What does “heirloom” mean?

I just got back from the first annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA. When I was telling this to a friend, they asked, “What does ‘heirloom’ mean?”

Good question. I took a shot from my understanding: “Non-optimized produce”, but that’s an engineer’s answer. Clearly, I was ready to get a farming education.

Heirloom, in the agricultural sense, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Most of the definitions I heard at the festival described “plants that have come true for 50 years”; that is, they have had offspring that showed the same characteristics as the parent and are not a hybrid for half a century at least.

OK, so we have a working definition of what can be considered a heirloom. At the expo, however, it is clear that the spirit of heirloom is far more important than the definition.

The best and the brightest of the food production sphere educated the rest of us on the state of food. I’m not talking about your stereotyped and unrealistic See N’ Say® Old McDonald with a Timothy Grass here and a Sack O’ Manure there, I’m talking about college educated ex-software industry marketers with a purpose and ecosystem-minded growers trained in tropical agroforestry. People who are  building environments that will be balanced for a thousand years. Modern-day Gandhis who are reducing suicides in India of farmers crushed by the politics of big agrobusiness. Deep stuff – we will talk about these topics more in a post of their own.

The hot topic was GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms. In January, the USDA announced that it would allow GMO alfalfa to be planted without restriction. This move has a high level of political overtones that has stirred the pure food movement’s proponents to action once again.

The story is that large agribusiness has managed to patent life itself - they own the intellectual property rights over genes that have been engineered into our produce with gene splicing techniques. The resultant crops have unnatural man-selected properties grafted onto them, such as the ability to be doused with limitless amounts of pesticides, or to generate their own insect killing poisons in their cells. These modern marvels are also marked by a feature in the intellectual property rights that makes it illegal for farmers to save their seeds and requires them to repurchase the seeds anew every year. Farmers end up trapped in debt to a seed monopoly.

And the GMO frankencrops? They don’t appear to live up to their promises. They are steeped in poison. They do not have to be labeled. It appears that we are all eating them every day – they hold nearly 90 percent of their respective market shares. They are unavoidable. We will revisit this topic in a future post as well.

But fear not – it was not all political news with serious overtones at the expo.

Take your typical farmer’s market. Double it – that’s a California farmer’s market, really in a class of its own. Double that again, and you’ve got an arena full of food. Now imagine 5 arenas. If your imagination isn’t exhausted, you’ve got yourself the Heirloom Exposition.

© Knife & Fork Project

I said pumpkin *pie*, not pumpkin *pile*

The variety of heirloom goods was astounding. Just look at this:

© Knife & Fork Project

How do you like them apples?

Yep. All apples. All different.

How about this?

© Knife & Fork Project

Vampire torture chamber.

All of the produce you could imagine, constructed by farmers who care about preserving the variety of the past.

© Knife & Fork Project

And Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats. Animals are heirlooms too.

Real produce, real livestock, built by real people who do this stuff with their hands, because it’s better for the land. And the food. I. Ate. So. Much.

A pepper is not just a pepper – they can be sweet, tart, green, red, white, purple, yellow, orange, wheaty, firm, soft, juicy, acidic, long, bulbous, you name it. Greens can be tender, stiff, toothsome, crunchy, watery, fibrous, chewy, sweet, bitter, salty. We have become experts of the bland, but there is so much more out there to be experienced.

If you think a to-may-to is the same as a to-mah-to, I would recommend making the trip to the next Heirloom Festival, it will open your taste buds. If you can’t, visit your local farmer’s market and talk to the men and women of the land. Our farmers are keeping alive our sense of taste – what else do they know that we don’t?

Farmers are the intellectuals of the earth – Carlo Petrini

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