Traditionally, farmers throughout the world have raised thousands of different animal breeds and plant varieties. However, since today’s industrial farms rely upon only a few specialized types of livestock and crops, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed. Fortunately, a growing number of sustainable farmers, such as ourselves, are preserving agricultural variety and protecting biodiversity by raising “heritage” or “heirloom” animal breeds and crops.
Heritage Livestock Breeds
We raise heritage breeds such as Dorkings, Cotton Patch geese, Nigerian Dwarf goats, Guinea hogs, Australorps, Ancona ducks and Bourbon Red Turkeys. Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by farmers in the past, before the drastic reduction of breed variety caused by the rise of industrial agriculture. Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct.
“It’s so difficult to second guess what the future may hold. Livestock types that may have little value now may have great value in the future for any number of reasons.” –Glenn Selk, a professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University.
In the US, a few main breeds dominate the livestock industry:
- 83 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins, and five main breeds comprise almost all of the dairy herds in the US.
- 60 percent of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds.
- 75 percent of pigs in the US come from only 3 main breeds.
- Over 60 percent of sheep come from only four breeds, and 40 percent are Suffolk-breed sheep.
Heritage vs. Heirloom
They both mean the same thing, though “heritage” is usually used to describe animals, while “heirloom” refers generally to kinds of plants. These terms describe varieties of animals and crops that have unique genetic traits, were grown or raised many years ago, and are typically produced in a sustainable manner.
Heritage animals were bred over time to develop traits that made them particularly well-adapted to local environmental conditions. Breeds used in industrial agriculture are bred to produce lots of milk or eggs, gain weight quickly, or yield particular types of meat within confined facilities. Heritage breeds are generally better adapted to withstand disease and survive in harsh environmental conditions, and their bodies can be better suited to living on pasture.
These livestock breeds also serve as an important genetic resource, and when heritage breeds become extinct, their unique genes are lost forever and can’t be used to breed new traits into existing livestock breeds. Therefore, by raising heritage livestock breeds, sustainable farmers not only maintain variety within our livestock populations, they also help to preserve valuable traits within the species so that future breeds can endure harsh conditions.
There are still small farms throughout the US and Canada that specialize in producing heirloom and heritage foods. Visit the Eat Well Guide to find a farm, market or restaurant near you that sells meat, eggs and dairy products from heritage animals.
Try cooking with heirloom crop varieties to add exciting new elements to your meals; heirloom fruits and vegetables have unique colors, textures, and tastes that can’t be found in factory-farmed industrial produce. They can often be found at farmers markets around the country.