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Crops

Heirlooms: marketing taste and texture

Written by Christy Hemken

Douglas – “If we think back to our childhood, and how good vegetables used to be, then we know that it can happen again,” Wyoming Seed Analysis Laboratory Gil Waibel told the Wyoming Farmers Market Conference in Douglas in early January.

“The challenge isn’t going back to heirlooms, but creating the new niche markets that can breed vegetables that do taste good,” he said. “But where do we start? With either purchasing seed or saving our own.”

During the conference, producers in niche livestock and crops markets from Wyoming and surrounding states came together to not only learn about issues ranging from how to properly follow rules and regulations to Waibel’s discussion on how to save one’s own seed.

“There’s nothing wrong with saving your own seed, but it does take effort. If you’re trying to grow heirloom varieties, you may not be able to find what you’re looking for, so in that case it is better to produce and control your own seed,” he said.

Because some heirloom varieties may not be found in seed dealers’ selections, Waibel said there’s a lot of seed trading that goes on among the people who raise them.

When a producer has the goal of harvesting seeds, Waibel said that it’s important to know the crop, including planting dates and watering demands, to harvest mature seeds. “Some species want to be harvested and left in the field for 10 days or two weeks to fully mature, and with carrot seeds you’ll have to wait two years to produce seeds.”

According to Waibel, an heirloom variety is not only a seed over 50 years old, but also one that is not a hybrid, because some hybrids are over 50 years old. “If you plant the heirloom seed and harvest the plant, the seeds you’re harvesting will be the same as what was planted.” It is widely accepted that better taste, fragrance and texture result from heirloom varieties.

“Heirlooms don’t fit modern production practices because, as in tomatoes, vegetables are bred and produced that are very tough in order to survive shipping and packaging, but in that they lose some palatability,” said Waibel. “Producers now also breed for a uniform product. If there are over two percent green tomatoes in the truck the marketers don’t want them. Producers are looking for varieties that will ripen uniformly, but through all that the taste and texture is sacrificed.”

“Are these vegetables bred for the end consumer or for modern ag production?” he questioned. “Taste and texture are something to market and if we can come up with concepts to sell. It’s something to consider.”

In the organic versus traditional decision, Waibel advises that if the market says it wants organics, then it probably pays to get into an organic program. “If it doesn’t care, then go traditional.”

“If your fields are really weedy I recommend getting the field under control first and then transitioning into organic,” he continued. “Organics work great on rich soil, but if you need to be supplementing too much it may not pay to be organic. You also have to know what’s legally organic and you have to have a source of organic seed.”

“Anything you can do to add value is good business,” he concluded.