Heirlooms of a farmers’ market

May. 19, 2014 @ 09:50 AM

Throughout the seasons at the South Durham Farmers’ Market, you will find purple passion asparagus, French breakfast radishes, chocolate Cherokee tomatoes and Chinese red noodle beans. These beautiful and increasingly rare heirloom vegetables are almost impossible to find at the grocery store, but they remain popular among small-scale farmers and gardeners. Heirloom varieties offer intense flavor, genetic diversity, adaptability and a connection to the human history of plant cultivation.

Unfortunately, over the past century, thousands of heirloom varieties have gone extinct. Large scale agriculture has favored hybrid varieties, which are intentionally cross-pollinated to produce plants with high yield and uniformity. Heirloom varieties, on the other hand, have been selected almost exclusively for flavor. After all, our farmers do not have to worry about how their produce will fare on a cross-country trip or whether it will ripen a week after being picked. Every vegetable at the South Durham Farmers’ Market travels less than 50 miles and is harvested ripe from the vine (or tree or ground).

Heirlooms are open-pollinated, meaning that cross-pollinators such as the birds and the bees have done the dirty work. And, the traits governing taste, shape and color will remain constant from generation to generation. A slice of the Mortgage Lifter tomato will taste to you much as it did to your grandmother 50 years ago (delicious). Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, will have to be purchased anew each year to achieve consistent results.

One of the most important reasons to support heirloom varieties is to maintain genetic diversity, so that our crops have a reservoir of traits to draw upon in case of changes to environmental conditions or new pests and diseases. By shopping at the farmers’ market, you help safeguard the plant diversity necessary to build a resilient local food system. Plus, by eating a sundry selection of vegetables – purple Vienna kohlrabi, Russian frill kale and Jerusalem artichokes – you build resilience of your own by consuming a wide variety of nutrients.

In addition to the vegetables we have at the market, several of our vendors sell heirloom starters, enabling you to preserve seed history in your own backyard. Larry’s Chili & Heirloom Tomato Plants, Brooks Farm and Rocky Run Farm all sell unique basil, tomato, cucumber and pepper plant varieties. Larry tells shoppers, “Experiment in your own garden and discover the best-tasting varieties for your table.”

Another great way to support local seed diversity is to participate in the Durham Public Library’s Seed Bank. Three library locations (the Main Library, Southwest Regional Library and South Regional Library) are collecting seeds, preferably open-pollinated varieties, for Durham residents to “check out,” grow and enjoy with the hope that residents will save and return seeds to the Library’s Seed Bank. Seed saving workshops are being held throughout the year. Their goal is to promote gardening and seed saving and to build a collection of locally adapted seed varieties.

It’s not too late to get your own heirloom vegetable garden started, and it’s never too late to add a new vegetable to your diet!

Elizabeth Zander is market manager for the South Durham Farmers’ Market, open 8 a.m. to noon each Saturday and 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday at Greenwood Commons Shopping Center, 5410 NC Highway 55.