Vegetables of yesteryear may offer Florida farmers a brighter tomorrow, say University of Florida experts.

These crops are gaining popularity with consumers and restaurants, and often work well for small and medium-sized farms that sell products locally, said Danielle Treadwell, an assistant professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“I work with commercial farms all the time where they want to grow heirloom varieties,” Treadwell said. “A lot of our small farmers are operating out of a different set of cultivars (compared with large farms) because that’s what their customers demand.”

In Florida, where about 90 percent of the state’s 47,000 farms are classified as small by U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, heirloom crops may represent a significant economic opportunity, she said.

Heirlooms are generally defined as varieties that have been developed through traditional breeding and have been around at least 50 years, Treadwell said. When heirloom plants reproduce naturally, the seeds yield plants identical to the previous generation.

At least one Florida seed company has noticed more interest in heirlooms. Anne Foss, president of Eden Organic Nursery Services in Hallandale, says she’s getting more business from specialty growers who sell to restaurants and shoppers at farmers’ markets.

Heirlooms are crop varieties that have been around for decades, often grown in home gardens, she said. They may look and taste different from varieties common to large-scale production, which are often selected in part for their ability to withstand long-distance shipping.

But heirlooms can pose challenges to farmers who grow them to sell, because different varieties have different needs and specific production recommendations aren’t always available.

Treadwell and Alachua County Extension Agent Aparna Gazula hope to change that.

Perhaps Florida’s best-known heirloom crop is the Datil pepper, Gazula said. The popular UglyRipe tomato is the result of an heirloom variety crossed with a hybrid.

To further educate growers and gardeners, Treadwell and Gazula plan to write a series of Extension documents on heirloom vegetables, organized by species. The first one should be available this spring.

Foss said one challenge to Florida’s heirloom crop industry could be seed supply — she’s having more trouble securing seed than she did when the business launched 15 years ago.

But nationally there are organizations that collect and produce heirloom crop seeds, such as Seed Savers Exchange Inc., a non-profit based in Decorah, Iowa. It maintains more than 25,000 varieties of heirloom vegetables.

Shanyn Siegel, the exchange’s collection curator, agreed that shortages occur, which is one reason the exchange produces its own seed.

Treadwell says she and Gazula hope to popularize heirloom vegetable varieties developed in Florida and other Southern states as their research moves forward.

“It’s part of the South’s culinary heritage,” she said.