Why Save Our Past?

Highland cattle, a breed which originated in the Scottish Highlands, is the oldest registered breed in the United States. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

A hundred years ago or so, there was plenty of variety in agriculture. Worldwide, farmers raised thousands of different animal breeds and grew just as many varieties of plants. As farms grew bigger and became more industrialized, however, fewer and fewer species were used as crops and livestock. The traits that were important to a traditional farmer were not the same traits that are important for the success of an industrial farmer. When raising industrial-farm livestock, it is more important to have docile creatures that can endure crowding. The animals on an industrial farm are also bred for quick and efficient production and maturation, whether that means a lot of milk for dairy cows or growing big quickly for pigs. As livestock and crops became more specialized for industrialized farming, thousands of animal breeds and plant types have gone extinct. This is unfortunate because this means that we have lost a piece of the past, and we have lost knowledge that our ancestors had. It is also alarming because it has shrunk the available gene pool. You are probably aware of the loss of biodiversity that occurs as rain forests are cut or burnt down. Many medicines are produced by rain forest plants, and there are compounds that once existed that are no longer available and were never “discovered.” The same is true with plant and animal species in agriculture worldwide. Plants and animals that could be sources of new foods, medicines, or fibers have been lost forever. Luckily, there is a growing interest among farmers and gardeners to preserve the remaining animal and plant biodiversity by raising heritage animal breeds or heirloom crops.

The term heirloom is usually used with plants, and heritage is usually used to describe livestock. Sometimes they are used interchangeably. There is not a strict definition for these terms, except they generally mean “old”: older than 50 years, according to some sources, and older than 100 according to others. According to the American Rose Society, a rose is not considered old unless it was bred before 1867 when hybrids were introduced. Heirloom plants are always open-pollinated, which means that wind or insects can pollinate them without human assistance. Many of these older species are not worth a lot of money today because they don’t have the qualities that make them easy to farm in massive quantities. So why are heirloom and heritage plants and animals important? The short answer is biodiversity. Biodiversity is a term used for biological diversity, which means the variety of life. More biodiversity means that there is greater genetic variation.

Heritage Livestock

In the United States, there are just a few breeds that make up the vast majority of farm animals. More than 80% of all dairy cows are Holsteins, for example, and almost all the turkeys raised are from one single breed that is known for its big, meaty breast. But it is the remaining heritage breeds that are usually superior at living in a pasture rather than a barn, and surviving harsh conditions when necessary, just like their ancestors did. The genes in that heritage livestock could someday be useful. Because we cannot foretell the future, preserving genetic stock can be a safeguard against possible future changes in our environment. Raising old genetic lines of livestock makes farms more resilient to disease, pests, climate change, and changes in the marketplace. Organizations like the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy support the conservation of heritage breeds through research, education, the maintenance of gene banks, and help to farmers interested in heritage breeds.

Heirloom Plants

You can walk into any garden center around the country and find the same varieties of vegetable and flowering plants for sale. In yards around the country, people grow the same types of flowers. Yet heirloom plants need to be preserved for all the same reasons as heritage livestock. Maintaining a large gene pool is important for the future. Already more than 90% of all commercial vegetables types that were available before 1900 have disappeared. Besides having genes for disease-, pest-, and weather-resistance, heirloom produce often tastes better than modern fruits, grains, and vegetables do. Modern produce is selected for longer shelf lives and the ability to survive handling during shipping, so taste has often been less of a priority for growers. It doesn’t matter how good something tastes if it can’t make it to the market to be sold.

Heirloom tomatoes are an open-pollinated type of tomato. (Photo credit: Superstock/Alamy)

Heirloom flowers, too, have some wonderful advantages over the newer varieties. Heirloom roses, often called “antique” roses, or simply “old” roses, have the ability to thrive for a century or more without any real care, if they are hardy for the area they are grown in. Also, they usually have a beautiful, strong fragrance that has been bred out of newer varieties in exchange for brighter colors and longer lasting or repeat blooms. Antique rose collectors still discover new heirloom varieties by visiting abandoned cemeteries and farms, where the bushes can be found blooming among the ruins. Plant breeders develop new strains with better disease resistance by using the heirloom species to breed insect-, disease-, or drought-tolerance into new varieties. New roses are “hybrids,” grown by grafting a cutting from a newer variety onto an older rose’s roots. Hybrids grow fine this way when conditions are right for them, but are less hardy during cold winters. They may freeze at the point where they are grafted together, and the following year, it will be the older plant that grows instead of the newer rose that the customer purchased. As compared to “open-pollinators,” which can always produce more plants like their parents, the offspring of a hybrid plant is unpredictable. It might look like the parent plant, or might have different characteristics altogether.

Seed Savers Organization

Whereas roses are often grown from cuttings, many plants are of course grown from seed. There are only three major seed companies in the United States, which narrows down the amount of seeds that are widely available for sale. It is thrifty local gardeners that have saved seeds from their gardens and exchanged them with their families, friends, and neighbors who have maintained genetic diversity in many plants. In 1975 a group called Seed Savers Exchange was formed in Iowa. Today there are about 700 species of apples in the United States, which sounds like a lot until you learn that in 1903 there were about 8,000 identified species. The Seed Savers Exchange keeps thousands of plant types in a gene bank that contains not only seeds but also roots and bulbs of heirloom varieties. They now put together an annual catalogue of more than 12,000 distinct varieties of plants, and search world-wide for rare seeds. One of the draws of planting heirloom species or raising heritage animals is that the variety usually comes with a story, handed down just like an heirloom piece of jewelry or artwork. Saving these diverse varieties becomes about more than just preserving irreplaceable genes. It also helps preserve entire cultures around the world.

More to Explore

Local Harvest
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
Seed Savers Exchange
Rare Breeds Survival Trust

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