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Heirloom Seeds: What’s the Significance of Food, Farming, and Sunday Dinners?

"Good food is very often, even most often, simple food. " ~ Anthony Bourdain

Heirloom tomatoes on a dinner table

Food connects us through all types of experiences, and Sunday dinners allowed me to communicate nostalgically with family and friends throughout my life. It still touches my heart. As a child, from the time we woke on a Sunday morning in the Fall, our mom had plans to braise a roast from Grandpa John’s Herefords and pull heirloom turnips from the back of our root cellar.

Uncle Buck would drop off a quart of clover honey and a gallon of his Connecticut Maple Syrup at the end of every season. The one thing I often longed for was our Rhubarb; we grew bunches on the farm. Technically, Rhubarb is a vegetable with reddish stalks - stringy, from the Buckwheat family. But, when peeled and salted, it is the best taste on a hot summer day. The pulp's distinct tartness made you cringe and want more in the same bite.

I remember Grandpa John walking over the fields - teaching me about every aspect of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Some of it he might have made up along the way. But he knew to grow food and raise meat for his family. He shared why we grew Caraway seeds against the barns - because it not only was a source for making the Rye Bread we loved so much. We also used it to prevent leaf hoppers and beetle breeding. I especially recall seeing the remnants of heirloom cranberries, in the cold-spring-fed bog, just beyond the back porch of the farm. Those cranberry seeds came from Germany, along with my Great-grandfather Heinrich, in the late 1800s.

You see, my family handed down Heirlooms (seeds with a story) for us to embrace our heritage and history, as those stories became a Farm-to-Table heritage we carry in our hearts today. An heirloom seed is the foundation of any family that keeps its story alive. Sunday dinner is where we all gather to discuss life and its challenges and blessings.

What is an Heirloom Seed?

An heirloom, as it relates to plants and agriculture, is a seed, fifty years or older, saved from the plants of

past harvest, stored and cataloged in a cool and dry place.

Heirloom describes the heritage and backstory being passed down from generation to generation. For example, my second cousin is the keeper of our family’s Dahlia tubers - handed down from Heinrich, his grandfather. An heirloom varietal must be open-pollinated by birds or bees, for example. Heirloom plants make up the holistic story of a country’s agricultural history.

What is the Importance of Heirloom Seeds?

Heirloom seeds have a place in agriculture, bringing forth a unique and tasteful variety of non-mass-produced fruits and vegetables. They are non-genetically modified organisms (Non-GMO); they can’t be changed to adjust for taste, usability, or even uniformity. We've grown accustomed to seeing that perfect tomato fit to spec on our hamburger bun, while also avoiding those pesky, disfigured, or discolored vegetables at the market. Some of us go to great lengths to change that summer squash with the brown marking as if we are getting cheated on that ounce of damaged product.

What are the Oldest and Most Unique Heirloom Seed Companies?

Heirloom seeds bring the joy of planting, tending, and harvesting. Each varietal's name, colors, and shapes. A plant's origin also speaks to flavor and color, mainly in Italy and France, where alluvial soils offer versatile flavors.

A vibrantly green varietal named Asparagus, Mary Washington from Baker Creek Seeds, wrapped in mandarin oranges, cinnamon stick, and fennel, roasted on the grill with a hint of olive oil and the zest of a mandarin empowers us to share our backstory and experience the flavors that heirloom offers.

Another varietal comes to mind: Heirloom Corn; bring those staples closer to home in Lower Alabama. Bayou Cora Farms is a story where sustainability and faith breathed life back into their heirloom corn products in 2011. Today, their heirloom corn seed operation provides products throughout the Gulf Coast.

Asparagus  small plates using citrus

Why do Commercial Farmers Avoid Heirloom Seeds?

Heirloom seeds tend to have a variety of environmental sensitivities regarding planting, survival, and adversity to weather and soil conditions. Conventional farming is built around scale, speed, and consistency.

Conventional crops are typically grown to feed in mass quantities around the world. Rice is a great example of this case in point, which requires higher yields and pest and disease-resistant products to be delivered on contract for a set price and time.

The Pros and Cons of Planting Heirloom Seeds

When we think about planting heirloom seeds, there is hope the seeds take to the soil, form a sprout, and eventually root. Recently, a grower and writer, Adriana Simms of Tiny Garden Habit, wrote about the disadvantages of planting heirloom varietals, tomatoes in her case. She, like others, including myself, struggle with an 80-150 day gestation period for seeds to take off and mature.

Be prepared to append hours scouting for leaf hoppers, pests, and other illnesses. If you work, you reap the rewards of larger plant size and fruit development toward harvest time. When grown to proper sweetness (Brix 4.5-5.0), they can be used to make some of the best Sunday sauces on your table.

Tips for Successfully Growing Heirloom Plants

Test your soil first, and make it a point to gather samples from various locations in your field or even those raised beds. Take a 5-gallon pail, dig down 6”-18” deep, and gather a good trowelful of garden soil. Repeat the process at every corner or planting area, working your way into the center. You haven’t missed an area or skipped your favorite plot. Jordan Charbonneau wrote a great piece about soil testing last month. Soil, like humans, need balance and structure to thrive.

Harvesting good tasting food for those Sunday suppers, selecting the right eggplant variety, lettuce, radish, and other vegetables are crucial for “planning before you plant”. The old saying, “measure twice - cut once,” can be applied in theory. Make sure you have planned it all out before wasting materials.

Corn with smoked chile and lime

Wrapping It Up


Heirloom seeds aren’t marketing or branding plays, but some do carry that opinion. Seeds are the history of a farmer’s legacy, their story of pride and hard work. The output of their effort comes from the ability to share stories through food. Whether it be selling corn flour to a James Beard winner in New Orleans, or mashing a Maine Tuber to accompany that roastbeef - we all want to share our backstory with people around us. ⃞⃞


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