Dark green, almost black tomatoes with deep red flesh and a fluted shape. Cosmic carrots, dark purple at the top, orange at the tip and bright yellow on the inside. Long, thin, white beans streaked with magenta, others magenta streaked with white.

You have probably seen fruits and vegetables like these at the farmers market with their obscure shapes and wild colours. They are called heirlooms and there is much more to them then their unusual appearance.

Heirlooms are old varieties of seeds that have been preserved by gardeners and farmers for some desirable set of traits, such as taste, appearance, productivity or adaptability. For a seed to be an heirloom, it needs to be at least 50 years old but some heirloom seeds can be hundreds of years old. An heirloom must also be open pollinated. Most hybrid plants that are bred for specific traits are created using methods of human intervention. Heirloom plants, on the other hand, are pollinated through wind and insects, which means that the seeds will produce plants with the same traits on their own. This also allows for a natural evolution of the plant as it adapts to the growing conditions of the region.

Common Ground Farms

Photo by Common Ground Farms


With names like Aunt Ruby’s Green German Tomato, Chadwick’s Cherry Tomato and Boothby’s Blonde Cucumber, it might seem as though these seeds actually used to belong to a great aunt Ruby or a farmer named Boothby—and that’s because they probably did. Heirloom seeds, like a pocket watch or fine china, are seen as family treasures, often passed down from through generations.

Most of the fruits and vegetables that you find at the grocery store, on the other hand, are genetic variations, or hybrids, that have been bred to be fast growing and high producing. They are bred to ripen at the same time and to have thick skin, sturdy flesh and few cracks or scars. They are bred to be able to handle chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. They are bred to be less likely to bruise during transportation and to take longer to soften on the shelf. But these traits don’t come without a cost and that cost is nutrition.

“Our large scale industrial food system is focused on yield and timing because they want a machine to be able to go through and pick everything at once,” says Michael Mikulak, founder of Common Ground Farm, author of Politics of the Pantry and member of the Halton Food Council. “But in breeding for production and transportation, we have lost many of the nutritional characteristics of these vegetables.”

Look at what happened to iceberg lettuce, Mikulak says. Pale green, almost white, iceberg lettuce has crisp, crunchy leaves that make it easy to transport and store on a shelf but, as a result, the lettuce has little to no nutritional value. Research has shown that fruits and vegetables with darker, more intense colours tend to be richer in vitamins, minerals, nutrients and antioxidants.

“There are orange and yellow tomatoes, red and purple carrots, purple and yellow peppers. The colour of a fruit or vegetable can indicate the kinds of nutrients and phytochemicals that are in that plant. There are thousands of disease fighting and health promoting phytochemicals found in plants, so by eating a variety of coloured foods, you are ensuring that you are getting a variety of different nutrients and phytochemicals that work together to increase health. Choosing to grow heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables makes it easy to eat a rainbow of nutritious food,” says Colleen Lavender, founder of Of the Sun Farms. A small market farm now in its fourth season, Of the Sun Farms grows mostly heirlooms.

Heirloom Vegetables

Photo by Common Ground Farms

According to research that compared USDA data on fruits and vegetables from 1950 and 1999, there has been a significant loss of nutrients from our food—particularly protein, calcium, iron, phosphorus, riboflavin and ascorbic acid. The amount of calcium in broccoli has declined 64 percent. The amount of calcium in string beans has declined 43 percent. The amount of protein in wheat and barley has declined up to 50 percent. Even more concerning is that these findings don’t include nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, dietary fiber and many vitamins that weren’t recorded in 1950 and which researchers can only assume have seen similar declines.

Other research has found that most of our fruits and vegetables contain shockingly low amounts of phytonutrients, which are compounds said to reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. An heirloom apple, for instance, contains 100 times more phytonutrients than grocery store apples.

Part of this decline in nutrients is the result industrial farming techniques used to increase production speed and yield. The faster a plant grows, the fewer nutrients it is able to absorb from the soil. The practice of harvesting produce before it has fully ripened, which allows for less damage and spoilage during transportation, also means that many nutrients are never created during the ripening process. For instance, most tomatoes are picked when they are green and then exposed to ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening process and turns the tomatoes red for the store shelf.

However, the greatest cause of nutrient decline in our food is genetic dilution, which occurs when breeders develop varieties of fruits and vegetables that grow fast and produce a high yield at the expense of nutrient content.

“It’s not that hybrids are inherently bad,” Mikulak says. “We actually buy quite a few hybrids and they are great because they have combined two varieties of plants to create a new plant that has some characteristics that we need, such as resistance to fungus and blight.”

Mikulak goes on to say that hybrid plants might be necessary for large scale production but heirlooms make the most sense for market farmers and backyard gardeners. Heirlooms seeds are slower to produce, which means that instead of having to deal with 100 pounds of tomatoes all at once, you get five pounds of tomatoes every couple days. Growing heirlooms also means that your plants will adapt to the climate, soil, pests, diseases and other conditions of your region and you’ll end up with your own variety of tomato that does best in your backyard.

“Before the logic of the machine, that’s how people used to grow,” Mikulak says.

Growing a golden tomato named after a Polish immigrant named Stefan or planting a green bean that was passed down through the Fortin family may seem like an act of nostalgia but these old fashioned heirloom seeds could bear the fruit of a healthier, more sustainable future.

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Last modified: July 14, 2016

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