Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What are Heirloom or Heritage Foods?

Imagine you are a modern farmer...

You want to sell apples.  To make money, you need to sell as many apples as you can.  But an apple tree is not like a factory with predictable outputs... there are unpredictable harvest times and quantities, there are pests, there are diseases.  And the problem with fruit in general is that it can go bad.  It doesn't ship well.  It has a limited shelf life. 

Now what if there was an apple that produced most of its fruit all at the same time?  What if it produced apples of all the same size?  It was resistant to pests and disease.  It could be picked easily.  It could handle being processed in modern farm equipment.  It would not bruise easily in shipping.  It could sit in a grocery bin for a lot longer than other apples. 

If such an apple existed, and there are a few that are pretty close to that ideal, then that would be a great product with which to make money.  In fact most apples you buy in modern grocery stores were developed to meet these criteria.

But notice that I didn't say anything about taste... hmmm.

Did you know that there are over 7,500 varieties of apple?!  If you ate a different apple each day, it would take you over 20 years to try them all.  The majority of all apples sold in the U.S. are one of five varieties... FIVE out of 7,500!  These are (in order of popularity): Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji. 

Maybe it's just the foodie in me that wants to know what all these other apples taste like.  Fortunately, I've had the chance to sample a few dozen varieties.  I haven't kept track, but I am probably at around 40 varieties.  I have so many left to try!

Okay, I have gotten on a tangent here.

Heirloom and Heritage Foods.  What are they?  In simplest terms, they are varieties (cultivars) of foods that were raised earlier in human history, but they are not used in modern agriculture.  By in large, these are foods that have fallen off of farms, and therefore off our plates, because of the reasons I listed above.  They just didn't handle mass production well.  Fruits were too soft or bruised too easily or couldn't be transported.  Vegetables took too long to grow or ripened at unpredictable times or spoiled too fast.  Did you know that 96% of commercial vegetable varieties sold in 1903 are now extinct?  Gone forever!

Heirloom and Heritage Foods are not just plants.  Did you know that 99% of all turkeys raised in the U.S are one breed, the Broad-Breasted White?  There are at least fifteen breeds of turkeys out there, and the average consumer only gets one choice. 

How about chickens?  No one knows for sure, but there are hundreds of breeds.  What do we eat?  Only one chicken, the Corinsh-Rock.  How sad is that?

Cattle? Over 800 types, and we typically consume only Hereford or Angus.  Milking cattle?  Typically only Holstein or Jersey.

For you vegetarians and flexitarians out there...
- There are almost 7,500 varieties of tomatoes.
- There are thousands of peppers.
- There are over a thousand types of potatoes.
- There are hundreds of lettuces.
- There are dozens of carrots.

I am going to end here for now.  I've got some resources for those of you interested in finding and sampling these foods.  I've got some resources for those of you interested in raising these foods.  I'll post these soon.

But you'll have to wait for now and dream of all the amazing tastes you haven't yet experienced!


  1. More importantly, you can more readily use the seeds from heirloom grain to grow more. Get ready for the Zombie Apocalypse! Do an article on hops vine in the garden. Good blog man!

  2. There are two sides to this discussion. A hundred years ago, many Americans never heard of a banana. Our local grocery stores have lost variety in some areas, but gained variety in other areas.

  3. Love it! Just found this UK website where you can "adopt" an heirloom veg. They even do gift vouchers, I'm off to do some of my Christmas shopping there! Some gifts come with a packet of seeds so you can taste the veg you are helping to protect. Check it out at:

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