When we think of heirlooms, we think of dusty relics in our grandparents’ houses. But heirlooms can also be living and vital, in the form of plants. Heirloom plants are cultivars that have been grown for some time (there isn’t an agreed-upon range of time, though 50+ years old is a rule of thumb) and are passed down each year by saving seeds. Growers select seeds from the best, healthiest plants, so over time, heirlooms adapt to their environment. They are usually preserved for a distinctive characteristic and are often prized for their flavor, texture, or color.
Some heirloom vegetables can be found in farmers’ markets; heirloom tomatoes are especially common. Oftentimes heirlooms look quite different from the conventional crops you find in the supermarket. Their variable colors, shapes, and sizes contrast with the uniform, “perfect” appearance of conventional crops. Although heirlooms may be superior in quality compared to conventional crops, it’s not exactly accurate to say they’re more sustainable.
That’s because there’s nuance in their sustainability story. Today most of our food crops are produced by large-scale commercial farms. These farms grow “hybrid” crops that are optimized for commercial production, where durability, consistency, and disease and pest resistance are especially prized. These optimizations mean a lot of produce can be grown using fewer resources than would be required to raise the same amount of heirlooms. The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension notes that some heirlooms can require additional equipment and extra pest and disease management, and often have shorter shelf lives and are more fragile.
However, comparing hybrid crops with heirloom crops isn’t fair since heirlooms are hardly ever produced on as large a scale as hybrids. Many heirloom crops would not be able to be sustainably produced at a large scale because they would require extra resources to ensure their survival. On the other hand, “heirlooms work extremely well for small-scale farms,” says Dr. William Weaver, food historian and adjunct professor of food studies at Drexel University. The extra care required by heirlooms tends to be more manageable on smaller farms. Weaver also notes that heirlooms are financially attractive for small farmers because they can save the seeds; farmers that grow hybrids have to purchase seeds every year.
So although they might not be fit for the large-scale commercial production needed to feed the planet’s 7 billion people, heirloom crops do play an important big-picture role in sustainability. Heirlooms preserve diverse characteristics of plants, thereby preserving biodiversity in a world where commercial agriculture favors homogenization. Biodiversity is crucial to maintaining the resiliency of the earth’s ecosystems — one might say it strengthens the planet’s immune system. You would be doing your taste buds and the planet a favor by choosing local, organic heirloom vegetables!