Eat your (endangered) vegetables!

By Emily Matson, University of Michigan Dietetic Intern

This week at The Farm at St. Joe’s we harvested the last of the Cherokee Purple tomatoes and pulled the plants to make room in the greenhouse for the cold weather vegetables. The Cherokee Purples don’t look like a typical perfectly round and bright red grocery store tomato; they are dark reddish purple and can be quite lumpy at times. So why do they look so different from what we define as a tomato? Those Cherokee Purples that The Farm has been selling at the farmers’ market are what is known as an heirloom variety of tomato. Heirloom or heritage fruits and vegetables are essentially antique varieties, grown for taste or adaptability to an area rather than large scale commercial growing. Heirloom plants are usually open-pollinated varieties, which means that seeds saved from the plant will grow the same variety when re-planted and kept away from other similar plants (1).

Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato

Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato

Growing these different varieties of fruits and vegetables helps to increase our local (and global) agricultural biodiversity (agrobiodiversity). Agrobiodiversity is all the parts of the system that makes up agriculture including plant and animal varieties and species, how we farm the land, and the land itself that makes up the farm (2). By having multiple varieties of each fruit, vegetable, or animal, rather than only one type of each, we are increasing our agrobiodiversity.

At one point, we had thousands of different varieties of crops that were planted in different regions of the world. As our world becomes more connected, many of those different varieties of plants that may be special to different regions are disappearing and being replaced with the same types that may be grown everywhere. Globally, we are growing more food, but with less diversity of plant species. This loss of diversity and increase in sameness (homogeneity) of crops in our food supply leaves it vulnerable to problems like crop failure (3). By eating fewer and fewer types of plants, we also miss out on all the different types of nutrients and tastes that they offer us (4).


Depending on only one crop for food (called monoculture) can lead to large scale disasters such as the Irish Potato Famine that occurred between 1845-1852. A large part of the population in Ireland depended on one type of potato for the majority of their diet and that potato variety was vulnerable to the potato blight fungus. When the fungus destroyed all the potatoes that had no resistance, many people in Ireland either starved or moved to the United States (5). Ireland’s population still has not recovered from this famine that happened so long ago.

In addition to directly affecting food production, monoculture can also have business consequences. Once known as “Celery City”, Kalamazoo, Michigan was one of the largest producers of celery in the country. In the 1930s, a celery blight hit and the region was never able to recover its celery production and producers went out of business (6).

Increasing our local and global agrobiodiversity helps to protect our food supply from crop failures. If we have lots of different types of plants growing, some of those plants may be resistant if a large scale blight comes through. Those resistant plants will survive and food can still be produced, rather than losing all the plants in the case of a monoculture.


A small scale example of diversity: carrots in one bed, different types of spinach in the others.

Eating heirloom fruits and vegetables encourages farmers to grow more of those varieties and the more we grow them, the longer we prevent those varieties of plants from going extinct. We want to prevent the extinction of heirloom varieties not only to preserve the taste or the diversity they offer, but many heirloom plants also have cultural value. Heirloom plants are as much a part of the people who grew them as they are of the land. They can tell you what tastes, colors, or tastes that people preferred at the time they were selected (1, 7). You may not think that a fruit or vegetable has an impact on people’s culture, but have you heard of the Jesuit Pear? It’s a variety of pear that is unique to the Great Lakes and is considered a symbol of the French speaking communities that established in this region. Keeping this pear variety from extinction has cultural value, much like keeping clothing or pottery, or passing on certain dances or songs.

As part of Slow Food USA, Ark of Taste is an organization that helps to preserve our agricultural heritage and connects seeds savers, growers, chefs, and all others who make up the human part of agrobiodiversity. Slow Food USA has a local chapter for southeastern Michigan, Slow Food Huron Valley, and some of their work is directly related to the Ark of Taste. These organizations are doing important work in helping prevent more heritage species of agriculture from disappearing forever. You can also play a part in keeping these endangered heirloom plants from extinction. Find farmers who grow these fruits and vegetables and support them by purchasing their heirloom produce, then dig in!

“Heritage foods provide us with a living cultural memory of people, history and place. Preserving this diversity also allows farmers and gardeners to develop new varieties, adapting them both for their taste and for their resilience in the face of climate uncertainty and other environmental changes. Thus, they are both connections to the past and to the future.” Tara Hui, co-founder, Guerilla Grafters

Glacier Star Morning Glory.

Glacier Star Morning Glory. Heirloom flowers are important too!



  1. Jordan JA. The heirloom tomato as cultural object: Investigating taste and space. Sociol Ruralis. 2007;47(1):20-41. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9523.2007.00424.x.
  2. Pautasso M, Aistara G, Barnaud A, et al. Seed exchange networks for agrobiodiversity conservation. A review. Agron Sustain Dev. 2013;33(1):151-175. doi:10.1007/s13593-012-0089-6.
  3. Khoury CK, Bjorkman AD, Dempewolf H, et al. Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2014;111(11):4001-4006. doi:10.1073/pnas.1313490111.
  4. Uccello E, Kauffmann D, Calo M, Streissel M. Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture and Food Systems in Practice: Options for Intervention. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations; 2017.
  5. Yoshida K, Schuenemann VJ, Cano LM, Pais M. Herbarium metagenomics reveals the rise and fall of the Phytophthora lineage that triggered the Irish potato famine. :1-48.
  6. Peppel, F. (2005, February). Stalking the Celery City. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from
  7. University of Arizona Southwest Center, Slow Food USA. Conservation You Can Taste: Best practices in heritage food recovery and successes in restoring agricultural biodiversity over the last quarter century. Nabhan GP, ed. 2013.

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