There was an interesting op-ed piece in our local paper recently. It was entitled : “Those over-rated ‘heirloom veggies'” and it was written by none other than the Chair of the Burpee Seed company, George Ball.
In it, he attempts to portray those who love heirloom varieties as upper middle class yuppies who are growing them because they are stylish. Please enjoy the following excerpt:
“However, there is also a stylish movement in contemporary gardening toward old-fashioned or “heirloom” vegetables that were popular in our grandparents’ day. In community gardens everywhere, I see tall, rangy, low-yielding and romantically named heirloom varieties made popular by environmental activists.”
Whoa there, Mr. Ball. Are you saying that heirloom vegetables are the choice of misguided elitist tree-huggers? I think you are.
The author goes on to bring up the same tired old argument used by proponents of GMO plants and seeds: high yields mean more food for poor people.
“While the often lovely and uniquely flavored heirloom vegetables befit an upper-middle-class vegetable plot, they fail to meet the urgent nutritional needs of the urban poor, ” he writes. “In fact, old-fashioned varieties, with their poor yields, late harvests and floppy plants, present logistical challenges that most community gardeners cannot meet.”
Ball then attempts to discredit another reason that heirloom lovers grow old cultivars: you can save the seeds and unlike modern hybrids, they will grow true to type. He claims it is far too difficult for people to save seeds and that “paradoxically, the purveyors of heirloom seeds are at the elbow of community gardeners every year with new seeds to sell to them.”
Why shouldn’t heirloom seed vendors be selling their stuff, anyway? And why can’t low-income families make these gardening choices for themselves? Are we feeling a bit threatened, Mr. Ball, by companies such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds which have been tackling the GMO issue head-on?
Look, I don’t always grow heirlooms, and I agree that some of them can be low-yielding. One example of this is the Brandywine tomato which I bravely tried to grow for a few summers and then realized it just wasn’t worth the coddling and effort just for two or three measly cracked fruits.
But other gardeners love Brandywine and wouldn’t be without it, so what’s the big deal? Please don’t try to attach negative labels to gardeners who love heirloom vegetables for their history and their wonderful taste. I would bet that like me, most gardeners choose their vegetables by what they like to eat, and that some of their favorites include new cultivars as well as heirlooms.
I don’t think I will be buying anything from the Burpee catalog this year.