Heirloom Products, Heirloom People

In my first post on the Heirloom Exposition, I gave an overview covering what heirloom means. In the second post, I covered what is the antithesis of heirloom - genetically modified organisms. To wrap up my soapbox lectures on the heirloom festival before returning to more neutral ground, I’d like to talk about the point of heirloom – why is it important? Is it sustainable – can it produce enough to feed the world? What does the concept cover that we aren’t already doing? Why do people want to farm the heirloom way?

As a refresher, “heirloom” means, in a agro-culinary sense, food that has been unchanged for 50 years. There is movement in the agricultural industry, mostly by small-scale, less industrialized players, to return to our roots (pun intended) and reevaluate our heirloom varieties and means of production. This is happening systematically – there are more small-scale CSA farmers using alternative methods of production and distribution now than ever. In fact, wouldn’t you say that the first annual Heirloom Exposition is a sign that the movement has germinated?

In a country and world where technological advancement is the main driver of economic success, is the return to heirloom a counter-culture movement away from biotech, or are we simply rediscovering the features of advanced technology we abandoned too soon? Which side is more advanced? Are we abandoning food technology, or rediscovering it?

Let’s be clear: heirloom is not about technophobes rewinding technology in hopes of a simpler time. The idea is to recognize when the technology was superior to what followed, but became abandoned or marginalized. It used to be that our grandparents’ farmer looked like the guy in children’s books: a guy with grass and chickens, carrots, cows, and corn. A modern farmer looks more like a guy on a combine tractor, driving through endless fields of a single crop. It turns out that the new guy is having a lot of trouble that the old guy didn’t.

Why we abandoned a seemingly superior system is a long story, having more to do with scalability of profit at multinational scale than good food and good practices, but the reality is, by and large, we have abandoned diversity for scale – and found that scale might not be better in all cases. The heirloom movement is essentially the population of experts who realize that our scalability has been done without sustainability, that fighting Mother Nature is a negative-sum game at ground level. Nature optimizes by diversifying, so let’s go back to that. That is the core of the heirloom movement.

Oh, right, we forgot, there are lots of living things.

To understand how heirloom works requires a shift in understanding from microecology to macroecology. Any science that starts with “micro-” deals with studying one part of a system by holding constant all the other parts. Much of scientific advancement is done by holding constant as many variables as possible such that the determination of influence of one variable on the output can be done in isolation. The fact that there is an antonym, “macro-”, hints that this kind of investigation doesn’t show the whole picture – which is the point, really. Both sides advance a more complete understanding.

Here’s where we went wrong with food: we neglected the “macro”. Pretend that you invented a new strain of potato, and want to determine if your strain, let’s call it Spudtacular®, grows faster than previous strains. (I chose that name because I like it. Any resemblance to any potato alive or dead is purely coincidental, blah blah, etc…) You might build a planting bed, with just the right kind of soil, watered consistently, with just the right amount of sunlight. You run your experiment many times, and determine that your potato grows twice as fast as existing varieties. You’re going to make millions. Patent that sucker.

So far, so good. Then you get every potato farmer to plant their entire field with Spudtacular®. Everything is fine, until you hit some intangible tipping point: the entire potato industry jumps into a downward spiral, because Spudtacular®’s fast-growing property means that it can’t get the required amount of sunlight, or water, or nutrients. Perhaps it has tastier seeds than the previous variety, and birds pluck them out of your fields. Perhaps it has lost defenses against pests, à la the Irish Potato Famine. If you think this is extremist, re-read our article about genetically modified organisms. It’s happening right now with corn and soy.

This is microecology, where you try to control the conditions to optimize growth of your one variety. It is a good way to study a complicated system, to make it simpler; but it’s hard to extend to the real world, as the real world is a very complicated system. This is the state of westernized agrobusiness, where we only grow a few varieties of corn, or soy, or wheat, or chicken, or cattle, and we do it at huge scales. As the real world is not a controlled experiment, you have to work to simplify it: you have to use irrigation, and fertilizer, and pesticides, and antibiotics, and fences, anything you have access to in order to create the perfect set of conditions for your one chosen variety. You’re building an outdoor lab to make your farm “micro” again.

Contrast this with the macroecological point of view. Do the research the same way. Using the data gleaned from those experiments, you can then select a portfolio of plants that will complement each other knowing that they will not be grown in a laboratory. An ecosystem is not isolated, and it requires a ton of work to make it so, to fence out the rest of the world. What if you didn’t even try? What if you had multiple varieties of potato that you planted and let the ecosystem choose the best variety? Better yet, what if you grew your potatoes alongside other plants that reduced the impact of too much sun or birds or pests? What if you went back to the kind of farm where you grow several kinds of food – veggies and cows and chickens and grain, all of which support each other? What if you thought of your stock like stocks, and tried to match them to minimize your risk or maximize your growth potential in the real, variable, uncertain world?

This is the heirloom approach, and it makes perfect sense. To paraphrase Farmer Paul from Singing Frogs Farm: “A monoculture field is as useful to Mother Nature as asphalt.” Trying to monoculture your way to success is like trying to protect your assets by cornering the market: it can be done, and it has been done (on rare occasions). When it succeeds you can make buckets of money. The problem is that it is incredibly fragile. It’s an inherently unstable state, expensive to maintain, and if you get too deep into it, you can lose everything.

Like happened with the Gros Michel, the banana cultivar that our grandparents recognized as the banana. Wonder why today’s banana is the Cavendish?

The song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas" was written about this. Really.

You’re better off sticking to mutual funds when you need stability.

So the heirloom approach is more about maintaining the diversity of our stocks, because there is a reason for that diversity: it enables hardier, robust varieties of plants, with techniques that take full advantage of their qualities. Farmer Paul, mentioned above, is worth quoting directly from his talk at the heirloom festival. This paragraph has more information about the heirloom mentality than any other statement I’ve ever heard:

A lot of our planting technique is actually multicropping in beds, intercropping. So we’ll do a double line of broccoli down a bed, with a single line of salad greens or asian greens down the middle. And when you transplant it, the benefit is, the broccoli takes 60, 70 days from transplant to get big, and full sized, but the salad takes about 3 to 4 weeks. In those 3 to 4 weeks, the broccoli has grown to medium size, the broccoli’s providing light shade and light wind break for the salad greens, making the salad greens, in summer especially, much more tender and much more flavorful, with less wind damage. Plus, the broccoli leaves, honestly, don’t let a lot of the insects see the salad, and we actually have fewer insects and things that can see it, it’s been hidden. The other benefit is that salad green, because it grows faster, spreads out its leaves sideways and immediately begins shading the soil, offering itself as a… it outcompetes the weeds, it suppresses weeds, it also happens to shade the soil from the sun, meaning the soil stays moist longer. So while a lot of our neighbors are doing 3 or 4 hours of drip irrigation every day, we’re doing about one hour every week… so we’re using about 1/20th of the water, and that means about 1/20th of the electricity as well.

Getting better food for less input at the expense of some knowledge and experimentation? This is the sort of intelligent farming that proves that, yes, good farming practices can feed the world in comparable volume to the current massive monoculture farms. It requires some thought, some expertise, and a reverting to the practices of yesteryear, but gives higher yield without intense mucking about with the ecosystem. Paul calls the act of ecosystem balancing “farming for mother nature”. If this sounds like idealistic babbling, ignorant tree hugging, know this: Paul has a degree in agroforestry and supports his family with these practices. He’s right.

On a more business-oriented note, the reason this is growing right now is that it is an open opportunity in the market: large agrobusiness has captured the market of monocultures. It is more or less impossible to make any profit, let alone a living, being a monoculture farmer these days – your money is going straight into expenses like seeds, fertilizer, and equipment. Not only is a diverse farm better for the environment, the costs are much lower – saving your seeds is literally dirt cheap, there is very little automation equipment to buy, and your fertilizer is bull$&!# (and cow$&!#, we don’t discriminate on gender). It is more naturally suited for CSA and farmers markets, which allow farmers to make a living by controlling their externalities. When the only people making money in the system are the suppliers of lab equipment, why not ditch the lab? We finally have a game the farmers can win.

As with any niche market, there ought to be some example where the market is better fulfilled with the small player than with the large guy, otherwise the nature of competition would squelch out the less fit. If heirloom farming has so much going for it, and a legitimate reason for being, we should be able to find a concrete example across an industry where the benefits of heirloom farming succeed and industrialized farming failed. OK, most of the world has used heirloom farming throughout history, so we know it works, but I’m talking about where going back was better.

Just like a diverse stock portfolio, diverse agriculture protects against volatility. What happens in times of extreme volatility? Let’s look at what happened when the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 limited fresh water access and increased the salt content of much of the arable land – over land that grows the main source of nutrition in Asia, rice. How do you continue to grow rice in a new environment, with high stakes, right in the part of the world where rice is used as a staple?

Rice, grown in paddy fields, is incredibly sensitive to salinity. If the salt level is too high or too low, the rice may still grow, but with decreased yields. Most likely, it dies. Rice that has been highly optimized for yield is built to grow under ideal conditions. It works great in normal times, when you can, with enough effort, fence out nature. It’s exactly like what we do for any large monoculture crop: decrease the complexity of the system by controlling the system.

Being hit by 100-foot-high waves is not an ideal condition.

Large corporations didn’t have the ability to meet the demand for a different environment, because the environment was hostile to their product. Large seed suppliers are optimized for very high volume with very low diversity, not medium-high diversity with medium-low volumes.

Nature is full of diversity. So are heirloom seed banks.

Navdanya, a biodiversity and organic farming organization in India founded by Vandana Shiva, distributed heirloom saline-resistant varieties of rice as “Seeds of Hope“. It wasn’t enough, because one seed bank can’t provide enough for a global natural disaster, but thank goodness that the seed bank existed, or that variety, optimized by the ecosystem for just such an occasion, could have been lost forever. Those seeds helped the local food economy bounce back much faster than is possible with the intensive farm recovery effort needed to return to status quo. They saved lives.

Vandana Shiva also points out that the climate is always changing, especially as we are aware of now, and it’s always been biodiversity that keeps the ecosystem alive. What happens to our corn if it can’t survive any one of a number of environmental shifts, like global warming, or superweeds, or new pests? Even tiny seasonal changes, like a drought or early freeze, could kill a field of uniform crops. Crops that are allowed to evolve and diversify are, naturally, much more vigorous.

So that’s heirloom: do it like our grandparents, not because older is better, but because ecological diversity is closely related with economic stability, and system success is more stable than success of a single component. Our grandparents were getting it right (except for the bananas). For economic stability, don’t fight mother nature, outsource the hardest part of managing a farm to her. After all, she’s been doing it forever.

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