Southern Appalachian Farmers Preserve Seed Saving Traditions

Picking out seeds is one of the joys of spring. Flipping through a seed catalogue and dreaming of the summer’s harvest is a highlight of the season for farmers and home gardeners.

Yet many seeds from major national companies are grown by farmers in California and Oregon, places with different soil, pests, and diseases than the Southern Appalachians. At the same time, regional seed suppliers are working with local farmers to grow varieties that are suited to this part of the country.

“By having the crops grown here in this area, these plants and then the seeds that are come from these plants are going to be better adapted to the conditions of the Southeastern United States,” says Renee Fortner, agriculture director at Sow True Seed, a regional seed company based in Asheville.

Sow True Seed works with a network of 21 small farmers in the Southeast and North Carolina to develop seeds that are adapted to the region’s growing conditions. Sow True selects the varieties of vegetables and flowers they’d like to offer, and works with local farmers who test out the plants and grow seeds in large quantities for the public.

“The farmers, in their own way, are selecting for the best of the best and in a way they’re shaping the next generation of vegetable crops,” says Fortner.

Holly Whitesides of Against the Grain Farm is one of Sow True’s longstanding seed producers.

She and her partner Andy Bryant raise pastured meat and grow a wide variety of vegetables on their 20 acre farm near Boone, North Carolina. They’ve grown seeds for Sow True for the past six years.

“One of the beans we’ve grown for them a couple times is called an October bean and it’s a bush bean and has this beautiful light pink and dark pink speckled bean and it’s just really beautiful and productive for us,” says Whitesides.

Cultivating seeds for small regional companies helps farms like Against the Grain increase both the diversity of the products they grow, but also the markets in which they can sell to support their farm. “Growing seeds has really helped us, especially in the genesis of our farm to provide that diversity and that kind of stability,” she says.

Producing seeds benefits farmers, but what about home gardeners who just want a couple varieties of tomatoes or some pole beans in their backyard? Saving seeds is an important part of the region’s heritage, says Fortner. “Western North Carolina is known for a diversity of bean varieties. People in this area really love growing different types of beans and saving the seeds from year to year and sharing them with their neighbors.”

Even if a gardener doesn’t save his or her own seeds, Fortner says planting commercial seeds that were developed for their region offers advantages. “If there’s a disease or a pest outbreak in your garden, if you’re growing varieties that are adapted to this area, then those plants are most likely going to have the genetics that will help them fight those diseases and pests.”

Sow True Seed experiments with new varieties each year, including trials of almost a dozen rare varieties of okra. Saving seeds gives farmers like Whitesides a sense of empowerment, she says, and connects her to farming traditions that go back centuries.

“What’s incredible about being able to just save even a few varieties a year, is that you’re really tapping into this global pulse among farmers of heritage, of seed preservation, and genetic preservation that happens all over the world and is very integral and woven into the fabric of rural farming communities,” says Whitesides.

Want to join the local seed movement? Start by thumbing through regional seed catalogues like Sow True or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Grow the seeds at home or ask about different varieties at farmers markets.

ASAP offers seeds to school gardens in the Appalachian Grown region, thanks to Second Spring Market Garden and Sow True Seed. ASAP distributed 531 seed packets in the 2014-15 school year. Seeds for school gardens are available at ASAP’s office in Asheville. Call 828-236-1282 and ask for Jessica.

Aired 4/4/16

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