The term “Heirloom” has become a trendy thing. In produce, it commands premium prices at farmers’ markets and grocery stores alike. What was saved for generations is now fashionable and popular. So what is an heirloom seed? It is a seed that is open pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. It’s the original seed—what we were given by nature. This is how we used to farm.
Generally, heirloom plants are grown on a small scale using traditional techniques, and are raised from seeds that are at least 50 years old. Over time, growers save the seeds of their best plants, whether those are the most vigorous, disease resistant, flavorful or beautiful. With unique shapes, sizes, and colors, heirloom plants often look different from commercial hybrids, which make up the bulk of supermarket fruits and vegetables. Unlike heirlooms, these hybrids are bred to produce uniform looking and tasting, high-yield crops at low cost.
People often ask me if heirlooms are worth the price. I hold the same position that I do on organics—absolutely! The flavor is unparalleled! To illustrate, every year in July, for a brief period of 3 weeks, we bring in Vincent Farms’ Blenheim apricots. Located in Goleta, Ca. this farm produces some of the best apricots that you will ever taste in this world! One bite and you will never forget that moment when you first tried them! To me, that is priceless. I have customers asking in April, if we are going to carry them that year.
Blenheim apricots are no longer grown on a commercial level because they are a small variety and don’t always ripen evenly. They require loving tending and are far too delicate to withstand long distance shipping. For these reasons, mostly bland and tasteless hybrid varieties will be found on grocery store aisles, but at the Berry Man, nothing gives us more pride than to be able to offer our customers a product they will never forget—they are over the moon when they try them! It’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job: to provide a customer with an incomparable taste experience. I am passionate about taking the extra step to provide our customers with premium product. That might mean we have to pay the farmer substantially more for his produce, but it’s worth every penny.
On the other hand, hybrid fruits and vegetables serve a purpose: produce can be grown on a large scale to support the population and be shipped to urban areas. But here is the kicker: most seeds from hybrids are sterile and cannot be passed down. Seed that cannot reproduce seems like an oxymoron. Plants are meant to give life, over and over—there is something ironic about a finite lifespan for a seed. There will be no legacy or new generations. One will just have to get more seeds and start over and that is exactly what goes on with eighty percent of the seeds sold today; they are sterile, hybridized and patented.
So, what is the future of our produce? Will it continue become tasteless offerings, glistening from water spray in the supermarket produce bins? Will large scale agriculture wipe out the heirlooms? Will the shift in food production from family farms to corporate farms allow the modern hybrid produce to prevail?
Thankfully, some committed farmers and families saved their heirloom seeds to pass on to others; to keep these crops growing in their original form, untouched by hybridization or genetic modification. Public awareness of heirloom’s superiority, plus farmers dedicated to preserving these crops, as well as Chefs who are willing to pay the premium for flavor, have kept heirlooms alive. I am proud to be part of this movement. It provides us with the option to have the best and leave the rest.