09/03/2010 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Value of Food, or Why Sotheby's Will Auction Veggies on September 23

On a balmy afternoon this past July, the staff at Quail Hill farm in Amagansett pulled 500 pounds of their Amagansett Peach garlic out of the ground. The blushing cloves are now drying in a barn. Some will be given to farm members as part of their weekly food share, some will be saved for planting the next crop next fall. And some will be auctioned at Sotheby's in a few short weeks.

In fact, about 30 growers from the tri-state area will be offered up heirloom crops -- from cranberry beans to Newtown Pippin apples -- on Sept. 23 at the storied auction house. Chefs and grocers and food makers will bid. The farmers will go home with their money.

The auction is a passion project for some Sotheby's staff and farmer friends, who declare there's as much valuable art being created on nearby farms as in SoHo studios. (The cases of auctioned produce will get eaten throughout the city in the days that follow, part of Eat Drink Local, a local food celebration throughout the Empire State. And a post-auction cocktail party and dinner will raise money for GrowNYC and the Sylvia Center.)

But hopefully the auction is also a coming-of-age sign for heirloom vegetables: those old-fashioned symbols of food diversity that are just the sort of innovation our dysfunctional food system needs.

Because outside this auction, and the city's Greenmarkets and CSAs, heirlooms occupy a pretty small portion on our collective table. In most realms of the food chain, a few major players -- Holstein cows, Red Delicious apples, Roundup Ready soy beans -- have squeezed others, literally, out of the field. By United Nations estimates, nearly 40 percent of the world's collective livestock breeds are on the verge of extinction; 80-90 percent of grain and vegetable varieties are similarly doomed.

Yes, heirloom tomatoes -- those sometimes-odd and always flavorful love apples -- have gone from rarity to nearly ubiquitous darling of farm stands, large supermarket chains and even city Green Carts. There's a similar success story for heritage meats, of course, with certain breeds of turkey, pigs and other animals being taken off the endangered breed list.

But you still won't find many heirloom veggies in the seed rack of your local hardware store. For these more special accessions, farmers and gardeners mostly rely on specialty sellers like Landreth and networks like Seed Savers Exchange.

The good thing about seeds is once farmers -- and the rest of us -- are committed to saving them, things can change relatively fast. Massive food buyers from Wal-Mart to Sodexo have robust, if small, regional buying initiatives that provide a market for the strange and the indigenous from around the country. When McDonald's started using Cameo and Pink Lady apples for its apple slices, it created a massive market for these varieties.

This isn't just good news for those who like the gastronomic options offered by Black Krims or Red Wattles. Scientists like Cary Fowler, who heads the Global Seed Trust, the massive seed storage bank burrowed into a Norwegian glacier, argues that one of the main benefits of such diversity is it serves as a hedge against whatever slings and arrows befall the global food system. He says farmers will need "climate-ready" crops that can cope with erratic rainfall, occasional droughts and the ultra-warm nighttime temperatures caused by climate change. These traits exist in the fields and pastures of the people who raise our food, which makes preserving them all the more valuable a proposition.

Because whether at the supermarket counter or the auction block, this is all about what we'll pay for our food. More specifically, what different links in the food chain -- the chef who features heirloom cauliflower, neatly cut, perfectly cooked; the Hudson Valley pie maker who has to have Long Island cheese pumpkin; those of us who hanker for heirloom potatoes; the mayoral candidate who wants to use food to fix her city -- will pay.

And, in some joyous symbiosis of supply and demand, we get to eat from the landscape around us, keep our rural neighbors employed, and thank the farmers who keep and steward the seed.