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Why choose heirlooms?

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Dozens of years of contemporary hybridizing of vegetable crops have yielded some useful varieties of produce. Since the public is widely rejecting GMOs, one must ask, “At what cost does this come?”

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Nutritional quality and flavor has been sacrificed to the producers’ convenience in harvesting and shipping. Too often, crops have been bred for uniformity or to ripen all at once to facilitate mechanical harvesting or touch skins to allow the produce to withstand shipping thousands of miles. Haven’t you ever wondered why those tomatoes you bought at the grocery store have NO. FLAVOR. AT. ALL?

Quality, taste and nutritional value are the sacrifices to this trend of convenience and. Studies are showing that the nutritional values in factory farmed produce are actually lower, sometimes significantly so. Protein content in corn is one example. Old style, open pollinated field corn, the type grown for feed or for milling into cornmeal, often contains almost twice as much protein as the newer hybrids. Studies have also shown higher levels of copper, iron and manganese in at least some of the open pollinated varieties. Plus, the corn often purchased at the local Wal-Mart or grocery store is genetically modified.

Heirloom varieties are usually the product of many generations of careful selection by farmers and gardeners who knew what they wanted from their plants. If a variety has been carefully nurtured and its seeds kept by generations of a family or in a small geographic area, like the Evans Valley, it stands to reason that it must perform well in the conditions under which it has been preserved. By taking some care to choose varieties from your own area, or those that come from similar conditions, it is quite possible to select varieties that will be more than any hybrid – certainly more than any GMO – could ever hope to be and supremely productive in your own garden.

A great advantage of heirloom varieties is the fact that, provided precautions are observed when growing a crop, seed may be saved for use in the future years. And it will be true to type, year after year. You can’t do this with hybrids. If you save seed grown from hybrid parents, the offspring will show a lot of variation and, in all likelihood, be significantly inferior to the parents. In fact, careful selection in your own garden can actually produce a unique strain of the crop grown, resulting in even better performance under your own unique conditions. I think of my good friend and her “pumpkinata” winter squash, a cross pollinated heirloom that is amazingly delicious in either a pie or in a traditional winter squash dish.

Heirloom vegetables represent a truly priceless legacy, the product of centuries of work by countless generations of farmers and gardeners across the world. When we grow heirlooms, we are the living link in a chain stretching back sometimes many hundreds of years. We are taking our turn in a succession of growers, each generation of which cherished their favorite crops and varieties, lovingly preserving fresh seed for the coming seasons. As the current custodians of the heirloom, non-GMO food supply, we are endowed with the opportunity to stand up, speak out and make our mark. Like previous generations before us, we maintain the varieties that we love the most. Heirloom seeds are our living legacy, bequeathed to us from the past and passed on, in turn, to future generations.

Be sure to consider heirloom suppliers when purchasing your seeds this year. My personal favorite is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds on the web at http://www.rareseeds.com. Also, consider contacting the Seed Savers Exchange or seek out local sources for swapping heirlooms. The fine folks at your local extension office or the Master Gardeners could be a great resource as well.

Garden on!

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