Growing heirloom tomatoes is more than just a fun way to grow a delicious treat; it is a powerful step in preserving vegetable variety, maintaining a sustainable food supply, and reinvigorating the relationships our ancestors had with their food crops.
First things first: what is an heirloom tomato, and how is it different from the tomatoes at the grocery store? Heirloom tomatoes are, simply put, “old varieties” of tomatoes that have been grown for hundreds of years. They are tomatoes that were bred when humans were still incredibly localized, and are therefore often particular to a certain region or culture. Heirloom tomatoes were bred to thrive in local conditions, and taste good in local cuisines. Heirloom varieties produce “true seed”, which means that if you plant the seeds from one generation, the next will look just the same.
Pictured: Endangered heirloom varieties of tomato Forme de Coeur (left) and Wapsipinicon Peach (right) grown at Franken Farm. Seeds available on this website.
The tomatoes you see in the grocery store are not heirloom, they are usually “hybrids.” Hybrids come from crossing two tomato species, comparable to breeding two types of purebred dog. In the first generation, hybrids might have desired traits like increased yield, or pesticide resistance. The seeds from hybrids are not “true,” meaning if you grow tomatoes from them, they will look and taste different than their “parent” tomatoes.
Over the past 100 years, large agricultural companies have pushed hybrid vegetable seeds on farmers all around the world, touting their impressive traits. Yet in turn, they create a cycle in which farmers cannot save their own seeds, and must return to the company every year for more. It also means that companies are taking the place of farmers in selecting traits and breeding plants. The power of seed is being removed from the farmer and given to the corporation.
With the rise of hybrids and huge monocultures came the fall of heirlooms and diverse backyard gardens. In a comparison of American seed catalogues over the past 80 years, researchers found roughly 93% of heirloom vegetables are no longer commercially available. Many varieties today are stewarded by a small handful of dedicated seed savers; we are truly at the final frontier of vegetable preservation.
Pictured above, hybrid tomatoes at the grocery store. Pictured below, one day's harvest from Franken Farm's heirloom tomato greenhouse.
What do we value in a tomato? The ability to be put in a shipping container and sent around the world? Resistance to harsh pesticides? Uniformity? This is where hybrids excel.
But what about: Flavour? Nutrition? Natural disease and drought resistance? Beauty? Cultural significance? History? The ability to save seed for future generations? These are the traits that heirlooms have to offer us.
And perhaps the most important thing heirlooms have to offer us is diversity. A central tenet of biology is that diversity equals strength. Diverse ecosystems have the ability to recover from disease, drought, etc. because even as one species is decimated, another flourishes. Many cultures around the world understand that this strength applies to food crops as well, and that a diverse food system is a sustainable and nutritious food system.
As soils are depleted and environmental conditions change due to climate change, the hybrid monocultures of industrial agriculture are failing. This is reflected in the skyrocketing price of produce. Now more than ever before, we need a huge bank of vegetable varieties to find food that thrives in every local climate. We need to abandon the notion of “super varieties” that “everyone should grow” and instead tune into our intimate environment and ask “what would grow here best?” The answer might include a nearly forgotten heirloom tomato that perfectly suits your garden and culinary needs.
These days, the impact of a single grower and/or seed saver can be immense. Here’s the story of the Meme de Beauce tomato, from seed company Terre Promise’s website (seeds available here: https://www.terrepromise.ca/en/produit/meme-de-beauce-tomato/) :
“In 1995, a carpenter found a bag of about 200 seeds in the attic of an abandoned house, where no one had lived for several years, in Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce. The neighbors claimed that this house hadn’t had any garden in well over 60 years. Mrs. Gérard Parent, to whom they were given, tried to get them to grow; only three germinated. From those three initial plants originate all the current Mémé de Beauce plants found in Quebec.”
As we can see, thanks to Mrs. Gerard Parent, an entire lineage of tomato was saved from extinction! What a legacy to leave behind. In our modern world, it can feel so difficult to “help the planet,” and we often discuss “lessening our impact” on the environment. Growing heirlooms is so empowering because it’s all about creating, growing, and leaving a positive legacy in nature. The beautiful diversity of food crops is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and by growing heirlooms we invigorate the relationships and promises our ancestors made with these plants.
If you are interested in growing heirloom tomatoes (or other vegetables), the place to look is small seed farms within a few hundred kilometres of your home. These days many homegrowers turn to big organic companies like William Dam and West Coast seeds. These companies are doing great things by offering quality organic seed, yet it is not sustainable for us to purchase all our seeds from them. There are only so many varieties they can grow and steward. We need a great diversity in seed companies to support the great diversity of vegetables.
Pictured: me harvesting tomatoes in my greenhouse. A vast network of small seed savers is the key to a sustainable food system.
My farm, Franken Farm, offers a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, most of which are endangered. You can find them for sale on this website. Here are some other great companies you can purchase endangered vegetable seeds from (click for link):
Look for unique veggies that catch your interest- perhaps they come from the region of your ancestors, or are particularly beautiful to you. Take a chance on a vegetable you’ve never seen before. Each year you will find new favourites, and over time they will become dear to your heart. And with that, you have become a steward of heirloom vegetables.
In the documentary “Seed Mother: Coming Home” (link below), seedkeeper Rowen White speaks about rematriation- the process of returning seeds to their original lands and keepers. Rematriation is led by indigenous people around the world, but we all have a role to play. I would like to conclude this post with a quote from her that inspires my work as a seed saver:
“Those agreements that our ancestors made with their plant relatives, they run like wild rivers in our blood and our bones. There’s an invitation for all of us, no matter what your ancestry is, we all have a responsibility to engage with this work. Just picking up a seed and beginning to grow that seed, it will rehydrate those agreements inside of you.” -Rowen White
Watch Seed Mother: Coming Home here: https://www.nativeland.org/seed-rematriation?fbclid=IwAR0QrBguNOybcllxfPZ0kaZ6tOWdthA6ZJPmjlnL4VpQ2O2MEwD7oq-nx50