Going once, going twice, going for $1,000 a crate. Last week at an event titled “The Art of Farming,” Sotheby’s auctioned off 10 crates of heirloom vegetables, vintage varieties that weren’t created by agribusiness. The proceeds will benefit the GrowNYC New Farmers Development Project, which helps immigrants get into farming, and the Sylvia Center, which helps kids learn how to eat well. But more than anything, the auction, the first of its kind for Sotheby’s, showed just how valuable heirlooms and the mostly organic farmers that grow them have become.
"I feel very fortunate to be an organic farmer right now," said Erich McEnroe, manager of McEnroe Farm in Millerton, N.Y., who grew heirloom tomatoes and eggplant for the auction. He told a Wall Street Journal reporter that, "I'm glad my father made the switch many moons ago."
Although there is no exact definition of “heirloom,” generally the varieties are pollinated in the open environment and their seeds can be saved, preserved, and planted the next year. They fruits, vegetables, or even livestock that carry the title often have different shapes and tastes than the ones we find in the supermarket. And at one point they were given intriguing names like Lady Godiva Squash and Pink Banana Pumpkin.
Most veggies that we can buy at the grocery today are the result of seeds known as F1 hybrids, which come from plants crossed by companies. They aren’t bred to create the same product year after year, so farmers have to buy new seeds annually.
“The shift to hybrids has come at the expense of agricultural diversity. A century ago, there were 15,000 kinds of apples in America; now there are 1,500. Among the varieties that have disappeared for good are 96 percent of corn, 95 percent of cabbages, and 81 percent of tomatoes. Today, four giant suppliers (Monsanto, Syngenta, Limagrain, and DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred) control more than half the seed market. Because these companies engineer seeds for uniformity, the gene pool has shrunk considerably. This means pests or disease can easily wipe out a crop, leaving no backup variety. Plus, hybrid plants' lack of adaptability may make them more susceptible to the impacts of climate change,” wrote Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City, in a Mother Jones article.
Heirlooms--which usually aren’t as productive or hardy as the commercial breeds--have become more popular with the growing interest in eating local and organic. Yet some locavores and organic food advocates argue that an event like the Sotheby’s auction adds to the perception that the food movement is elitist. "[The auction is] a little ridiculous, but this is what you have to do to get the other part of New York involved," one local farmer told The Feast, an NBC New York blog.
The bidders, who contributed an estimated $250,000 at the event, ate a dinner prepared by Jean-Georges after the auction. One thing they did not get to do is enjoy their new crates of veggies. Those went to a local food bank.