It’s the end of the growing season and Harold Long is standing in front of a row of pole beans. The vines are withered and the pods are bone dry, but this seed’s journey is actually just beginning.
Harold and his wife, Nancy Long, grow heirloom beans, corn, pumpkins, and heritage chickens at Long Family Farms in Murphy, North Carolina.
Harold is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. When he was growing up, he and his nine siblings learned how to forage, fish, and grow vegetables. Farming stayed with him long into adulthood, and in 2014, he and Nancy purchased the land in Murphy.
“We had actually looked for about ten years to purchase a farm. We found this one and Harold was really happy because on two sides it borders tribal land and there’s 2,200 acres of tribal land over there and eight acres on this side. The whole area at one time was Cherokee land, so Harold knew it was prime soil and wanted to be close to the tribal land,” Nancy says.
The placement of the farm is essential to the Long’s business of growing, saving, and seling seeds. They specialize in heirloom seeds, particularly seeds that have been passed down through the Cherokee community over generations.
It’s essential that many of these open-pollinated varieties are grown at least a mile away from farms that grow other varieties to avoid cross-pollination. If pollen from another kind of pumpkin plant blew over to the flowers on an heirloom plant, it would produce a pumpkin with unpredictable and often unwanted characteristics. The seeds would be useless to other heirloom seed savers.
The Longs do have a neighbor who grows vegetables, but they don’t worry about pollen from his pumpkins anymore. “We gave him free seeds and so he planted the same kind as we have. He’s also a seed saver so we got some seeds from him,” Nancy says.
“Now we have the North Carolina Candy Roaster, which is different from the North Georgia Candy Roaster,” Nancy says. “We save that variety, which was important to the Cherokees and also the community in Western North Carolina.”
Harold and Nancy got the Cherokee Tan Pumpkin seeds from extension agent Kevin Welch.
“He went out to Oklahoma and got a few seeds and then he grew them out and shared them. It was given to one of the Cherokees out here in Cherokee County and a neighbor gave Harold those and we grew those out.” Nancy says. “So we have the Cherokee Tan Pumpkin, which they’re not even on the radar if you’re looking for them. It’s a mission to save the seeds, too.”
But the seeds aren’t artifacts that are filed away for posterity. Many heirloom seed savers believe it’s important to continue growing these varieties, both to produce more seeds for other farmers to grow and to enjoy on the dinner table.
The beans Harold holds in his hands can be eaten fresh during the summer, or he can let them dry on the vine until they’re ready to be eaten all winter. But Harold and Nancy don’t always agree on how to cook them. “I like to fillet them, but when he cooks the beans he always puts fatback and different things in them,” Nancy says.
Leafy greens are also important in Cherokee culture. A few of Harold and Nancy’s favorites include wild greens like branch lettuce and sochan.
Growing and eating these foods is one way the Longs carry on Cherokee traditions. They are also part of a larger effort to sustain agricultural skills and knowledge in the community. Joseph Owle is the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and he says he’s seen a resurgence in agricultural interests, including families growing vegetables at home in raised beds and new gardening programs at schools.
In previous years, the Longs saved heirloom seeds and assembled garden kits, which were sold to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and distributed to more than 700 members to help improve access to fresh produce and sustain traditional crops.
The Longs have a multifaceted farm business, which includes heritage livestock and fresh produce, in addition to heirloom seeds. Although they’re in their mid-60s, they are expanding the farm to include ramp and mushroom production, as well as exploring new crops like hemp to offer “soil to oil” CBD products.
In order to protect the land into the future, the Longs put it under a conservation easement. “It will always be a farm,” Nancy says. “It will never be developed. I think that stems from Harold. Just having the tribal land where it’s always tribal and never gets sold, he wanted to have that carry on here. It is such a pretty piece and we’re very attached to it so we never want to see it get developed.”
But in the not too distant future, they’ll have to decide who will steward the land. Their son is a photojournalist in Raleigh and has shown some interest in keeping the farm going.
“I think it’s in the back of his mind and probably in his heart, but it’s just the timing,” Nancy says. “So we’re hanging onto this and we have three grandchildren and so we’re hanging on for them to pass it on down the line.”
Learn more about Long Family Farms and Gallery and other farms in Western North Carolina in ASAP’s online local food guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Re-run aired: December 14, 2020