Heirlooms Are Plants with a Pedigree

Heirloom tomatoes at Sang Lee Farms. Photo courtesy of Sang Lee Farms

When I was a child, I hated tomatoes. Even though my mother was a prolific gardener — the kind who vastly preferred sinking her knees into the dirt than pretty much any other activity on earth — we lived in coastal Massachusetts. Up north, the growing season is notoriously slim, the off months marked by chilly grocery produce that does no favors to vegetable lovers. It’s no surprise, then, that I, a picky eater to begin with, was unmoved by the wan, mealy, refrigerated tomatoes with which my mother adorned her Iceberg lettuce salads.

Thankfully, I grew into tomatoes, which is to say that I learned about the realities of produce: Their seasonality, their specificity, their breadth. Somewhere along the way, I encountered heirlooms, and my sense of taste expanded. Heirlooms are not exclusive to the tomato plant. And if you’ve seen the word kicking around but have no concrete understanding of what an heirloom actually is, here is a point of clarity: an heirloom seed or plant is one that is at least 50-years-old, typically dates back to before the second World War, and has been handed down for generations in a particular region. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are open-pollinated, meaning that insects or wind do the dirty work, as opposed to human beings.

On its face, the term heirloom might feel singularly enticing. Carrying on the traditions of the eggplant- and tomato-eaters of yore feels like something that’s historically significant, after all. But heirlooms are also notoriously fickle, since they have been bred not to be prolific, or for their heartiness, but, rather, for their flavor. That concept alone is a struggle for farmers and home gardeners who both want to represent different species but who also seek a reliable crop.

A young heirloom tomato plant grows in the Amber Waves Farm field in Amagansett. Michael Heller photo

“The reasons for hybridization are varied,” Amanda Merrow, co-owner of Amagansett’s Amber Waves Farm, said. “More actual fruit. More disease-resistance. Better flavor. Better color. Easier. More reliable. When we talk about hybrids, we talk about reliability.”

For a farmer already subject to the vicissitudes of weather and other intangible biological factors, reliability may seem like reason alone to plant hybrids over heirlooms. Nothing in farming is easy or entirely predictable, so it would make sense to choose plant varieties that are less likely to cause trouble.

“If you were just trying to produce the most tomatoes as possible as consistently as possible, you’re not going to pick heirloom,” Balsam Farms co-owner Ian Calder-Piedmonte said. “But oftentimes, the things that taste the best are the ones that haven’t been bred for productivity. It’s a trade-off.”

Taste, of course, matters. Looks matter, too. You have probably seen an heirloom, without fully knowing its provenance. Perhaps it was the striated German striped tomato, or the deep orange Turkish eggplant. Maybe you have cut into a Purple Dragon carrot, with its indigo skin and pale interior. You may have noticed, in your forays to the farmer’s market, that these particular fruits are a little different from the ones taught to schoolchildren. If you grow up believing a tomato to be red, how do you reconcile that with the Green Zebra?

The answer is in the flavor profile. Seed-savers collect the seeds of heirloom plants, dry them, hold them, and then plant them with the next growing cycle, perpetuating the lifespan of the best of each harvest. Seeds are saved, typically, for their flavor and color, two factors that exist in a vacuum when it comes to plant durability. But the pros, to many farmers, outweigh the cons. “There’s benefits, in that the consumer likes the taste,”

Lucy Senesac of Sang Lee Farms said. “Our clientele—and we’re selling everything to the consumer—we’re able to do that because of our business model.”

Many years ago, Sang Lee Farms saved their own seeds. It was a way of guaranteeing access to Asian fruits and vegetables that were, at the time, unavailable on Long Island’s North Fork. With globalization, the farmers at Sang Lee don’t have trouble finding seeds anymore.

Most farmers will tell you that farming is a game of risk.

“We are trying to mitigate risk all the time,” Merrow said. “There’s a basket of risks and situations and we don’t know how they’re going to unfold over the year. And so we are trying to spread risk on every level, from the kinds and amounts of seeds we’re producing.”

To this end, planting a diverse crop of different types of plants — heirlooms included — is actually beneficial to the state of the modern farm. Having many different varieties of a plant, some of which will hold up better in the face of disease, for instance, spreads risk.

“There’s one variety that’s resistant to late blight, [which causes the] tomato plants [to] just completely wither up and die,” Senesac said. “So it’s good for us to have that [diversity]. It’s sort of an insurance policy.”

Heirloom tomato sauce from the Balsam Farms stand in Amagansett. Michael Heller photo

Tomato blight and other, similar diseases are not equal opportunity assailants, preferring some varieties over others. The same is true of most plant-specific diseases. Biodiversity is a natural way to secure a harvest — even if you don’t know, at the outset, what that harvest will inevitably produce.

“You want to search the whole diversity of heirlooms to see which can avoid blight,” Calder-Piedmonte said. “Seed-savers would say it’s very important to keep all the different types around so that you have all the genetic diversity to pick from.”

Faced with a panoply of colors, sizes and textures at your local farmstand, you may not think too deeply about how the abundance of a species matters in the field. But as climate change becomes a foregone conclusion, farmers, like most agricultural careerists, must adapt their strategies.

“Diseases will change with different climate,” Calder-Piedmonte added. “More than anything, disease becomes a problem when there’s too much of one crop grown in an area.”

Consider the struggle to mitigate risk a boon to the consumer. Without diversity, one is left with only a handful of types of plant. At Amber Waves Farm, the farmers plant 300 to 400 varieties of 60 different crops, roughly a quarter of which are heirlooms. Balsam Farms boasts about 100 different varieties of tomato. Sang Lee Farm’s tomato production is half heirloom. As it stands, an East Ender can choose between hundreds of different types of vegetables, and that’s lucky.

“There are so many different levels of how flavor can be different when you’re talking about vegetables,” Merrow said. “If you’re lucky enough to have had access to a bunch of different tomatoes, it’s like: I’ve only been eating Cortland apples my whole life.”

Asked to describe her favorite heirloom, Merrow waxed poetic about the German striped tomato.

“We call them unicorn tomatoes, because they’re so special. It’s big, and there’s this surprising awesomeness to having a tomato that weighs 2 or 3 pounds,” she said. “I just want to drink them. That’s our iconic heirloom.”

That’s a far cry from those pale tomatoes my mother used to serve. What a time to be a patron of the farm.