There’s a new interest in town … heirloom varieties.

There is much discussion over what constitutes an “heirloom” variety. Although there is no clear definition, most seed producers and growers would agree that a variety should be at least 50 years old to qualify. Others would say that the variety should come from the pre-chemical era…putting it back to the 1940s or earlier.

In any case, there is huge interest in heirlooms. Even with their thinner skins – these fruits were not bred for the packing house and easy transportation but for eating – heirlooms are in demand. Just as they were originally, a typical heirloom will be misshapen by today’s standards. Again, the market for heirloom varieties is specialized and does not depend on the fruit or vegetable fitting a standard packing case. Typically, heirloom varieties are sold at farm markets, roadside stands or direct to a chef who has specific plans for the taste and look of the heirloom variety.

Although consumer sentimentality – “none of these new apples tastes as good as the ones from my grandma’s orchard” – plays a role, there are good reasons for producers to look into heirloom varieties.

Marketing is one. There is a real opportunity to make money by providing those old classic varieties of fruits or vegetables to consumers.

Sophisticated buyers, including those in the restaurant trade and foodies, crave new tastes and colors. Even common table food like sweet potatoes can be brightened up by use of heirloom or custom varieties that come in a variety of colors, which is shocking to people used to seeing only one color of apple, tomato or potato.

Organic producers are hopeful that the germplasm from pre-chemical heirloom varieties will bring forward natural resistance to pests and to diseases. After all, these varieties survived before it was possible to slather on a fungicide across an orchard block to deal with a problem.

There remains the question of production. Will an heirloom produce enough fruit to make it an economical competitor with an industrial apple or tomato? Enthusiasts answer that it is not a valid question. The market will pay more for an interesting, tasty product, they argue. People who value clean produce and are not concerned about a twisted top here or an elongated bottom there will pay the going price for an heirloom variety.

And, whether we’re talking tomatoes, apples, sweet or Irish potatoes, there are heirloom varieties making money for growers.

Heirloom tomatoes

“I like Brandywine as an heirloom tomato,” said Fran Nutter, who sees a lot of different varieties as a Penn State Extension specialist.

On the other hand, Black Krim is not high on her list. “I did not like it,” she said of its eating quality. However, she did see value in its color. It is a dark tomato, almost the same color as a plum. It was grown to be hardy and to survive the relatively harsh conditions in its native Russia.

Speaking of Russian varieties, Cosmonaut Volkov is an early red tomato that takes about 65 days to harvest. This tomato is a great “talking point” at roadside stands. It was named by Igor Maslov, a Russian space engineer, for his friend Vladislav Volkov, a cosmonaut who died when his spaceship crashed. It is a sad tale but one that buyers will recall along with the tomato’s nice red color, half-pound size and rich full-bodied flavor. It is a consistent producer even in a cool summer … remember that Russian heritage.

The Japanese Black Trifele, true to its name, is a black tomato. Producers compare its size and shape to that of a Bartlett pear. They talk about its subtle smoky flavor. Good for the fresh market, it has few blemishes.

If it is color you are looking for, two varieties to consider are Tasty Evergreen and Cream Sausage. The former was introduced in 1956 by Gleckler Seedmen of Lyons, Ohio. You will know that this beefsteak tomato is ripe when its outer skin turns yellow. However, the inside gel and flesh will remain a brilliant green. Some fruits have pink striping at the blossom end.

The Cream Sausage is a white paste-type tomato. Out of the field, it is white to pale yellow when ripe. Extension experts note that it is fun for adding different colors to homemade salsas.

A side benefit to those who favor organic vegetables and fruits is that the classic varieties tend to have less-than-perfect shape and will have a few spots on them here and there. That, long term, is a good thing. It will educate the consumer that not all tomatoes are uniformly red and round as baseballs and not all apples are crimson and toothed.

Part of the charm of older varieties is their unique shape and the variation in color. Think about Indian corn – although nobody would eat the multicolored corn, it does educate the buyer that not every ear of sweet corn has to be row after row of perfectly formed kernels.

Whether an orchard or farm sells at a farmstand or into the restaurant trade, having novel and new varieties available is a chance to increase business and to help identify the farm as being on the cutting edge of food offerings. In short, there is a good chance to build reputation and to make money.

For the producer, helping to maintain heirloom and unique varieties is a way to do a small part in helping the world’s biosecurity.

Need for biodiversity

The wine grape industry is a good example of the need for varietal biodiversity. Worldwide, there are up to 1,300 different varieties of grapes suitable for winemaking. However, only about 20 varieties are produced in any acreage.

Of those 20 varieties, the “noble grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling have the lion’s share of the production market. Add in Pinot noir or Pinot grigio and there are not a lot of other household names left.

That is simply dangerous. Grape growers still shudder at the thought of another sap-sucker like phylloxera destroying grapes across a whole region.

The market exists

The sweet potato arena already is seeing interest and experts agree that there is a good, if niche, market opportunity there. “If I were a producer, I’d be looking at some of the older, heirloom varieties,” said Joe Kemble, Alabama Cooperative Extension System extension horticulturist and associate professor, at Auburn University. He pointed to the creamy white, purplish and rose-colored sweet potato varieties that were popular years ago.

“Whether they cook better than Beauregard is debatable,” he said, noting that they can be stringy out of the pot. “But there is a market and a cachet for some of the older varieties.”

With much of Alabama’s production going to retail sales, and much of that moving through farmers markets, there is a good opportunity for producers to cash in on nostalgia.

Don LaBonte, director of the Louisiana State University School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences, pointed out that in 95 percent of the world a sweet potato is white, not orange. With the influx of people from Latin America, Asia and Africa changing demographics, white varieties are in the ascendency.

“The growth in heirlooms is one of those things that is a bit surprising but still pretty cool,” LaBonte said. He noted that there has been excellent growth in that market sector in California and in other areas, too.

“Look at the nuances,” LaBonte advised growers. Noting people develop a palate for different flavors and nuanced taste, he said little can beat the amazing flavor of a Burgundy or Evangeline. “There is tremendous growth opportunity with new and novel types,” LaBonte added.

“I’d try to tap into those heirloom markets,” Kemble said. “There can be a 200 percent markup on them. A producer can make good money on a small acreage.”

Regular Irish potatoes already are available in a number of sizes and colors from the long Idaho bakers to the round reds produced in the Dakotas and elsewhere.

The Red Adirondack, however, is an heirloom that is outstanding for its color. “It is very pretty,” said Janet Villastrigo, a Penn State horticulture specialist.

Thus, the appeal of heirlooms to growers: solid returns on investment and an aesthetic appeal that often is missing from traditional varieties. A warning, however: planting heirlooms seems to be addictive. A quarter-acre test plot has been known to expand exponentially the following year!