The Heirloom Life

When I chose the title of this month’s article, I thought it would be fairly easy to describe what an heirloom life means to me.  The more I thought about it the more I realized that everyone would define it differently.  The uniqueness of it is what has made it increasingly popular.  In a very broad sense I would define an heirloom life as one that chooses elements of the past as a way to improve our future.  Our family has focused on the heirloom life by growing the best heirloom vegetable varieties, simplifying by using and buying less “stuff,” and choosing a way of life that allows our family to work together on a daily basis.  Some may call this way of life old-fashioned while others would even venture to call it progressive (in a pioneer sort of way).  It’s realizing that sometimes the most progressive ideas may be the ones our grandmothers used and considered anything but progressive.

Speaking of old-fashioned – if you know my husband at all then you know he is not really the computer kind of guy.  So when he offered to write something for this article I was thrilled!  He’s very poetic and well spoken, but he normally keeps it to himself or those closest to him.  Without me having to ask, he offered to share his thoughts because he knows that the readers of these articles are important to me and he wanted to be part of it.  Like always, he pulled out the yellow ledger pad and wrote out his reasons for choosing an “heirloom life” (very Wendell Berry, don’t you think?).

“Growing up on a small tobacco farm in Central Kentucky, it seems I have always had Kentucky soil under my fingernails and in my veins.  I have grown up knowing that the seeds of spring pay the bills of fall and all the hardships and joys that come in between.   We small farmers choose to farm for the friendships, community, and an honest way of life.  I left the family farm for higher education and spent 11 years of my life working for the horticulture department at the University of Kentucky.  In those 11 years, I helped many small family farms fight to offset the income loss of tobacco with vegetable production.  Some failed and some succeeded, but in helping these families across Kentucky, I have come to realize that farmers have a greater picture of life than just the bottom line of a business plan. They want to feel value in what they are doing and worthy of their spot in the world.  Whether organic, conventional, or somewhere in between, all small farmers are seeing the same struggles of living out a dream of a sustainable way of life.  This is where my passion for farmers markets and other local food production has grown.  It’s a great way to connect consumers to producers of all kinds and neighbors are helping neighbors in what is a true profit margin.”  Nathan Howell

Local food has become increasingly popular.  Whether you grow it yourself, shop at your local farmers market, or support local restaurants that buy local, you know that not only does it help the local economy, but it also just tastes better.  Vegetables are exciting again, especially heirloom varieties that carry a rich history with them.  Just like the heirloom lifestyle of taking from the past, you can also choose from the thousands of heirloom tomato varieties to find the ones that you like the best.  This is where Nathan’s passion comes to life.  He loves the excitement of trying different heirloom tomatoes.  We grow over 20 varieties every year, keeping the ones we love the most as well as planting different ones each year.

Last Year’s Heirloom TomatoFest

On July 21, 2011 what started as a simple collection of heirloom tomatoes and an invitation to our family, friends, and tomato enthusiasts turned into a story we will be telling for years.  Nathan had wanted to host a tomato fest for years and the time had finally come.  We spread the word, cleaned up the farm, and waited for the big day to arrive.  Friends from Community Farmers Market arrived early to help us prepare for the event, and we set out tents, seating, and lots of good food.  About an hour before the event a sudden storm decided to be our first guest. What was left after the storm had passed were blown down tomato plants, destroyed tents, and scattered utensils!  Huge fallen trees were blocking the path of our guests to our farm, so believing that the TomatoFest was over, we set in on cleaning up and settling in for the evening.  Only moments later someone called for me, saying, “Come out front…you won’t believe this!”  Looking down the road there was a line of cars that reminded us of the Field of Dreams movie!  Neighbors, fellow farmers, and customers had cleared the way, and we welcomed nearly 200 people onto our farm.  It was a mess, we had to scrounge for new eating utensils, and the electricity was out all evening!  But, what we had was true community and support from everyone who has always cared so much for our family.  We will never forget Tomato “tornado” Fest 2011 and look forward to 2012 (think we’ll skip the tornado this year!).

The heirloom life is less about what we choose to do with the short amount of time we have on earth and is more about the people with whom you make connections.  There is something very freeing when you realize that the hard work and commitment you put into valuable areas looks differently from one family to another.  We have personally had our eyes opened to the blessings found in our trials and successes.  What has emerged is a love for others and openness to the differences in us all.  This has become such a gift to us, and we hope that our lives and what we’ve been called to do can be a gift to others.  Our goal is that others will be inspired by the way we are following our own dream by following the big things in life that are calling them.

The heirloom life is about bringing to light that the history we have left behind may have bits and pieces that are eternally significant.  Progress and advancement is important and a good thing, but not everything needs to progress or advance.  It’s about identifying which of those things are important and which ones do not add to our quality of life at this point in time.  For example, a lot of people assume that I sew, knit, and enjoy crafting.  While I have a love for those things, I just do not have the time to learn these things right now.  I am hoping to advance my skills in preserving foods this summer and plan to write about that next month.  Until then, I hope you find a piece of the heirloom life this summer.