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Heritage Agri-tourism as a Strategy for Promoting the Recovery of Heirloom Vegetables, Grains, Fruits and Rare Breeds

By: Rafael de Grenade

“Heritage foods foster the best kind of tourism. We travel to see something different and discover that the tastes of heritage foods are different, wherever we go.” Megan Kimble, editor, Edible Baja Arizona

Heritage tourism offers a very real way to know the unique character and flavors of a place. The mere act of tasting these foods and seeing them grown or prepared can be effective strategies that foster the revitalization of local or regional foodways. Traditional foods hold more than the genetic history of a lineage as it has adapted over time; they are also filled with the stories of generations of the bonds between humans and the place itself.

If chefs, journalists, food historians and agri-tourists can directly hear these stories as they see and taste these foods, they are likely to become enthusiastic allies in heritage food recovery efforts. One bite of a taco made of freshly made nixtamal and carne asada, sprinkled in crushed chiltepínes, wild oregano and queso asadero, or a tepary bean burrito wrapped in a giant flour tortilla connects us with a food stories that reaches back through countless generations of farmers, ranchers, migrants, and explorers. It re-enacts centuries of tradition and innovation in both agriculture and cooking practices. A single bite can include several food varieties on the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and thereby prompt a story long enough to fill several nights running of how a place and its people came to be.

Promoting heritage foods through agri-tourism trails has the potential to stimulate the recovery of a region’s unique varieties—ones prone to disappearance as we lose small family farms and restaurants around the country. Inviting people out to meet farmers and experience the flavors that tell these stories is not just about generating economic revenue in a region, but a way of promoting the cultivation, cooking, and recovery of many foods that may otherwise be lost to the local, national and global palette. Heritage food tours offer community members the chance to meet local farmers and see the local varieties growing in the fields or at various stages of harvest. A visit to local artisan markets and factories can give people real insight into the practices involved in turning the food from the farm into sale products. And tasting local dishes prepared by chefs who incorporate these flavors into their recipes can provide a holistic experience of farm to plate.

Heritage food tours can foster a lasting connection within a community among its producers, millers, brewers, butchers, bakers, and other artisans. Forging such relationships at an appropriate scale can easily make a difference as these foodways begin to recover in a region, for they spread the stories of the uniqueness of such heritage foods and promote their market recovery. Many of these crop varieties and livestock breeds are not yet suitable for large scale production, so small producers need to find viable niche markets for their value-added products without having the initial capacity to invest in costly advertising or distribution networks. By bringing people to the farm instead of bringing the farm to the people, such a grassroots process of relationship-building can, and hopefully it will “go viral.” Heritage food tourism gives people the tangible opportunity to viscerally link their regional sense of taste with a unique sense of taste, so that specific heritage foods can again find their places in the fields and on the table.

Across the United States, groups interested in promoting their region’s unique flavors and heritage food trails are promoting and experimenting with various forms of heritage tourism. Guides such as Home Grown Indiana: A Food Lover’s Chiles3Guide to Good Eating in the Hoosier State; Food Lovers’ Guide to Colorado; and Homegrown and Handmade: Art Roads and Farm Trails in North Carolina showcase the farms, restaurants, flavors and crafts that keep these unique regional culinary traditions alive. Some of these guides are in printed forms as books or booklets, while others are downloadable apps. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a website on how to develop cultural heritage tourism, and several Heritage Areas initiatives such as the Maryland Historical Trust Heritage Areas program, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance in Arizona, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and Foodtopia in North Carolina, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area in Louisiana promote regional food tourism. The book Renewing America’s Food Traditions and the websites for the Slow Food Ark of Taste and Local Harvest feature several hundred rare and recovering food varieties listed by region, state, landscape or farm. You can use these lists and add to them as means to educate and promote the cultivation and foodways practices of those varieties and breeds most at risk on your own home ground.

Recently, I led a Heritage Foods of the Borderlands pilot tour to explore the potential of bringing people on a visit of farms and flavors in the borderlands of southeastern Arizona. The idea for the tours emerged out of innovative collaborations among the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and its the Southwest Center, the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, the City of Tucson, and Pima County Parks and Recreation Department. We focused on foods recently nominated or already boarded onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Our journey began in Tucson, at the San Agustin Mission Garden, where the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace have worked to create a four-acre reconstruction of the original mission garden. It features heritage fruit trees such as Sonoran quince, Mission pomegranate, Mission grape, Mission olive and Mission fig trees, as well as traditional field crops of the region. We then visited the San Xavier Coop Farm where racks of a variety of their local 60-day corn dried along with red chiles and mesquite beans. A Tohono O’odham elder explained the process of grinding the dried corn and grinding the mesquite to make traditional dishes. Tour participants also had the opportunity to purchase green striped cushaw squash, yellow-meated watermelons, mottled lima beans, and tepary beans—all foods with a long tenure in the desert Southwest. We followed the Santa Cruz River upstream toward the Mexican Border, retracing a river corridor that has served as a circulatory system for farming peoples, migrants, and explorers through millennia. We also visited the Tumacacori National Historic Park to tour the mission, learn of Spanish acequia (canal) systems and see the young Kino Fruit Trees Orchard with its heritage fruit varieties. The visitor’s center itself has pomegranate bushes that may be almost a century old, as well as Mission olive trees, apricot, sour orange and pear trees, protected in the adobe courtyard.

GaryAmong the day’s flavor highlights was the lunch provided by Avalon Gardens including handmade tortillas made from the rare White Sonora wheat; and tacos from freshly ground corn (nixtamal at the Native Seed/SEARCH Conservation Farm. We sampled Mission olives, prickly pear lemonade and local bacanora mescal at the Almunia de los Zopilotes Experiment Orchard in Patagonia as well, where eighty heritage varieties of fruits and nuts now grow. We ended our day at the new Overland Trout Restaurant in Sonoita, where Chef Greg LaPrad treated us to a diverse menu of locally produced Ark of Taste foods and Mission grape wine provided by Sonoita Vineyards. The day blended heritage food cultivation, agricultural geography, flavor, and recipes, all to promote heritage foods conservation and market recovery.

Heritage food tours can teach us of how the regional blend of flavors and foodways practices reveals a long and complex history informed by the particular geography of the place, its climate, soils, native plant and animal communities, and its people. We can remember how farmers have selected and propagated varieties of corn, beans, squash, amaranths, and chiles over years of farming in North America. We can also savior the more recent contributions made by European, African, Asian and Latin American immigrants who brought with them certain grains, vegetables, forage crops and fruit trees that have adapted to this place over the last three centuries. We can learn how these crops have become intricately woven into the cultural fabric of the region.

Heritage food tourism is a way of embracing, nurturing, and embracing our collective identity as multi-ethnic Americans, connecting with our places and our palette, honoring the past and reaching toward the future; and experiencing a delicious and diverse present moment wherever we live and eat.


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