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Why Grow Heirlooms?

We get this question a lot at Potter Hill. A lot. I have to admit, sometimes I wonder about the wisdom behind growing only older, fickle, and lower producing varieties of vegetables. Especially the financial wisdom. While planning for an epic 2016 farming season and perusing the various seed catalogs, (Baker Creek, Johnny’s, High Mowing, and FEDCO if you need to know), I came across a great article in the Baker Creek seed catalog. If you are fascinated by unique, colorful, and exotic vegetables, this is the seed catalog for you! The writer’s first bullet point to the heirloom quandary is simple: Quality.

Modern seed breeding often sacrifices quality (nutrition and taste) for the convenience of mechanical harvesting, and shipping yuuge amounts of produce yuuge distances. Heirlooms are selected for taste over many generations, while modern produce is bred for things like tough skin that will survive their trek around the world. Many of our customers tell us that we have the best tasting tomatoes they have ever tried. The old-timers tell us the taste brings back fond memories, because it’s what they remember a tomato tasting like growing up.

But are we sacrificing sales for flavor? One of the books I am reading this winter is called The Lean Farm. A small farm in Indiana, similar to Potter Hill in size, applied the principles of lean concepts, developed by the founder of the Toyota Production System, to his farm. The farmer writes that he grew mostly heirloom tomatoes at first for the complex flavor, better texture, and aesthetics. Over the next few seasons, he realized heirlooms are what he prefers. His customers prefer standard red tomatoes, which he sells for less as they are less costly to grow. Now he grows mostly standard red tomatoes and has seen an uptick in profit.

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Are we losing out on sales to potential customers unfamiliar with a ripe green tomato that would knock their socks off if they gave it a chance? Or unwilling to pay the premium for the extra expense of growing heirlooms? What good is growing what I want to grow if that means I can’t financially support my (also growing) family? Those are the questions I’m pondering as I decide which heirloom tomato varieties to plant this season.

If anyone else is stuck in the Grafton arctic and not traveling somewhere warmer next week, we will be at Community Harvest Project on Monday from 4-7pm as usual. Stock up on your root vegetables, Simple Bread from Zach, and meat from Jeff. You can drop-in for your veggies and bread, but don’t forget to order the meat ahead of time.