Heirloom: something of special value handed down from one generation to another. (According to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 1969—given to Grandpa upon his high school graduation by his principal in 1970— so maybe destined to become a heirloom in itself!)

Grandpa often receives questions from people who believe heirlooms are better than “new” varieties that are offered in the stores now. Often, they are confused by the loud debate over the GMO controversy and think that everything new can’t be good, and that heirlooms are better, and that newer varieties must be genetically modified in the lab. This just isn’t the case yet.

To Grandpa, the term heirloom represents a fruit variety that had once been grown in years past, but which is no longer commercially or readily available. This is how he tries to use the term on Grandpa’s Orchard, but even then it has its limitations.

Some varieties have been grown for years and are widely available in the marketplace, but they have been around for over 100 years. For example, let’s take a look at the Delicious apple. The original Hawkeye apple, renamed “Delicious” by Stark, originated in Iowa in the 1880s. Delicious is over 125 years old, thus undoubtedly qualifying it to be an “heirloom” by just virtue of its age and special value. However, since its introduction many variants of the original Delicious apple have been introduced to the market. Genetically it varies very little from the original parent. The “Red Delicious” apples you buy in the grocery store are not at all like the old “Hawkeye” that it descended from. All of these Delicious variants occurred by chance with genetic variations in nature, not by breeding, but by selection. Resulting in far improved red color typical of the apple, sturdiness of the branches, and other things that made it easier for fruit growers to produce and market a fruit that was more desirable to consumers.

Some varieties are “brand new”, and have such special value that they will undoubtedly be handed down from generation to generation. Honeycrisp is an example. Released in 1991, it has revolutionized the apple industry and taken consumers by storm. Its crispness and crunchiness set a new standard for new apples of all types. But by being “new” does that disqualify it from being “heirloom”? Now, newer redder strains are becoming available to commercial fruit growers, as well as a new earlier ripening strain.  Still the same apple, but with redder skin or earlier picking date—  not at all modified in any “unnatural” way.  Some growers with sharp eyes discerned a limb or tree in their orchard that naturally had mutated so that the apples had redder skin at maturity, or ripened a couple weeks earlier.  These mutations have commercial value because they allow growers to spread their harvest season and also have fruit that grades at higher marketable percentages.  Honeycrisp is notoriously one of the most difficult apples for growers to raise.  It is destined to become an heirloom eventually, because it will stay in the marketplace for a long, long time.

Honeycrisp and almost all fruits you find in the produce aisle are really considered what Grandpa would call a “conventional” variety. They may be old varieties.  They may be brand spanking new too.  But, in all cases they have been bred using conventional cross-breeding techniques used by breeders for years, or by being new strains or mutations that have better characteristics than the older, original one.

Often people confuse “heirloom” with being “good” and “GMO” with being “new and bad” just by virtue of their personal perception and opinion. Some people even think that conventional varieties are bad because they do not understand how they were developed. Grandpa isn’t going to get into any arguments, except to say that NONE of the varieties he offers, or ANY of the rootstocks they are grown here are considered “GMO” by the most widely understood definition of the term. In truth, humankind has been selecting fruit and vegetable varieties, farm animals, flowers and other plants by virtue of their genetic expressions for thousands of years. When Mendel worked with peas, he started the modern genetic revolution we have benefited from. Scientists have been using “natural” methods of genetic modification for hundreds of years by actively crossing one variety with another and selecting progeny with better characteristics. It has just been in the “modern” age that some scientists have understood genetics at a more basic, molecular level, and have had the tools in the lab to even allow them to “un-naturally” make genetic changes to varieties. Usually, these changes have resulted because the natural sexual processes that have been used in the past to make crosses have been replaced with inserting genes in ways that might normally not ever occur in nature.

Now, scientists are understanding genetics in ways we only dreamed of 50 years ago. The same tools that help catch criminals and identify people are used by modern fruit breeders to help them shorten the time it takes to breed new varieties.  Where just a few years ago, a breeder would choose parents based on just visible characteristics, now they have the understanding of the DNA and genetic codes, and have identified certain genes that typically express certain desirable or undesirable characteristics.   So, instead of planting thousands of seedlings from their crosses, they often can now test these seedlings first, identify certain desirable or undesirable genes which may express themselves as disease resistance, skin color, fruit quality, etc.   Where they used to wait for years for fruit on these seedlings, now they often know that certain seedlings will only produce “little green apples!”  At this time almost none of this is really GMO, because there isn’t any laboratory manipulation of the genes, or insertion of a “cat” gene into the fruit to make fuzzier peaches.  It is just taking a short-cut to speed up the identification and development of newer, improved varieties.

The issue tends to get very complicated. In the fruit industry, it is just becoming an issue which will become more important to identify and explain. It all depends on your own perspective and belief, and what constitutes modifying an organism in such a way that it appears unacceptable to most. The few fruits and vegetables that some consider GMO typically have genes that have been “switched off” or “silenced” in some way so that they do not express themselves.  The Arctic® apple, which is just now coming into the marketplace, has the “browning” gene that expresses itself by allowing the cut flesh to brown silenced.  Still the same gene— just not working like it used to.  Makes Grandpa’s head spin trying to understand it all!

Grandpa doesn’t offer ANY GMO varieties and doesn’t plan to. All the varieties he offers, whether considered “heirloom”, “conventional”, or “new” are the result of natural and conventional breeding or discovery.

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