At farmer's markets, co-ops, and small local farms, heirloom tomatoes are becoming more common. They're older tomato breeds – some very old – that haven't been hybridized or genetically modified, and with seeds that can actually be planted to grow new tomatoes. A pair of young New Hampshire farmers wants to raise awareness that heirloom doesn't just mean tomatoes, and they've started what they say is the state's only all-heritage farm, River Round Heirloom, to prove it.
The farm, in Weare, takes its name from the way this piece of land is tucked into a bend in the Piscataquog River. Erin Carr and Alex Dowst – and their one-and-a-half-year old daughter, Isla – irrigate their crops with water from the river, and sometimes jump in when it gets too hot in the fields.
Isla's work-ethic is pretty lax (her parents say she recently fell asleep in a wheelbarrow), but her parents are busy.
“We're growing eighty varieties of different vegetables,” says Dowst, pointing out sugar snap peas, a couple kinds of radish (one brilliantly purple), Early Jersey Wakefield cabbages, an assortment of lettuces, tender Red Russian kale, garlic scapes, and broccoli for this week's harvest. For later in the season, they're also growing multiple varieties of peppers, potatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes, carrots... and yes, tomatoes.
In addition to being grown with organic practices, everything under cultivation is of one heritage breed or another.
The couple's biggest pet peeve is that when people think “heritage” or “heirloom,” they usually only think of tomatoes. “There's so much more to heirloom than just tomatoes,” Dowst says. “Every vegetable you can think of, there are hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of heirloom varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation, and there's such a rich history.”
History as well as genetic diversity, which Carr notes is threatened by a global agriculture industry that favors only a tiny handful of different breeds. Carr argues that using only a few varieties of each plant could mean devastation if just one breed was hit by disease. “A huge percentage of our global population is sustained on just a few varieties of wheat” she says, “which is scary.”
She and Dowst insist that heritage breeds need to be preserved, and in their own small way, they're hoping that River Round's all-heirloom produce will help. They have a stand at the Concord Farmer's Market, and have approached a few local restaurants with samples of what they have to offer. When Carr's mother ran the farm under the name Field of Dreams, she grew flowers here, and now Carr and Dowst grow and sell all-heritage flowers alongside their fruits and vegetables.
This year, they also have an eleven-member CSA: Community Sponsored Agriculture is a system where members put money down ahead of time, and then receive a share of each week's harvest. Carr and Dowst say they're the only all-heirloom CSA in the state, and Dowst points out it's a great way to introduce people to new produce – or in this case, older but less familiar produce.
“When you know your farmer you're a lot less likely to throw away the vegetables that you buy,” he says. “You have some responsibility to your farmer to actually eat this stuff.” Carr adds, “You're accountable to them the next week.”
That's not to say Carr and Dowst leave their members in the lurch: they understand that heritage breeds can be hard to recognize, even if the species is familiar, like a speckled lettuce that recently raised concern in one of their customers at the farmer's market. To make it easier for their CSA members to “actually eat this stuff,” Carr and Dowst make sure to be there at the pick-up station when they arrive, ready with names, descriptions, and even recipe cards.
Debbie Bishop, picking up her share, says so far, so good. “It's amazing!” she exclaims. “I wasn't sure how it was going to work out, but then I was told what they were and I'm like, 'Oh, okay'.”
“My husband was like, 'This is the best stir-fry I've ever had,'” she adds.
That's the other thing about heritage varieties, Carr and Dowst are quick to point out: a lot of them taste really, really good, better than more common varieties. They hope the taste, and the sometimes striking and unfamiliar appearance, will get people's attention, and make them favor heritage.
“Obviously, we're probably not doing a lot to protect our global food system,” Carr laughs, “but I think just raising awareness,” including the awareness that heirloom doesn't just mean tomatoes, is a step forward.
“Plus,” says Dowst, “they get to eat these really great looking radishes.”
Carr and Dowd give out recipe cards to their CSA members each week. For last week, those recipes included Carr's rosemary kale frittata and her garlic scape pesto (a garlic scape is the stalk of the plant before it flowers).
ROSEMARY KALE FRITATTA
- 8 eggs
- ½ cup parmesan
- ½ teaspoon salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste (optional)
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chicken broth
- 1 bunch (2-3 cups) chopped kale
- 1 tablespoon rosemary
- 3-4 medium-sized red potatoes
Beat together 8 eggs, ½ cup parmesan cheese, and ½ t. salt & set aside. (OPTIONAL: freshly ground pepper to taste) In a large skillet, heat 3T olive oil & 2T chicken broth over medium-low heat. Add 1 bunch (or about 2-3 cups) chopped kale & sauté until wilted, about 3-5 minutes. In the last minute or so of cooking, add 1T fresh or dried rosemary (or to taste). Add cooked kale & rosemary to egg mixture. Heat another 3T olive oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Spread 3-4 medium, thinly-sliced red potatoes over bottom of skillet in 1 or 2 layers. Cook for 5 minutes. Pour egg & kale mixture over potatoes, turn heat down to low-medium & cover. Cook about 20 minutes, or until eggs are set. When done, remove to a plate.
GARLIC SCAPE PESTO
- ¼ lb garlic scapes
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- salt to taste
Prepares quickly, great as a spread or pairs well hot or cold with pasta.
Purée1/4lb roughly chopped garlic scapes, 1/2 cup olive oil and 1-2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice in a food processor or blender until nearly smooth or of desired texture. Once puréed, gently stir in 1 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and adjust lemon and salt to taste. Scape Pesto can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen for longer storage (Scape Pesto freezes very well). Optional additions include: Pine nuts, walnuts, parsley, basil or even spinach.