Monday, April 11, 2011

Heirlooms are Obsolete

"Heirlooms were varieties that were so unsuccessful that they wouldn't be sold today...

Every product declines until it's replaced by new heirlooms."

The backlash was inevitable.

What are heirlooms? A 1949 article in the New York Times defined them as "open pollinated varieties [i.e. genetically stable lines, not F1 hybrids] that are more than 50 years old and have been handed down through generations." It fits the modern technical definition - but not the contemporary consumer's expectation for a primary focus on taste.

Plant breeding is an always ongoing process. Breeders grow out their core collection of genotypes every year, cross them and collect seeds from the best individuals. Occasionally new genotypes with new properties are added to the mix, but for the most part a breeding program is a conveyer belt that continuously improves the quality and performance of a given crop.

People in the past never viewed their crops as perfect - they were always trying to improve their favorite varieties, whether to get better production, to fit changing fashions, or to excel in new environments. As voiced in the above article, "A 1902 cabbage by Burpee was a perfectly good cabbage by 1902 standards... But none of our ancestors ever viewed these things as done. You never stopped breeding your livestock. You never stopped selecting your cabbage." People tend to lock onto the idea that older varieties tasted better while forgetting that, even when taste was excellent,* reliable performance in the garden was often not.

In light of inevitable reality, the executive director of Seed Savers suggests that the term "heirloom" include all of the following:
  1. Family legacies - e.g. some special plant rediscovered growing in someone's garden
  2. Old (obsolete) market varieties - e.g. the Danvers carrot and Rutgers tomato**
  3. Modern heirlooms - e.g. the sugar snap pea, developed by a vegetable breeder in the 1970s
  4. Mystery heirlooms - e.g. varieties that have been preserved by farmers and gardeners
Ultimately, the age of the variety doesn't really matter. Gardeners who understand value heirlooms for their diversity and the invitation to participate in the ownership and future of agriculture and self-sufficiency. I'd like to see potential amateur plant breeders out there shift their thoughts on heirlooms from the past to the future. As said in the article: "The great bank of heirloom seeds is ripe for fresh creations and practical improvements."

There's a place for celebrating classic technologies (and crop varieties), but I'm more interested in seeing people move beyond a fixation on an overly idealized past to create their own future.

h/t: Plant Breeding News (3/2011)

* One Dutch friend told me that, contrary to the popular perception that foods were better during our youth, the tomatoes he grew up with were huge and red - but watery and tasteless. Commercial tomatoes available in the Netherlands today are much tastier.
** The Rutgers tomato, released in the 1930s, was one of the earliest mass-market tomato varieties. It was bred largely as a processing tomato (i.e. paste and ketchup, not fresh eating). It's ironic that the same people who turn their noses up at modern commercial varieties would embrace an obsolete version of the same thing. 


  1. I found the few heirloom tomatoes I tried to grow actually didn't do well where I am at all. They flowered, but the fruit never ripened correctly, they were bruised and we never got anything usable out of them. I like the idea of having more color and size options.

    There might be some confusion over heirlooms and naturally occurring varieties. When we lose an heirloom are we really making the gene pool smaller?

  2. Ironically, modern commercial varieties of tomatoes are much more genetically diverse than heirloom varieties. Heirloom varieties are all descended from the very small pool of germplasm that was collected from South America in colonial times. Modern varieties have been extensively crossed not only with new wild accessions of the same species but also many additional tomato species.

    Many of the novel traits associated with heirlooms though (e.g. weird colors and fruit shapes) are due to random mutations that just happened to arise during the many years they were grown by farmers and gardeners (almost all wild tomatoes are small, round and green). So even though the genetic background of heirloom varieties tends to be kinda lousy, they're a tremendous source of interesting alleles.

    I imagine it won't be long before breeders begin releasing modern, high-performing, reliable hybrid varieties that include some of these novel color, flavor and shape traits that people value.

  3. I once read in "American Vertigo," a book written by a Frenchman who recently traveled throughout the US, that Americans have a deep fascination for history in comparison to other countries that he has travels, lived. He went onto explain the excessive amounts of museum and numerous conversations as examples.

    Interestingly enough, the "heirloom" varieties fit within this reverence of history, and these companies may be exploiting the traditionalistic values of their customers in order to sell a product.

    Think about it: would you buy a Roma-type tomato variety marked as "Heirloom," or just one marked "roma."

    Reading your blog confirms my suspicions now that they consider varieties from the 1970-80s as heirloom varieties.

  4. That's really interesting.... Do you really think other cultures aren't as into history as Americans are? It seems strange that a culture with the shortest history would value it the most - or maybe not.

    There certainly is a TON of nostalgia in the U.S. - it's notable how 50s diners and record players have managed to regain (and hold) popularity for decades and years, respectively, after they were obsolete.

  5. To be honest, I dont know. The countries I have traveled to do recognize old churches, tombs, temples, etc. They do have large museums of cultural artifacts. Rarely do I see single museums dedicated to coke memorabilia (or some other nostalgia), history of small towns, or history of transportation (railroads, cars, airplanes, etc.). In any state of the US, I can find a multitude of these small-type galleries. Perhaps its the culmination of excess wealth to own space to place these items? A tangent from your blog post...but I never thought anything of the observation until I read the book.

    BTW, enjoyed the post. I should also clarify that I do not have any issue with people using a label to sell a product - thats marketing!

  6. I mentioned this idea to my Dutch/Belgium colleagues at lunch and they seemed to agree that this fondness for history is an American thing - possibly because we have so little of it. (I just saw some comment on the news about how the Civil War was only 150 years ago. how crazy is it that our origin legends were only a lifetime or two in the past?!)

  7. Here's something else we agree on. The state of heirloom tomatoes is a complete mess, as are most other old varieties. It's a shame. There really are a lot of great genetics in these old varieties, and not enough people working on them.

    I disagree with your Dutch friend however. The Germans have a word for Dutch tomatoes, 'wasserbomben' or water bombs. Yuck! Almost totally inedible.

    I've been renovating my 350 year old house, and uncovering many of the original parts. A few days ago I found a 300+ year old tile made by the oldest still operating business in the Netherlands History here makes the US look like a small child, but yet there's not nearly as much interest in it here as there is in the US.

  8. Now that it's become common knowledge that our fruits and vegetables used to taste much better than they do now, the vegetable seed companies have started working hard to pull flavor/appearance traits out of these old heirlooms - but as with all multinational commercial products, I imagine there will still be a lot of 'least common denominator' character in the new varieties they release. In a perfect world, the amateur breeding community would really push the envelope with developing quirky varieties that everyone might not like, but that some will really love.

    That tile story is just incredible! It really puts in perspective the odd livestock bone or implement that I found in my parents' yard as a kid... The only 300+ year old finds we'd have in most of the US are probably arrowheads.

  9. I don't think heirlooms are completely obsolete, but i don't see the need to cling on to hybrids unless you have one that is utterly unique. I myself favor the use of using old heirlooms to breed hybrids, and use those hybrids to create mini landraces. Then using those landraces to adapt to each persons local environmental conditions (pests, nutrients, weather, etc.)

  10. Commercial breeders have moved tons of heirloom/wild accession genes into the elite lines and hybrids already. Many also breed plants for specific regions - though as with all commercial breeding these activities are limited to high value crops/markets. I like the idea of more local specialization - but we'd need to hire more public sector breeders to actually get this done...

  11. MAT, that is one of Seed Savers' key points- that certain plant varieties become adapted to their region over time when cultivated & distributed through local gardeners. Seed Savers is a beautiful example of amateurs contributing to this specialized pool (crowding sourcing, if you will).
    The Seed Savers folks recognize that not all "heirlooms" are that desirable for food production, but see them as important for maintaining a diverse and accessible gene pool for banking.
    They recently sent me an interesting lettuce to trial in my home garden in California in order to collect cultivation data. Fun and useful!

  12. Agreed, I really love what Seed Savers does. That's great that you're getting a chance to participate actively in their mission!

  13. Dear MAT,

    This is an interesting post, though incredibly biast. If no one had heirlooms then where would we be if industry messed everything up? We cannot rely on others to do everything for us.

    I rely on my open-pollinated seed varieties because I know that they work in my climate. I have tried many hybrids and few have done as well as advertised - except for Celebrity Tomato - and even that one does not produce tomatoes as big as advertised.

    Though it is true that some heirlooms are not as great as advertised, it is also true that those who rely on hybrids don't know what they are missing by saving their own seed and selecting vegetable varieties that work for their needs. For example: I have an incredibly productive heirloom spinach variety that outdid my previous All-American-Selection hybrid variety. Little brown birds came and ate most of my heirloom seed before I could save it. However, some of the seed grew thorns, like vineweed. Now I am now selecting this productive heirloom variety for their thorny seed so I can outwit the brown birds that ate my last seed harvest.

  14. Jay,

    The point is that the term "heirloom" is misleading in implying that old varieties were somehow more perfect and valuable than more recently developed varieties just because they're old. The future of food depends on continually improving and creating new varieties - just as you're doing.

    While the seed industry is doing a good job of developing major varieties for major markets, we still need publicly supported professional breeders and amateurs such as yourself to cover the full diversity of crops and environments. I'd like to see more of these latter two efforts.

  15. Heirloom became a proxy term for "not designed for mechanical farming, distant delivery, and rude handling."

    Gardeners are looking for "backyard" varieties.



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