Market for heirloom varietals booms as interest grows


A brilliant sea of fruits and vegetables filled a hall at the Sonoma County fairgrounds last week, where grotesquely oversized pumpkins lurked like sumo wrestlers along a far wall. Table after table was dedicated to a rainbow of produce: fluorescent pink dragonfruit, mahogany-colored eggs and hundred of apples.

One long display appeared to be a grab-bag of species: persimmons, tomatoes, squash, eggplant and peppers. A closer look revealed that each of these fruits—the round red ones, the stark white ones, the long green ones, the tiny yellow ones—was in fact a different variety of eggplant.

It was the second annual Heirloom Foods Expo, held in Santa Rosa. Over the course of three days, more than 15,000 visitors filled the fairgrounds to celebrate food diversity and explore exhibits, lectures, vendors and a livestock barn. The popularity of the event revealed a growing trend, as unique or forgotten foods gain attention.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the interest in heirloom, hence the reason we put on this national heirloom exposition,” Paul Wallace of the Petaluma Food Bank, which is associated with the heirloom seed catalog Baker Creek, said. That interest is represented not just in the turnout for the expo, but also by the numbers of seed catalogs his organization prints. In the last three years, that figure has jumped from 200,000 to 350,000 per year. 

“People are becoming a lot more conscious about what they’re eating and where it’s coming from,” Mr. Wallace said. “Heirloom foods are what Mother Nature intended. They are open-pollinated, not patented, and not treated. The chemical companies are not controlling the food.”

As the idea of exploring the different flavors, textures, shapes and sizes of heirloom foods has caught on, farmers have begun to change what they grow.

“We all know that not all apples taste alike, but I think we forgot that not all potatoes taste alike,” seed collector William Woys Weaver said during a talk last Tuesday. “I grow 50 different varieties of potatoes, and I have that many because each one is best for a specific use.”

Branching out

The demand for these quirky, tasty foods has skyrocketed in the last five years, said Brigitte Moran, executive director of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, which runs several farmers’ markets in the county. “It has become the cool thing [for shoppers] to do—to buy local, to buy different, to be able to name the farmer,” Ms. Moran said. “That has changed how farmers farm. Now they don’t have one or ten crops; they have 20 crops, and animals, and eggs.”

There are also more restaurants buying directly from local artisan farmers, Ms. Moran said. The Civic Center farmers’ market now has 28 parking spaces reserved just for chefs—and they are always full. “Both the farmer and the chef are trying to make their product line unique, so it’s a great partnership,” Ms. Moran said.

“We in the community are fostering a place for small-scale growers to try to sell new things,” farmer Peter Martinelli, of Fresh Run Farms in Bolinas, said. “Farmers like that sort of challenge.”

Local growers are given a boost by being part of the culinary markets of the San Francisco Bay Area, he added. “When you’re able to distribute immediately and directly you can grow a lot of these cool heirlooms that taste great but don’t necessarily ship or hold well,” Mr. Martinelli said. “I’m always trying out something new. A lot of the fun is seeing if something that is unique and appealing to the chef market will grow well on the farm.”

Heritage meats are also becoming more popular. Tomales rancher Liz Cunninghame said she raises heritage pigs, cattle, chickens and sheep because they are hardier and were originally bred to be on pasture, unlike conventional breeds that are bred to be raised or finished in confinement. “The heritage breeds don’t grow as fast, or yield as large a carcass, but they thrive,” Ms. Cunninghame said. “The Gloucester Old Spot breed, an old English breed, was in danger of being lost, but is now making a comeback.”

The Civic Center market used to have one meat vendor; now they have eight. Windsor farmer Tim Winkler stood in a pig pen at the heirloom expo and praised the virtues—both in flavor and personality—of a woolly breed of pig that hasn’t changed since the 17th century, when it “would follow the kids to school every day and then the family would live off it through the winter.”

Defending diversity

There are a lot of reasons to protect the historic diversity of food crops, advocates say. Heirloom crops are said to taste better, have more nutrients, and be better suited to local growing conditions. But one of the main reasons is that heirloom diversity just isn’t that common any more.

“Today 75 percent of human calories come from only seven different food crops, and of those seven, we use only a few varieties,” professor Linda Riebel, author of The Green Foodprint, said in a talk titled Why Food Biodiversity Matters. “We’ve really gotten ourselves into a corner.”

At the turn of the last century, it was common for over a hundred varieties of popular crops to be available in seed catalogues and nurseries. One researcher found that in 1908 there were 497 varieties of lettuce commercially available—as well as 408 tomato varieties, 285 cucumber varieties and 288 beet varieties.

Today, those numbers have dwindled to the double digits. The online catalog for Burpee seeds, for example, offers only 12 different types of beets and 33 types of cucumber.

So what happened to the other several hundred types of each of these crops? Some have simply died out, but many are still around in small numbers. Long-lived species, like fruit trees, may survive untended. Others are passed down within families. And increasingly, these species are becoming valuable again.

The diversity that made heirlooms inconvenient for large-scale retail also has a scientific advantage, Ms. Riebel said. Because there are so many of them, they have much more genetic variability than commercially dominant monocrops. That diversity makes them less susceptible to disease epidemics; small pockets of heirloom crops serve as backup when disease attacks the more common crop.

Historical foodnote

Many of the heirloom plants traditional in California were imported in the 1800s by a French barber and nursery owner named Felix Gillet, according to farmer Amigo Bob Cantisano, who has spent decades tracking down Mr. Gillet’s history—and his plants.

“Our area is full of these plants, but most of them are virtually abandoned,” Mr.  Cantisano said. “I’m lucky when I find someone who actually irrigates them.”

He has done his homework. For years, Mr. Cantisano has been chasing rumors of old trees down dusty dirt roads. Last week, he projected the results of his quest on a screen in a small crowded hall at the expo.

Photo after photo of trees, aged nursery catalogs and living fruit illustrated the story. Mr. Gillet moved to Nevada City at age 24, and began to import varieties he liked from many countries in Europe and the Middle East, as well as China and Mexico. Even in a picture, you can tell the offspring of these imports are exceptional. The cherries are brilliant; the figs—so many different kinds!—are luscious, drawing ooh’s and aah’s from the audience.

The social and culinary history represented by heirloom foods is an attraction for many besides Mr. Cantisano. Farmers and seed collectors across the country are collecting similar stories—living, photosynthesizing mementos.

On his Bolinas farm, Mr. Martinelli grows beans that were originally from Kosovo and given to a Berkeley chef, who passed them along to him. “He just calls them Kosovo beans,” Mr. Martinelli said. “Somehow they were smuggled out of that part of the world when all of that tumult was going on and came into his hands—so he gave them to me and I grew them out.”

Other stories include that of the double stink squash, a warty pumpkin-like variety that is delicious but earned its unappetizing name from the pig farm where a single plant was found growing.

Seed collector William Woys Weaver said the living history growing in his garden includes a miniature pea bred by gentleman gardeners in the Victorian era, a potato that was used as slave rations, and a melon created by a Trappist monk.

“As long as we use them, as long as we eat them, there will be no threat of them going extinct,” Mr. Weaver said. He, for one, prefers to keep these heirlooms around for future generations.