Heirloom and Organic are two of the hottest words in the grocery store and garden. Few terms get as much attention as these two do. I get questions everyday about both of these and there is often confusion about what they really mean in regards to the vegetables we grow or eat. Let’s shed a little light on both of these words in context and look at what they are…and are not.
Organic refers to the way that plants are grown. The USDA has outlined a process that, when followed, allows growers to call their produce ‘organic’. To most people, the important part is the fact that “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” You can see the rest of the story here. Until the government started regulating the meaning of this word, it referred to things made of carbon-containing compounds. Now it is a method to follow to receive certification.
Heirloom still doesn’t have a formal definition! When it comes to plant varieties, there is a general acceptance that heirlooms are old (but there is no agreement on how old). They are also “open-pollinated”, which means if they are carefully bred with themselves, their seeds will produce plants identical to the parents. Heirlooms should also have a story, like something passed down in your family does. When we put these things together, we get a picture variety history.
When comparing the two, the differences arise. ‘Organic’ is one way to grow a plant, while ‘heirloom’ refers to an old variety.
The important thing is to avoid thinking they are the same, or that one implies the other. You could grow an heirloom using organic or conventional practices and still have an heirloom. Organic produce can be grown from heirloom, hybrid or other types of seed (as long as it’s not genetically engineered).
These are the basic differences between the two terms. Hopefully this will help you make informed choices and allow participation in discussions of the current issues that surround these two terms.