tasteless, fruit, and patted myself on the back for saving a couple bucks. It wasn’t until I committed to eating locally for a year that I discovered what I was missing out on.
An “Heirloom” varietal is grown from a seed that is known to be cultivated for at least 50 years. Heirlooms aren’t only for tomatoes, either. Melons, potatoes, squash, onions, beets, spinach — you name it, you might just find an heirloom in the midst. These ancient fruits and vegetables are grown from seeds that are often handed down from generation to generation. The older the seed, heirloom purists will tell you, the fuller the flavor, and research is mounting about the health benefits, too.
These days, biotechnology is used to alter the genetic makeup of seeds for a variety of reasons. Making them more resistant to insects and viruses ensures larger yields, leading to larger profits. And the more durable the vegetable, the less likely it is to go bad on those long international journeys to our local grocery stores.
Seed suppliers are also modifying the seeds to last only one season, forcing farmers to buy seeds year after year. Through all of this modification and cross breeding, some fear, we are losing more than just flavor from our veggies — vitamin and mineral content is disappearing too.
In a USDA study, nutrients in vegetables studied during a 50 year period declined considerably: 17-30% in protein, 30-40% for calcium, vitamin A, thiamin and riboflavin.
Seeing some of this data, you might think farmers would be excited about tapping into the blossoming heirloom market. But most farmers need to focus on mass production to stay in business, and growing only heirloom crops is risky.
First, they are open pollinated, meaning it’s up to the wind and good ol’ Mother Nature to determine what their crop will yield. You may have a successful season, and you may not, which is fine for small farms or personal growers. But when it comes to paying the rent, heirlooms aren’t that reliable. Since there is usually little pesticide use with heirlooms, they also have a greater chance of catching a virus that could potentially take out an entire crop.
While it’s risky, there are some farmers who are raising dynamic gardens, yielding plentiful supplies of heirlooms for you and me. A good place to look is at your local farmer’s market. After understanding the background on heirlooms, the risks involved for the farmer, and the higher nutritional content for me, I’ll definitely be able to justify the cost.
But the best way to ensure a healthy dose of heirlooms? Grow them yourself.
You can buy seeds to get you started, and in the fall save your seeds to use again the following year. Seed Swaps are also popping up around the nation, where you can trade your own heirloom seeds for other varieties with people in your own area. Even if you have a tiny plot of land, or no land at all, you can grow a small vegetable garden focusing on heirlooms. Your taste buds will thank you.