Future of food may be found in the past

Above: Heirloom carrot varieties
Below left: Glass gem corn
Below right: Romanesco broccoli
Above: Heirloom carrot varieties Below left: Glass gem corn Below right: Romanesco broccoli

There is a lot of beauty in food, especially in the heirloom (aka heritage) department.

These days we expect carrots to be orange, tomatoes to be red and bananas and corn to be yellow, but once upon a time it was normal for all of these to be most colours of the rainbow.

Due to the industrialisation of food, crops are no longer chosen based on their taste, nutritious qualities and ability to suit local conditions.

They are now selected and grown based on how well they can travel vast distances and how good they look for the supermarket shelves.

Did you know that the carrot used to mostly be purple and that the orange carrot is a relatively new thing which was cultivated around 400 years ago?

You can learn more, so much more, through the UK's World Carrot Museum.

Without trying very hard at all, we mostly source heirloom seeds through our local networks, our own seed saving and through businesses like The Diggers Club, Phoenix Seeds and Southern Harvest.

Initially our key attraction to heirloom was the fact that you get so much more diversity, interesting tastes and really strange/fun-looking crops.

But the more we grow them, the more we're addicted to the fact they taste so much better than non-heirloom varieties and we also love being part of preserving age-old plant varieties.

We recently harvested baby blue pop corn from our garden. We were gifted this seed from a friend last year and simply couldn't resist it. We're in the process of waiting for it to dry out properly so we can make blue popcorn.

So what exactly does heirloom mean?

According to The Tomato Lady website, heirloom varieties "come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait."

The site goes on to say that heirloom vegetables are "open-pollinated, which means they're non-hybrid and pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention" and while the definition of an heirloom varies depending on which expert you consult "typically they are at least 50 years old, and often are pre-WWII varieties. In addition, they tend to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next."

Some people are very strict on ensuring their heirloom seeds are pre-WWII. This is because a lot of the left-over chemicals used for warfare were directed into conventional agriculture as fertilisers and pesticides, forever altering our foodscape.

Other people aren't so strict about this timeline, but it's something to be aware of.

Are there any downsides to growing heirlooms?

They are more irregular in that you can get a mixed bag of shapes and sizes which is hard to market to the supermarket who only wants 'perfect looking' foods.

Because of these irregularities it can also be more challenging to design efficient harvesting and processing systems.

But really, these are the concerns of the large-scale, monoculture-focused farmers. Small-hold family farmers don't have these same problems to the same degree, but there is much politics wrapped up in this.


The Diggers Club sell seeds, but also have lots of info about all things heirloom

The Seed Savers, Byron Bay, Australia

Vandana Shiva talks seed saving

The Seed Savers Handbook

Good Life Permaculture is a landscape design and education enterprise that creates resilient and regenerative lives and landscapes: goodlifepermaculture.com.au/