Why Heirloom Seeds?
By Cricket Rakita
In the early part of this century, most produce was locally grown. Vegetables and flowers were primarily selected for their looks, flavor, ability to perform well in an organic environment, and local adaptability. It was also important for crops to ripen over a long season so harvests could be extended. Many people grew their own produce and put up much of it for winter. Industrial areas in cities were supplied with produce from the outlying areas. Vegetables were all open pollinated. End users that purchased vegetables generally had a relationship with the growers with perhaps only a corner store in between if anything. The goal of a grower was quality first and foremost because her/his livelihood depended on this relationship continuing.
During World War II, the United Stated made a concerted effort to ship large quantities of produce to Europe. After the war was over, for the first time there was the infrastructure in place to ship food over long distances. The commercial sector began to use this structure to raise produce where it could be done most cheaply and get it to everywhere else. This has continued through today. As you are probably aware, if you go into your local supermarket to buy produce, you will find primarily produce grown far away from you unless you live in a vegetable belt (California or Florida). Much of this produce is raised in near laboratory conditions. This set of growing methods brings a severely different set of selection criteria than did vegetable production pre WWII. Now, most vegetable varieties are selected for shipping ability, uniform ripeness, and ability to perform well in a chemical environment. Most seeds used are hybrid.
Here at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, we specialize in heirloom seeds because we believe that people, vegetables, and the communities that encompass them will all be healthier if we step back towards the older system. There is a huge need for a return to this healthy way to live today. We believe that people as a whole will be happier and healthier if they grow their own produce or purchase their produce from small local growers. Moreover, people deserve that the varieties selected for this production be locally adapted and delicious. In the world of heirloom seeds and nursery stock, there is a huge wealth of such carefully selected varieties for every bioregion in the world. This is not to say that wonderful open pollinated varieties are not today being developed, but as a matter of principal and practicality, it makes a lot of sense to preserve all the work that has already been done.
The word "Heirloom" is not an officially defined word (as the word "Organic" is). In other words, it is left up to the people using it to state what they mean. When we state that a variety is an heirloom, we mean that it is an open pollinated variety developed before 1940.