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In The Garden: Why The Fuss Over Heirloom Vegetables?

By Kent Chapline, CBSDFW.COM
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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - Google “heirloom vegetables” and you will get about 2.5 million results.  Hip restaurants have been offering heirloom varieties on their menus for the past few years.  New York food types are all agog over them.

Why?  What’s the deal?  Why do people pay a premium for an old-fashioned “Mortgage Lifter” or “Nebraska Wedding” tomato over a beefsteak from the grocery store?

One word: taste.

Actually, plenty of folks are into heirloom veggies because they’re trendy.  So maybe it’s more than one word.  But taste is the most important one.

Some of us — myself included — are not thrilled with the idea of eating genetically modified food.  GM or GMO (genetically modified organism) plants are everywhere these days, and they’re hard to avoid.  No offense, science, but some things should not be messed with.  I think food is one of them.

Last year Indian scientists developed a tomato they said would stay fresh for six weeks, according to Britain’s Daily Mail.  But, as the story says, “the drawbacks are that it is the result of genetic engineering, and no one is saying what it actually tastes like.”

There’s that “taste” word again.

I don’t know about you, but I like the way vegetables taste.  Good ones, anyway.  And many of the supermarket varieties are nearly tasteless compared to heirloom varieties.  That’s why I grow them.

cucumbers In The Garden: Why The Fuss Over Heirloom Vegetables?

Several Double Yield cucumbers and Hill County Red okra pods. I grew these in 2010. (Photo credit Kent Chapline, CBSDFW.COM)

Ohio State University defines heirloom vegetables as “Cultivars that were popular a generation or more ago.”  That’s the generally accepted definition among those of us who grow them.

And there are hundreds of them out there.  When you go to the grocery, you might be able to choose from 10 varieties of apples.  But 15,000 types used to grow in the U.S.  

Makes me wonder why the Red Delicious is so common.  It’s red, but it’s far from delicious.  Just about every other kind of apple at the supermarket — not to mention farmers’ markets — tastes better than ol’ Red.

The reason Red is so common, of course, is that it travels well and keeps a long time in produce bins.  At a time when the average piece of produce travels hundreds of miles to reach the grocery store, those are the qualities prized by the stores’ produce managers.  Taste is secondary.

There’s also the question of nutrition.

Research by University of Texas chemistry professor Donald Davis shows many modern varieties of fruits and veggies are less nutritious than comparable types were just 30 years ago.  The modern plants yield more, but they are worth less to our bodies.

So just to recap:  industrial farming gives us less nutritious food that tastes worse.  Not exactly reasons I want to run out and buy some gas-ripened tomatoes from the supermarket.

I’m not here to get into the debate over the cost of food.  There’s no question that industrial farming and production methods have lowered the cost of food, and that’s a good thing for many people who can’t afford the pricier stuff.  Even so, nobody should have to sacrifice nutrition for cost — and there’s a good argument to be made that lower-income folks need more nutritious foods than any other socioeconomic group.

If you, like me, are more concerned with the taste of your cucumber than whether it is the “wrong” color or whether your beans are as nutritious as those you ate as a child, heirlooms are for you.

For gardeners, growing them costs no more than growing more modern varieties.  There are a lot of good sources for heirloom seeds and transplants.  I order mine from Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit in Iowa.  Baker Creek Seeds is another good source, and there are many others.  Even some of the bigger seed companies are getting into the heirloom business these days, driven at least in part by demand from folks like you and me.

Follow us here as we share what we have learned about growing heirloom veggies and other plants here in Dallas-Fort Worth.  I’ve learned a lot by trial and error, and I’m eager to share it.  At the same time, I still have a lot to learn.  Hopefully we can learn from each other!

The views expressed in this story are solely those of Kent Chapline.

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