There’s a very silly article in the New York Times about controversy over hybrids vs. heirlooms. Yes, this is a real debate. No, it isn’t as stark or as stupid as the Times makes it.
There are plenty of horticultural reasons heirlooms can grow glorious fruit. One is size. An heirloom tomato is often a big, robust plant. The central stalk is usually indeterminate: it keeps shooting up after setting fruit. Mr. Ball, of Burpee, recalls a customer telling him about a Brandywine plant that crept into the house through a second-floor window.
An heirloom tomato will also have a lot of leaves, in groups of three, Dr. Heisey said. All that green surface area translates into a lot of photosynthesis. And that means higher sugar levels, one of many factors that make for a mythic tomato.
A modern, hybrid tomato, by comparison, is typically determinate in the way it grows: the stem will stop growing. And the leaves come in pairs. Farmers prefer compact plants with earlier and higher fruit yields. So that’s what breeders give them.
But that’s not the end of the story. If it were, Dr. Heisey wouldn’t be able to argue that a well-bred hybrid, properly ripened, “will taste as good or better than heirloom tomatoes.”
As any impatient gardener will testify, many of those old tomato plants don’t like to be hurried to make fruit. And while they’re hanging around the yard, the foliage can pick up a legion of common diseases, including the blights (early and late) and the wilts (fusarium and verticillium).
As the stricken plant sheds leaves like a sheepdog, it has less sugar to channel into the fruit. This is one reason an October tomato may be no great treat.
By comparison, some blight resistance has been bred into the hybrid for decades, Dr. Heisey said. Most commercial types now have resistance, as do many backyard varieties.
Still, the farmers who first created the heirlooms did not garden in Eden. They had their own nuisances to overcome. Mr. Gettle, the owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, suggests that a well-chosen seed can prove to be a survivor.
For example, he said, growers might find that Southeast Asian cultivars feel at home in the miserable damp of Florida. Alternately, plant enough heirlooms from enough places, and a few are bound to endure.
Besides, Mr. Gettle added, “the same blights hit the hybrids out here in Missouri as hit the heirlooms.”
One seedsman asserts that heirlooms are just old seeds that failed, another asserts hybrids are tools of the devil (ok, that isn’t actually in there, but it sort of sounds like it). At the end of the article there’s actually some good stuff, but there’s almost no discussion of why someone might actually choose an Open Pollinated variety or a Hybrid – lots of discussion of subjectives, but little about objectives, of the real reasons small farmers choose between them.
The reason many of us, especially serious gardeners or small farmers like Open Pollinated plants is that we can save seed – and as plants adapt to our particular conditions, the saved seeds get better, and do better in our places. The plants are more productive and do better over time – by the third or fourth generation, there is noticeable improvement in productivity, I find. Everyone has different soil and weather conditions, and adapting to those realities is worthwhile.
Moreover, as a farmer and someone who grows plants as part of her living, my seed bill is a pretty big expense. I don’t feel any need to make it bigger by buying new seed every single year. Farming isn’t a big money trade – reducing inputs by saving seed is essential for me, it is essential for poor farmers all over the world. It is one of the things we can do for ourselves.
Finally, having seed is a measure of security – if next year the trade discontinues a variety I like, or there is a supply disruption, or a crop loss, I’ve got seed. This is non-trivial – our CSA, for example, built its reputation on things we did especially well. Our customers wanted to see the mix of red-and-yellow pear tomatoes, the edible flower salad mix, our special fava beans. The seed trade fluctuates a lot, and there are crop losses in any given year – this is the best way to ensure a stable crop.
What about hybrids? Do I eschew them? No, I don’t – and with a few exceptions, I know comparatively few growers who wholly do. Particularly in my cold climate, there are comparatively few bell peppers that will get to red-ripe or early broccoli cultivars that will get me broccoli to market when everyone else has it. If you are a home gardener, you can have the luxury of waiting until after everyone else to have broccoli or red peppers. If you go to market or run a CSA, that’s just not a choice – seasonal eaters who have been waiting all summer long for a red pepper don’t want to wait an extra two weeks.
A hybrid that does something an open-pollinated variety simply can’t do is valuable. But unlike the Times article, which frames this primarily as “hybrid vs. heirloom” rather than “hybrid X vs. heirloom X” there’s a lot of variety there. Not even the most dedicated hybrid lover bothers to hybridize lettuce or peas, for example, and many of the best tasting varieties are older. In my climate, even the most dedicated heirloom grower usually grows one hybrid sweet pepper to get those reds to market. They may also grow six heirlooms – and there are good reasons for that.
There’s also the cost issue – Rob Johnson may be right about the best of the heirlooms, but a large quantity of a Johnny’s-bred hybrid melon can cost me three times as much as an open pollinated variety. If it is three times better, ok, fair enough. But what if it isn’t – what if there are OP melons that have been bred for earliness and flavor that are just as good? Often there are. For example, they talk about earliness in tomatoes as something that is a product of hybridization – but my best early tomato, Glacier, is a Russian introduction that is open-pollinated – it comes in more than ten days before Early Girl (which, by the way, at least in some strains now seems to be OP, rather than F1 – it has been grown so long that it seems to have standardized, since I’ve several times grown out multiple generations from supposedly “hybrid” Early Girls -I’ve seen this in other varieties as well) and is substantively better tasting.
Those who argue that Heirlooms are the junk seeds of the past miss the point – seeds get dropped from the seed trade all the time, not because they are bad, but because they don’t sell well (their marketing gimmick doesn’t hit the masses) or because they needed space to make room for something new and shiny. One of the arguments for heirlooms is that focus on Open-pollinated vegetables keeps important genetic material alive. We’ve all seen a favorite or two dropped from the seed or plant trade – consider the quest for the “Fairfax” strawberry – claimed to be one of the best tasting varieties by garden writers as diverse as Ruth Stout, Laura Simons and many others, Fairfax is a parent of today’s best tasting “Sparkle” – but the parent has been mostly lost. A friend of mine attempted to rebirth it from a few plants saved from an older site, and what appeared was a less productive but better tasting strawberry than I’ve ever had. Why did “Fairfax” get lost – probably the push for higher yields and the de-emphasization of taste. What we do know is that things get lost for a variety of reasons, not simply because they are “bad.”
Different gardeners have different priorities – disease has never been a major problem in my garden, so I don’t emphasize disease resistance – but even if I did, I’d certainly choose a mix of hybrids and heirlooms, both of which have some measure of both. I need cold and wet soil tolerance, and early maturing in my climate, and I can get those things in both ways – but because OP seeds adapt to my place, if they do as well as a hybrid, the hybrid loses. That said, when a hybrid is a clear superior, I’m grateful to the breeder who created it! I’d generally say that to my mind, sweet corn, brussels sprouts, peppers and early broccoli are a place where hybrid breeders have done me a lot of good, while tomatoes (with exception of sungold, which I love for the taste), cabbage, greens, herbs, leeks, etc… are just plenty productive without them.
The other thing that interests me in this discussion is that while heirloom vegetables are growing in popularity, their popularity is still secondary – I know I get more inquiries about why I don’t grow Early Girl and Jet Star in my nursery than for “Orange Banana Paste” or “Rose de Berne” tomato. I don’t think that’s likely to change. And my arguments about seed saving apply to me, but most gardeners don’t save seed – or for that matter, grow their own plants from seed. They buy what the nursery trade has to sell, mostly still the usual hybrid stand-bys. It is interesting to me that the Times makes this into such a stark either/or death match -but that’s the newspaper business.
What about you? Hybrids? Heirlooms? Both?