Seeds, Strains, Chefs, and 3000 lb Pumpkins
A pumpkin on the road to becoming world record size can, at the height of its growing season, gain 1-2 pounds an hour and guzzle 100 gallons of water a day.
This was one of a few facts that bent my brain while reading about massive produce in the prologue of September’s issue of the Smithsonian magazine.
One more fact: One seed from a record setting pumpkin strain can fetch over $1000 at auction.
For anyone who isn’t into gardening, this means you can’t just plant a pumpkin seed from your raw trail mix and grow a champion. These near-3000 lb squashes are the product of generations of pumpkins tended by skilled growers bent on making their fruit bigger every year.
The concept of there being multiple strains of the same fruit is something the global food market all but stomped out.
To get an idea of how, there’s an excellent episode of the Planet Money podcast, produced by NPR, called The Miracle Apple. Its a few years old, but I just recently listened to it with my brother on a recent trip out of town.
It’s important to note the cultivation of a new, more delicious apple, is like the giant pumpkin track. These are varieties that have never existed before. Where apples were propagated to create a delicious LOOKING apple (the Red Delicious) that was more shelf-stable, resistant to pests, and tolerant of modern shipping practices, David Bedford used the same methods to make them delicious on top of that.
It’s important to note he was inspired by tasting a truly delicious apple, one that had not been bent by the same market that indirectly produced the bland and mushy Red Delicious.
There’s another movement, separate from the producers of “new delicious” or “new gigantic” varieties of produce, that’s growing produce strains that haven’t been altered by mass markets. These are the fruiting plants and garden vegetables that were passed up by big growers for one reason or another – color, texture, difficulty of growing, slow growing pace, regional requirements, low shelf life, or shipping complications.
This might sound like a pain, but one of the larger reasons for keeping these species alive shows up in the name we’ve given this kind of produce: Heirloom Varieties.
When I was first introduced to the concept, it was with the phrase, “This is how food tasted in your great grandparents’ time.” The idea that things were different (and better) in the past fits right in with the way people view food as a connection for families, heritage, and ancestry.
The movement toward popularizing heirloom varieties of vegetables started in the 80s and went on through the 90s. Some foodies are already over the trend, but there’s more going on here than just a popularity issue.
Genetic variety is a well-documented defense against disease and disaster. There are initiatives in place in several countries to promote variety in agricultural production, though they vary in their success as the push for variety is costly and slow. Having a single plant that produces predictably excellent fruit year after year is a more sure bet for growers than a handful of varieties their customers have never heard of and likely will not buy.
Consider the fact one particular strain of banana sells well and can be harvested and shipped all over the world. The banana as most of us know it is a specific variety that, while incredibly popular, is highly vulnerable. Most groves are populated with cuttings, so whatever weakness the first plant has is directly planted again. With so much invested in one plant, if a disease or insect hits on a recipe that kills it, all the plants are easy victims.
Whether we’re being nostalgic about it or not, keeping diverse edibles alive in gardens and on our tables is good for us and for agriculture. Not everyone is interested in a purple tomato, an exotic long green bean, a white speckled eggplant, or a yellow short grain rice. Not everyone wants a 3000lb pumpkin either.
The survival of these uncommon varieties depends on the people that do want them.
Let’s go large first. Supply and demand is a simple concept, and if we want to get extremely general about things we can say the more we buy as consumers, the more stores will stock something. That’s a bit too simple for this case.
Produce, especially varieties not grown to tolerate mass production and cross-country shipping, is highly perishable. Wholesale companies won’t buy something that will go rotten halfway to the grocery store, and stores won’t buy something that won’t stay fresh long enough for people to buy and use it. So, even if people would buy it if it was there, stores simply can’t afford to stock some of these products. Too much investment risk.
Restaurants, however, can bypass that particular issue by buying directly from the growers. Individuals can too, if they’re lucky enough to have truly local farm stands and markets. Some restaurant owners and chefs partner directly with farmers for a product only they grow. Chef Sean Brock, featured on PBS’ series Mind of A Chef, does this to ensure access to an heirloom variety rice: Carolina Gold. In his featured episodes, he can’t say enough for its qualities as an ingredient. Advocates like him help create a market for produce strains that are more difficult to grow, are produced in smaller quantities, and are highly regional.
Consumers can access unique strains through another type of service that’s been growing steam for the last couple of years. Meal subscription services, like restaurants, have their choice of sources. Blue Apron, one of the better marketed services, makes a point of telling customers they source directly from farmers to get customers the best quality unique/heirloom variety vegetables.
There’s amazing biodiversity that we’ve largely squashed out of American agriculture, specifically, and that’s quite a tragedy.
I grew up believing there was only one type of potato, one kind of lettuce, and one type of rice. Now there are 3-4 types in the grocery store, but in the past there were as many types as you had neighbors.
There was a reason your auntie’s cucumbers from down the road were different from your mother’s in the garden out back – they were physically different cucumbers. There was a time one family’s particular watermelons were so prized the location of the patch was kept secret and they had to be protected 24/7 from thieves when they were almost ready to pick. (The Bradford – for real, this was a thing: This Super-Sweet Watermelon Has a Deadly History | MentalFloss)
If you garden, give some unusual strains of your favorite vegetables a try. If you like to eat, look for and take advantage of chances to try other types of vegetables. If you’re curious, dig up some history on what you see in your supermarkets and see where in your city you can find more variety in your produce.