Seeds of Change: Trading seeds is at root of effort to save crops
Survey your supermarket and you’ll see pretty much the same stuff anywhere in the country: oranges from Florida, onions from Georgia, potatoes from Idaho.
Some variety has crept in recently — with artful displays of mountain-grown produce paying homage to the local food movement — but generally the corn we eat in North Carolina is the same corn they’re eating in Iowa and Utah.
Lee Barnes finds that scary.
“We have become dependent on 10 to 15 crops for our food. That’s dangerous,” said Barnes. Dependence on just a few species leaves everyone vulnerable if one of those mega-crops fails, whether due to a newly pest, a drought or blight.
A 25-year Haywood County resident, Barnes has spent much of his life trying to counteract this trend by encouraging the spread of neglected plant varieties. On the front line, it comes down to one gardener at a time — planting, saving and passing along seeds, ensuring they will live again to see another day.
At a “Seeding Saving 101” workshop at the Haywood County library in Waynesville last month, Barnes was a happy man. His goal that day was to teach gardeners how to participate in a new “seed lending” library that distribute packets of heirloom seeds to anyone who wants to grow them.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We all need to save seeds and share with others. There are people who don’t want to share — but they got their seeds from somebody.”
Barnes was there to do more than preach: over a couple of hours he gave a highly condensed course in heirloom horticulture, showing an audience of interested gardeners how to harvest, save and store seeds.
“My purpose in life is to spread seeds and then become food for plants,” he said.
Waynesville’s seeding lending library will be patterned after one in Sylva. The Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library is housed in the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service office there.
Strictly speaking, the seeds are not lent. When gardeners “borrow” the seeds, they plant them and then harvest seeds from the resulting plants, bringing some back to restock the seed library. It’s a virtuous circle. Incidentally, the old card catalog drawers, which the library no longer uses, will be used to store the seed library.
There’s more than survival at stake, of course. Barnes pointed out that many of the varieties available in supermarkets are bred to be transported hundreds of miles and to last on supermarket shelves. They are not bred for taste. In addition to requiring a lot of fossil fuel for transportation, many of our fruits and vegetables are bland, tough and flavorless.
Take tomatoes. The better they taste, it seems, the more fragile they are.
In this region there’s little reason to settle for generic food. In a 2011 publication titled Place-Based Foods of Appalachia, Appalachia is lauded for “the highest documented levels of agrobiodiversity in the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico.”
“Appalachia is the longest continuously inhabited mountain range in the United States, and it has an extensive history of indigenous agriculture by the Cherokee and other American Indian peoples,” the article states.
But, Barnes pointed out, our heritage isn’t the only factor in making this region so important to the movement to save these forgotten plants. In recent years, the area has become a magnet for people interested in organic farming, farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets and niche crops.
Other speakers at the seed workshop last month echoed this trend. Tina Masciarelli, project coordinator with Buy Haywood, pointed out that in Haywood County alone there are close to 700 working farms, adding up to more than 56,000 acres. The group is working on an agri-tourism guide that will direct visitors to farms they can visit, as well as pick-your-own operations and roadside stands.
Among those in the audience were John and Jane Young, Haywood County residents since the late 1990s and growers of heritage corn. John demonstrated some of the corn he grows — very different from the supermarket varieties — to be milled for flour. The dried yellow rows of kernels are sparse.
John Young was among the first participants in a Master Gardener class held at the county agricultural extension in 1997. He was asked to judge a garden contest in Cherokee and soon met Cherokee gardener Russ Bradley, who had been growing heritage corn and saving the seeds for many years. The two became friends.
“Russ gave him some corn for seed corn, and that’s how we got our start,” said Jane Young. “John has grown it every year since then and he really cherishes that corn.”
Every year the Youngs take their corn to a neighbor’s farm to be milled.
“They power this big stone with a Ferguson tractor,” Jane said. “We put our shelled corn in a pillowcase and go down there. Afterwards we put [the flour] in the pillowcase and take it back home. It’s such fun.”
Jane says she hopes the new interest in the seed library will lead more people to grow heritage corn. They are happy to share.
Waynesville Librarian Kathy Olsen first heard about seed libraries last summer in a story on NPR.
“I thought it would help make the library a relevant part of our community,” Olsen said.
Olsen got in touch with the organizer behind the Sylva seed library, Jenny McPherson, who also manages the Jackson County Farmers Market.
“I asked her how hard it was, how she got her funding. She came to the library and met with me. She’s been a great resource,” Olsen said.
Barnes said the seed library only works if people save and contribute seed back to the program.
He encourages growers to divide their seeds by three: plant a third, save a third, and give a third away.
“Go out and get your fingers dirty,” he advises. “Those seeds are dependent on us, and we’re dependent on them.”
The seed library will be open March 3, 2014. There will be an open house at the library March 2.
Seed exchange locations
Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library
Located at the NC Cooperative Extension Service Center in the Jackson Community Service Building, 538 Scotts Creek Road, Sylva.
Local nonprofit supporting Haywood County farmers. The web site contains a directory for Haywood County growers and their products.
Seed Savers Exchange
The official seed saving source. Their Seed Saving Resources page contains a concise description of how to save seeds of individual plant types. Seed Savers Exchange also offers webinars that are archived and available from this page.
Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center
Preservation group in Berea, Ken. Haywood County native Bill Best promotes heirloom tomato and bean seeds. Many of their seeds come from Western North Carolina.
Center for Cherokee Plants
Master gardener Kevin Welch of the Big Cove community is helping Cherokee growers save old-time varieties of Cherokee heirloom vegetables from extinction.
A botanical garden featuring the largest collection of native Appalachian and Chinese medicinal herbs in the Eastern US, organically grown at the foot of the Black Mountains in Burnsville. Specialties include Southern Appalachian and oriental medicinal herbs, wild foods, perennial vegetables, craft plants and other ethnobotanicals. They sell seeds, plants, fresh and dried herb material, tinctures and other preparations.
No Taste Like Home
Foraging tours for wild foods leave Asheville from mid-April to mid-October every Saturday and the third Wednesday of the month from 9-12:30. Pre-registration required.
Southeastern Permaculture Gathering
Annual event in Celo featuring classes and workshops on agriculture and rural, sustainable living.
WNC Slow Foods
Promotes and preserves the food culture of the region through the relationships between farmers, families and the community. Programs include fresh and sustainable cooking classes and heritage foods education.
Jackson County Farmers Market
See what seeds are available in the Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library and get monthly planting advice and chore checklist from the Jackson and Swain Master Gardeners or find out what is happening at the market each Saturday.