As we approach the New Year, it is traditionally a time for reflection, and at Harvest Launceston Community Farmers’ Market it is time to take stock of past years and look to the future. Core to this is how we see our heritage, those rare breed or heirloom plants and animals that are becoming increasingly important in maintaining agricultural diversity.
The term ‘heritage’ is defined as something that is handed down from the past. There is no strict definition of heritage but generally it means at least older than 50 years. Traditionally farmers have raised thousands of different plants and animals however modern practices in farming has meant that farmers now rely on a smaller number of specialised plants and animals. As an example, in the United States, more than 80 per cent of all dairy cows are Holsteins*. One agricultural foundation notes that in the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide** and there are currently 1500 others at risk of becoming extinct***.
Why is preserving heritage, also known as rare breeds or heirloom plants and animals important? In a way, you can think of agriculture as like our own superannuation portfolio – with our own super it is important to diversify so that we secure our overall asset position against peaks and troughs and hopefully have a nice nest egg in retirement. It is the same for agriculture – maintaining a diverse plant and animal base is increasingly important to improve production and food security on a warmer, more crowded planet. Diversity helps us adapt to future challenges. Where we do not it can lead to extremely difficult challenges. As an example in Ireland in the 1840s they only grew one variety of potato. When a blight (disease) got into the potato, they were unable to grow it and mass starvation occurred resulting in one million people dying.
Countries recognise the importance of maintaining genetic material and are working to save heritage breeds and crops. They do this through research, education, rescues, gene banks and DNA collections, learning and documenting. For over 60 years now, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has been the primary organisation for carrying responsibility for global preservation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Ancient crops are being preserved for future generations in the Arctic Seed vault in Norway. This is a back-up facility in the permafrost that holds over 860,000 food crop seeds from all over the world**** . For rare animal breeds, there are active breeding programs in place around the globe.
What is being done at local level? Smaller producers are working on maintaining rare breeds of animals and heritage plants. These can give small family farms a competitive edge over larger ones. At Harvest Launceston, a number of producers specialise in growing heritage produce. These include Mount Gnomon Farm, Langdale Farm, Seven Springs Farm, Tasmanian Natural Garlic and Tomatoes, The Dales (Brady’s Lookout Cider) and Windara Orchard.
You can help by purchasing rare breed or heritage products at Harvest Market Launceston or visit a rare breed/heritage farm to get an up close view of what raising these animals and plants are all about. For example, Mount Gnomon have tours of their property. Educate yourself about heritage produce and their importance and support businesses that use heritage produce such as restaurants etc.
**Grace Communications Foundation http://www.sustainabletable.org/1383/heritage-animal-breeds-and-heirloom-crop-varieties