This four-part celebration of biodiversity on my farm wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the heritage livestock breeds and heirloom plants that live and grow here.
In recent years, “heritage livestock” has become a popular term used to denote the genetically diverse, traditional livestock breeds that have been raised on farms in the U.S. and other countries for centuries. Unlike the uniform, high-production animals found on factory farms, heritage livestock breeds possess important attributes that make them especially well-suited for our hobby farms: superior mothering skills, higher disease resistance and excellent foraging ability, for starters. Many of these historical breeds hover on the brink of extinction (those that haven’t vanished already), and that’s seriously bad news for agriculture. As the authors stress in Taking Stock: The North American Livestock Census (McDonald and Woodward Publishing, 1994), a book put out by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: “Agriculture depends on genetic diversity for its long term health and stability.”
Our farm is (or has been) home to the following heritage breeds: Bourbon Red and Royal Palm turkeys, Plymouth Barred Rock and Buff Orpington chickens, and Jacob sheep. (Learn about other rare livestock breeds from the ALBC.)
Like heritage livestock, heirloom plants often have long, interesting histories. Essentially, heirloom plants are open-pollinated cultivars developed and grown during earlier times and passed down from generation to generation. “Open-pollinated” means the plant can cross naturally without human help and will breed true to type when you save and sow its seeds. For example, if you plant Amish Snap Peas and save the peas for planting next year, you get more Amish Snap Peas, provided no hybridization occurred. (Methods to prevent this vary with plant species.)
Many of the seeds marketed for modern gardens and farms, however, are hybrids—artificially pollinated plants that stem from crossing two varieties, each highly inbred to produce certain desired characteristics, such as disease resistance or uniform size. Try to save and plant these seeds, and you might get nothing at all or else a plant with completely different characteristics.
I became enamored with heirlooms several years ago after writing about them for Popular Gardening: Heirloom Farm and Garden, and have been trying more delicious, colorful, easy-care varieties in my garden each year. Some of my favorites so far: Amish Snap Peas, Scarlet Runner Beans, Amish Deer Tongue Lettuce, Forellenschuss Lettuce, Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, Red Russian Kale, Vates Collards, America Spinach, Purple Tomatillo, and (of course!) Black Beauty Zucchini.
If you feel like experimenting with heirlooms yourself, check out the Seed Savers Exchange. If you already grow them, I’d be interested in hearing about your favorites before I place my next seed order!