A Big Guy Fights Back

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.

Heirlooms and hydrids...growing in perfect har - mon -eeeeeee

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.


About dirtynailz

Writer for a daily newspaper, gardener, tree hugger, orchid-grower, photographer, animal lover, hiker, wilderness seeker. Proponent of clover in the lawn and a dog on the bed.
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13 Responses to A Big Guy Fights Back

  1. Auntie Beak says:

    not for anything, but burpee sells a huge line of heirloom veggies. is he telling us his own seed is lousy?


  2. Donna B. says:

    Um, that’s a bit ‘ball’-sy to be preaching when it’s the people who PURCHASE your seeds who are probably reading this and being blown away at your naivety… I deal with a lot of “upper-middle-class” and most of them don’t even touch their own [strictly flower] gardens! it’s all planted by outsourcing to landscape companies and “other work”… It’s those who WANT to grow their own food, and WANT to eat vegetables they knew where it grew and how it was handled – occupation, status, and salary has NOTHING to do with it!
    Same here, reminds me why I don’t purchase seed from Burpee! It’s this business practice that leaves a sour taste in my mouth…


    • dirtynailz says:

      I know. I hate how he attempts to portray heirloom gardeners as rich naive yuppies. You are so right about rich people hardly ever touching their gardens and hiring landscape companies or people like me to do the work – which I have done plenty of, believe me.


  3. cj wright says:

    Rather pompous of him to say something like that. If environmental activist translates to people who like the real deal, add my name to the top of the list. I remember reading a story a few years back about crossing flounder genes with tomatoes to produce a tomato that is less likely to freeze. Antifreeze from cold blooded animals for plants, so to say. Weird, huh? And creepy. I’ll take the heirloom any day over that. There’s a conversation starter if you find yourself sharing a meal with a vegan.

    Try finding a cucumber in New York City that actually has any taste. I may have come across two in the 24 years I lived there. I’ll take the heirloom with a lower yield, thank you.

    I’ve probably only bought one heirloom tomato seedling to transplant. (I’m not good with seeds.) It produced just fine for my family of two and wow! It was delicious. I’ll buy it again in a heartbeat.


    • dirtynailz says:

      I agree, CJ. I guess he has a bias against heirloom lovers…which is strange considering he could sell us seeds if he wanted to….


  4. George Ball says:

    Actually, the blog and op/ed that it turned into is called “The Politically Correct Tomato Sandwich” and can be found at http://www.heromswoodvoice.com, by scrolling down the archive on the left hand side.


    You took what I wrote completely out of context. I was addressing the very special needs of underprivileged neighborhood gardens where I have worked over a twenty five year career in horticultural philanthropy. Lately I noticed the wide, and in some cases exclusive, use of heirlooms in these gardens. Many of which these old cultivars are, ironically, commercial varieties, passed off as “heirlooms”. Many are late, low-yielding and disease-susceptible, in striking contrast to modern and especially contemporary hybrids. I have inquired and many community garden organizers have been persuaded to think that heirlooms are morally superior due to the romantic notions—in many cases false—associated with them. ‘Rutgers’ is a prime and common example. It was bred as an open-pollinated selection by scientists at Rutgers for Cambelll Soup.
    Hardly an “heirloom”. Yet it’s promoted and sold as such by many heirloom specialists. Ditto many early 20th C. European commercial produce market varities that were discontinued by seed companies over there due to their inferiority compared to newer selections. Foriegn names just sound better to many
    I have always loved some great old heirlooms. I sell many, after determining their value in our test gardens. But I recognize most of them are inferior to hybrids in order to to serve the usual purpose of a community garden in a poor neighborhood. Hence, yield, earliness and disease resistance (which affects taste greatly), redound to the benefit of community gardeners in difficult environments. It’s hard enough to get such gardens going and keep them going. The people who run them shouldn’t have to be subject to the ignrance-based misinformation—and deliberate disinformation— of heirloom fanatics.

    As for seed saving, I was referring to all vegetables, not just tomatoes. But many critics have used how “easy” it is to save tomato seed in order to go after me on this point. All this does is reveal that they are mostly tomato heirloom seed fanatics. But I was talkng about all garden vegetables.
    As relatively “easy” tomato seed is to keep over the winter, many other kinds of vegetables are quite difficult, such as sweet corn. Since the subject of my essay was community gardens, and they receive customarily donations of seed by companies such as mine, the point I made remains valid. It’s difficult to run a community garden. Saving seeds may be valuable and interesting as a sideline, but not as common practice, in my view.

    As for the tone, I used humor, irony and even rhetoric in order to make these rather strikingingly obvious points. If I went a bit overboard, I apologize. But please read the original to see that I was trying to be helpful by spreading the word about the need to use high yielding hybrids in underprivileged neighborhood community gardens.

    Thank you

    George Ball


    • dirtynailz says:

      I appreciate your thoughtful response, Mr. Ball, and thank you for reading my blog.

      The title of your op-ed, as it appeared in our paper, “The Providence Journal” is “Those over-rated ‘heirloom veggies.” Perhaps the editors changed it to make it more confrontational, I don’t know.

      This title sets the tone for a piece that clearly argues that heirloom vegetables are embraced by the elite, and that less affluent Americans who plant community gardens are better served by modern, higher-yielding hybrid cultivars.

      I have your piece right here in front of me, and you do write about the “upper-middle-class suburban vegetable plot” and a “stylish movement in contemporary gardening.” I read your original blog post, and my readers will be able to link to it as well. I do get the point you are trying to make, but in gardening as in most things, there is a diversity of opinion.

      As I wrote in my original post, I do not restrict my seed choices to heirlooms. In fact, I have found some of them to be finicky and underproducing. But I also have problems with new hybrids that are pushed on the gardening public at big box stores and turn out to be duds, or plants whose seeds I can’t save or trade because they won’t grow true to type the following year. And you have to admit that some of those heirlooms do have killer flavor.

      But I think there’s is much more to growing heirlooms than flavor. It’s interesting and fun to browse the catalogs in the dead of winter and read about the histories of these vegetables. I tried “Trail of Tears” pole beans because I was captivated by the idea that the Cherokee people brought these beans with them on their forced march. I grew a melon rediscovered in my former home town of Montreal, Canada, because the flavor as said to be beyond compare. I and many others enjoy thinking about the people who grew these cultivars so many generations before us. It’s not just romanticism. It’s a tangible connection with our past. For gardeners especially, there’s something solid and comforting about that.

      Thank you for your comments.


  5. George Ball says:

    Thanks, Nails. Editorial page editors reserve the right to create their own titles to op/eds—been this way a very long time. I have had over 20 op/eds in major newspapers and only once was my title used. So, that’s that. I have long thought that the media is not interested in the truth, but in entertainment. Unfortunately, they extend this ethic to the op/ed page, where the public is allowed to submit thier views.

    This is why I was careful to emphasize the role hybrids can play in relieving or ameliorating childhood nutrition in poor communities. The bit I tossed off about upper middle class suburbia was unpleasant but, I believe, true. Large yields of early to mid season ripe produce is vastly superior to low yields per plant from tall rangy and in many cases diseased plants toward the end of the season.

    Also, since flavor is, in most cases, subjective, I deliberately downplayed it.

    All I wanted was to shed light on the odd plight of community gardens in underprivlileged neighborhoods being persuaded to grow old, tapped out varieties that may have, indeed, unique flavors or colors. But the goal of a comminity garden in a poor area is to produce large volumes
    of vine ripe fruits and veggies over as long a season as possible. Garden hybrids were made for just that.

    If you like the subject of the Native American experience of true heirlooms, you should explore the work of Gary Paul Nabhan. (The saddest, and ironic, part is that often the tribes were relocated
    so far away that the farmers had to reselect their plants and literally create new varieties by breeding the plants in their new reservation’s climate. Not all tribes, but some.)

    (BTW: hybrids and GMOs are almost diametrically opposite. We have no GMOs and have no interest in them. We are seed people, so to speak, and have been for 137 years.)

    Finally, I thank you again for even bringing the subject up and being so generous of spirit. As you know, I meant no harm in my article. I think it was Cato who said, “Argue laughing.” You do a nice job of that. I try, but often fail.


  6. cj wright says:

    That was a nice exchange. Glad to see you sticking to your guns, dirtynailz, and appreciate George Ball doing the same. In life, as in the garden, there are many varieties. Each has a place. Fortunately, we still get to choose.


    • dirtynailz says:

      I thought so, too, CJ. Above all, it ended on a note of mutual respect. I guess it just goes to show that you never know who’s reading your stuff!


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