Tag Archives: the new york times

Heirlooms are heirlooms for a reason

May 13, 2011

Heirlooms prove their worth in organic gardens

There’s been something of a backlash in national gardening circles about heirloom varieties, which I suspect is being egged on by seed suppliers.

You may recall that an heirloom variety of a plant is one that has become traditional, such as in our neck of the woods the Arkansas Traveler tomato (bred in Arkansas for its ability to withstand heat and humidity) or the Marion tomato (which was the staple of south Mississippi’s truck farming tradition).

In late March, there was a rather heated debate about heirlooms in The New York Times, of all places (“Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids?,” March 23), the gist of which was that if heirlooms were any good there would be no hybrid varieties.

Modern seeds, which are generally hybrid crosses, produce a “more vigorous plant, better resistance to diseases,” said the owner of Johnny’s Seeds, for example, noting in a car analogy: Why not buckle up in a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe?

Expecting a sound retort, I was surprised that the article went downhill from there, the consensus being that heirlooms are outdated, susceptible to disease, don’t produce well and generally ought to be discarded in favor of the more “modern” hybrids. By the same token, some commented that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) take that a step farther. After all, they are products of Science and can even include animal genes in them to take on Nature!

Well, needless to say, as an organic grower, I was stunned by the whole tenor of the piece, and its commentary, but have since seen its premises knocking around the Internet like an echo chamber, with the article serving to legitimize those points of view.

I could almost buy it, if I didn’t know better. It’s astounding to me that anyone with any knowledge of actually growing plants could swallow such inorganic manure.

By its very nature as an open pollinated plant (as opposed to a forced hybrid – or GMO – that can only produce once, then die, along with its unique mix of selected genes), an heirloom adapts to changing conditions in its environment.

If there’s a drought and only a few Arkansas Travelers make it, for example, then save those survivors’ seeds and the next Arkansas Travelers you plant are likely to be drought resistant.

Diseases? Insects? Fungus? Odd growing season? Save those seeds, and the next editions will be tailored to survive those conditions.

As opposed to hybrids – or heaven forbid, Frankenfood GMOs – successive heirloom generations adapt to the conditions where you live!

The reason heirlooms are heirlooms is because they are so desired and adaptable with consistent qualities that people want. That’s the definition of heirloom: A valued possession passed down through succeeding generations; in this case, a plant of enduring value.

So, I guess folks can have heated debates in the Times and on the Internet about how “outdated” are heirloom varieties.

But seedsavers and folks who actually grow what they eat and eat what they grow know better. Heirlooms prove their worth in the organic garden again and again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Plant Dynamism

April 8, 2011

It’s official: Spring has sprung with flowering of ‘invasives’

Outside my study window, the pecan tree is leafing. The old folks say that when that happens, the cold weather is gone.

The great cold front that passed through last weekend – with a skirmish line of thunderstorms from New Orleans to the Canada border – seems to have ushered in a cold snap that has everything turning green.

It, thankfully, washed away the yellow clouds of pine pollen, and now buttercups (yes, another “invasive,” but a beautiful one!) are covering the fields.

We’re preparing to plant our tomatoes, peppers, melons and other warm weather plants in the next couple of weeks.

•Plant dynamism: In a previous column, I noted that many of the common “weeds” in our gardens (e.g., dandelions, henbit, et al.) are not “natural” in that they are “invasives,” or immigrants from Europe and Asia. A wonderful article in The New York Times, however, points out that this is a pejorative – even elitist! – view (which many fellow organic growers also reject).

In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” Hugh Raffles (April 3: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/opinion/03Raffles.html?src=recg) writes: “Designating some as native and others as alien denies this ecological and genetic dynamism. It draws an arbitrary historical line based as much on aesthetics, morality and politics as on science, a line that creates a mythic time of purity before places were polluted by interlopers.”

It’s true that many of the immigrants are much desired, such as honeybees and apple trees, just as many are nuisances, such as tumbleweeds and nut grass. And, as I noted in the article, some insects prefer to munch on the imports over our cultivated plants, thus providing a welcome diversion in the organic grower’s garden to help beneficial insects defeat, outwit or overwhelm the undesirables.

So, like others, I suppose I should adopt a less pejorative term – “opportunistic” plants, perhaps. Long live diversity in the garden!

Reader Response: I would advise against using raw or even composted chicken litter in your garden. While using this poultry litter as a soil amendment is not prohibited by the National Organic Program (with some restrictions), there is growing concern about heavy metals – particularly arsenic – that are present from such concentrated animal feeding operations.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, arsenic from poultry litter can potentially leach into lakes or streams. It can build up in the soils with repeated applications; and rather than breaking down, composting concentrates it. (See: http://bit.ly/dSlx45.)

Food origins: Ever wonder where your grocery’s food comes from? A new organization is working to document all fruit and vegetable shipments, stating what, where, how and if any food alerts are issued. For more, see: http://www.harvestmark.com.

Only those growers who contract with harvestmark are included. But consumers can also read the little stickers on the food at the grocery to winnow some information.

If the number on the label begins with a 4, it is conventional produce and most likely has been sprayed with pesticides.

Genetically modified “food” will start with the number 8. Organic produce will begin with the number 9.

For the sake of food safety, stronger labeling should be required to protect consumers.

A New Ag: Agriculture is on the verge of a new age that, if successful, will leave all of the “modern” and “conventional” methods of relying on fossil fuels for production – insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, diesel and gasoline – obsolete.

As Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., has pointed out, it was a mere accident that agriculture began with annual plants 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

As the Ice Age ended, pockets of fertility such as the Tigras and Euphrates Valley, emerged. The first foodstuffs readily available were cereal grains which sprouted as annuals (that is, must be planted ever year). Those seeds were readily available, abundant and were thus able to be transported to far-off regions.

But just as easily, our ancestors could have chosen perennials. Had they done so, the nature of agriculture would be far different, and easier on the environment.

That’s what The Land Institute is in the process of developing: natural seeds for perennial foodstuffs.

Imagine fields of grain that are not cut down, but picked; fruits that bear year after year from the same stalks; no more tilling the soil or spraying poisons, but planting “companion” plants that provide shade or nutrients to the soil that complement each other’s needs.

This is the future of agriculture: sustainability. Not chemicals that kill and poison, but life that complements, nurtures and produces. I hope I live to see it.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.