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Heirloom versus Heritage

You don't have to be a foodie or a farmer to know the terms "heirloom" or "heritage". In fact, just a trip to your local grocery or farmer's market can get you curious about the labels on your food.

The Difference Between Heritage and Heirloom

Heirloom and heritage are two sides of the same coin- they have the same meaning, but the term "heirloom" applies to plants and "heritage" applies to animals. Quite simply, heirloom varieties are those that have unique genetic traits that have been maintained over many years and are distinct from commercial varieties. And earning each of those labels requires a commitment to saving the variety of something you already have- you save and replant your heirloom seeds from previous harvests so that a strain of plant grows true to type. For heritage breeds, a slow growth rate and natural mating is key.

"There's been a lot of movement back to a lot of heirloom varieties because people want to preserve the agricultural heritage that is locked into those seeds and develop a lineage of place with each variety," said Paul Betts of the High Mowing Seeds Organic Company in Vermont.

Why Heritage and Heirloom Matter

Heirloom VegetablesIf you're asking yourself why this matters, it's simple. Monocultures of any crop or organism are susceptible to complete extinction if infected by a particular disease, pest or event. And once a breed of livestock or plants is extinct, those unique genes are lost forever. It's a common byproduct of industrial agriculture that a few varieties are proliferated ... and others die out. But the thousands of breeds that have died out are the same ones that had developed resistance to harsh climates and survived on local ecosystems.

"If you were saving seeds on your farm, you'd be picking the seeds from the plants that do the best. After doing that for a few years you'd be developing your own strains that are very localized to your area and they'll perform better than any other seeds you get from somewhere else," Betts said.

Heirloom VegetablesMore than 95% of the commercial vegetable varieties available in the early 1900s are now extinct, and in the last 15 years alone nearly 200 breeds of livestock have gone extinct worldwide.

Heritage and Heirloom are Just Better

Of course, there's an even easier reason to choose the tried-and-true varieties from seed savers: heirloom fruits and vegetables have unique colors, textures, and tastes that can't be found in factory-farmed industrial produce.

As a friend of mine said, "I like those heirloom varieties, they taste better. Actually, they just taste."

Good to Know

Heritage Poultry ConservancyI love chickens and raise my own heritage breeds of Buff Orpington and Silver Laced Wyndotte as well as Sebastopol Geese and Slate Turkeys. They're well suited to living on a sustainable farm because they've built up a resistance to our cold Arkansas winters and most diseases that may come their way. For more information, visit The Heritage Poultry Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation and support of all threatened breeds and strains of domestic poultry through the encouragement of education, stewardship, and good breeding practices.