Heirloom Produce

By Richard Munroe, Produce Department

When I think of the word “heirloom,” I think of tradition, of precious things handed down from generations past. Heirloom fruits, vegetables, and grains, sometimes called “heritage,” are grown from seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation.

They are open-pollinated, which means that a tomato, for example, is grown with other tomatoes just like it. They are also are grown far enough away from other varieties to avoid cross-pollination, and are naturally pollinated by insects, birds, and the wind. This is the oldest known growing method and it keeps the seed stock pure and heritable. To be considered an heirloom, a seed must be open-pollinated and have a direct lineage going back at least fifty years.

We have a few heirloom varieties available here in the Produce Department. Heirloom tomatoes come in a variety of colors and flavors and are a real favorite; we sell a lot of them! We also have local heirloom French Fingerling potatoes from Super Tuber, which have a smooth red skin and finely textured flesh. You’re more likely to find heirloom veggies at farmers’ markets than in retail grocery stores. They are often less pest-resistant and more fragile than the fruits and veggies that we commonly see, which are called hybrids. These hybrids, when they’re organic, are created by grafting or cuttings, and never by genetic modification. Heirloom produce is delicious and full of character, but tends to be irregularly shaped and more challenging to package and ship. This raises the obvious question: How can we explore the realm of authentic pre-industrial farming fruits and veggies?

The easiest way to simply try heirlooms if we don’t have what you’re looking for here at BriarPatch, is to go to a farmers’ market. Many of our local farms grow a few heirloom varieties. First Rain Farm, for example, is growing Detroit dark red beets, Scarlet Nantes carrots, rattlesnake green beans, black cherry tomatoes, Moskvich tomatoes, Cherokee purple tomatoes, and yellow crookneck squash. Just ask your local farmer—they love to talk about their produce!
Of course, the best way to experience heirlooms is to grow them yourself! This could a fun project to share with your kids. Just think: you can grow the same vegetables that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew. And if you want to experience what people were eating in 1776, 1865, or 1929, you can buy period-specific seeds in specialty seed catalogs or online.

Much of what we know about early American agriculture comes from records kept by Thomas Jefferson. He had a large garden and kept a journal about plant growing and breeding from 1767 to 1824. He was also a seed saver, and many of the plants that he grew have come down to us via heirloom seeds from that era.
Heirloom fruits, vegetables, and grains connect us to our historical past and to our evolution as a species; just ask an anthropologist. The oldest food-plant seed to be successfully sprouted came from a 2,000-year-old Judea date palm found in Masada, Israel. Now that’s history! Apart from their historical value, heirlooms are usually plain old tastier than their non-heirloom counterparts and are full of original character. Heirlooms seeds are widely available and easy to grow and they’re often less expensive than hybrids. Perhaps the most delightful benefit of growing our own heirlooms is that we can save the seeds from our crops and pass them down, as has been done for 10,000 years, to the generations that follow us.

What’s in Season this Fall?
We have a lot to celebrate this season! In September, in addition to the Autumnal Equinox on the 22nd, we will have local and regional apples on our shelves. Coco Ranch in Davis is bringing us Granny Smiths. In October, Ronsse—from nearby Chicago Park—will bring us Golden and Red Delicious, Jonathan, and Heirloom Arkansas Black apples.

We’ll continue to receive those lovely, crunchy, and sweet local loose carrots from Super Tuber and Mountain Bounty. Filaki Farms will supply us with bok choy, dino kale, Redbor kale, and red chard. They’ll be bringing us melons as well: Amarillo del Oro, Piel de Sapo, and cantaloupe. Super Tuber and Mountain Bounty will keep us well supplied with a variety of cabbages.

Riverhill Farm will be bringing us jalapeño, cayenne, gypsy, and poblano peppers… and their fabulous lettuces through September. Not to mention their heirloom, Roma, and beefsteak tomatoes that are already on our shelves. Higareda Farm will continue bringing their generous and tasty bunches of basil, and Pyramid Farm will maintain a steady supply of cilantro. Starbright Acres will continue with their abundant and colorful supply of various radishes, and my personal favorite—tomatillos!

Johansen Ranch will please us with an abundant variety of melons: cantaloupe, Galia, orange and green honeydew, yellow, and crimson seeded Watermelons. In October, keep an eye out for their pomegranates as well. Greg’s Organics has cherry tomatoes and sweet Nardello peppers coming our way, as well as lots of zucchini. Natural Trading Company, in addition to their continual supply of wheat grass, sunflower sprouts, and pea shoots, will also be bringing us sweet, yummy persimmons in October. Flying V Farm will continue to garnish and season our cooking with their Italian and curly parsleys.

This is a just partial list of the many local produce items available on our shelves this fall. We are very fortunate to have so many hard-working and dedicated farmers nurturing the gifts of the ground for our tables. By choosing local when you buy produce here at the co-op, you are not only supporting a large, active, and vibrant farming community, you are supporting the health and vitality of your community, your family, and your friends. A merry Equinox to you all!

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