Forget antiques, start collecting old fruit and veg

Traditional varieties of produce are becoming so valuable that Sotheby's is to auction them

For shoppers who wrinkle their noses at the idea of shelling out for fruit and vegetables that are more than a few days old, the idea of paying thousands of pounds for spuds that have been around for hundreds of years sounds nothing short of crazy. But this week will see people queuing up to do just that, as the auctioneer Sotheby's unveils a collection of vegetables so ancient they are officially classed as "heirlooms".

Better known for flogging priceless paintings, the prestigious firm will host "The Art of Farming" in an attempt to present growing heirloom varieties – which were cultivated in the past but are not used today in commercial production – as an art form. Attendees at the lavish charity event in New York will pay $250 (£160) to attend, will be encouraged to donate $1,000 to buy heirloom vegetables for local food banks, and will also bid for the vegetables on offer, all of which have been grown by local farmers. Proceeds from the event will be donated to a charity that encourages communities to "grow their own".

The commercial market for heirloom fruit and vegetables is already growing in the US, with one successful company, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, dedicated to seeking out seeds from the 1800s.

The passion for older varieties is also increasing in the UK, where seed banks are reporting a surge in demand. Some consumers seem driven by the desire to maintain traditional English strains in the face of increasing globalisation. Scientists, meanwhile, are keen to exploit the genetic potential of ancient varieties, seeing them as a means to create plants that can withstand global warming and increase productivity.

"There is definitely a trend towards people planting more of the older varieties of fruit, particularly apples. We're getting more people asking for them," said Joan Young of Brogdale Farm in Kent, which houses the National Fruit Collection. It is home to more than 2,000 different apples, and sells cuttings to visitors. The plants are used as a genetic bank, both to preserve rare varieties, and to provide materials for research into disease-resistant fruit that doesn't need chemical inputs to thrive.

"It is looking forward and looking back," said Ms Young. "There are varieties in our collection that date back to the 1700s. People just want to keep them going. All we need to do is give them a graft and they can grow them themselves," she added.

Neil Munro, of Garden Organics' Heritage Seed Library, a Warwickshire-based charity that promotes organic and sustainable growing, says changes in EU legislation commencing this autumn will allow older strains of fruit and vegetables to be sold more easily throughout the UK.

"One reason for the increase in interest is that it will be cheaper and easier to put these varieties on the national seed list, although they will have to be classed as an 'amateur variety', meaning that they will only be able to be sold on a small scale," he said. "Big companies will cherry-pick the varieties that work for them."

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