In the industrialized food system that dominates our food market there has been a serious reduction in the diversity of the produce we eat. Hybrids and genetically modified varieties have been created to make commercial production easier, create more uniform crops, increase yields, resist disease, and have a more dependable crop. While in some ways these are good for large scale food production, the preservation and cultivation of heirlooms has come from the desire to maintain valuable biodiversity among crops, which is threatened by industrial methods …and some just find the taste superior! But what really is an heirloom?
You’re used to seeing the perfectly round and rosy red tomatoes in the store, but heirlooms tend to be a whole different story. Sure there are typical red varieties, but heirlooms can come in a breathtaking range of colors, shapes, sizes, and designs. Heirlooms are varieties that were being grown before WWII and were open pollinated. This means pollination, instead of being controlled, was done by insects, birds, wind, etc. This created very diverse seeds and plants that were well adapted to area they were bred in. These seeds have been passed down by families, travelers, and there are even some commercially bred heirloom varieties.
One of the most popular stories about heirloom varieties is the mortgage lifter tomato (which we have in the garden!) In the 1930’s, Marshall Cletis Byles, a man with nearly no experience with growing tomatoes, created a breed that allowed him to pay off his mortgage in 6 years. He cross pollinated a variety of tomatoes including German Johnson, Beefsteak, an unknown Italian variety, and an unknown English variety. For six years he cross pollinated the strongest seedlings of these cross pollinated varieties, and thus the Mortgage Lifter was born. His goal was to create a tomato that could feed families – they are big and meaty with few seeds, the plants produce many tomatoes, and have disease resistant qualities. Come try them out at our next stand!