Thursday, December 2, 2010

Southern Seed Legacy

The Fall 2010 issue of Seedlink, the newsletter of the Southern Seed Legacy project, contains some news that made me a little sad. SSL, which has been housed in the Anthropology department at UGA, is moving to the University of North Texas (in Denton). This really great project saves heirloom Southern seeds and their histories.

The move is probably good for agrobiodiversity, because it is likely that more seeds and their stories will be able to be gathered as a result of the move, but it seems like a real loss to this state.

One way that Southern seeds have been gathered is by having students hunt them out (visiting old farmers and gardeners to see what they are growing) and then record histories of how the seeds came to the family. A lot of the seeds saved through the project have been beans and southern peas (crowder peas, cowpeas, black-eye peas, etc.), probably because these are easy to save.

To keep the seeds alive, rather than having them all warehoused in a freezer somewhere (although I am sure that some are kept exactly like that), members of the project can request some seed to grow for themselves. This would make the project kind of like a "Johnny Bean Seed," except that one third of the resulting seed is supposed to be shared back with SSL and another third with another gardener. This practice keeps these heirloom Southern seeds alive and in use.

I have not actually requested and grown out any of their seed, but I have taken the idea to heart. I have shared my own favorite crowder peas, "Pigott Family Heirloom," with a few people already, and at least one couple has liked them well enough to save some for subsequent years. This has made me very happy.

My Pigott Family Heirloom peas were purchased through Sand Hill Preservation (one of my top three favorite seed sources), and their catalog, which is pretty much the last one to arrive in the mail each year, says that the variety came from Louisiana.

These are some of the Pigott Family Heirloom peas:

They don't look like much, but they are delicious! Also, they are not available in many places. That is the point of SSL, to find those seeds that are not generally commercially available, seeds that have been grown for generations by a family here in the Southern U.S. so that the seeds are adapted to this region.

I have been supporting SSL for a few years, and I have enjoyed the Seedlink newsletter. I am including an excerpt from the most recent issue here:

Fred Lunsford, an Eastern Cherokee elder and Baptist preacher, told me a story about leather britches that he and his wife preserved and prepared from a Yellow Hull Cornfield bean that he had originally acquired from his grandfather in Clay County, N.C. In 1995, Fred had a heart attack and was asked by the dietitian at the hospital to record the foods he was eating at home. Day after day, leather britches was prominently on the list. The dietitian from the North couldn't figure out why in the world Fred would be eating his leather britches. Well, she tried to investigate by asking the nurses, but Fred was onto her confusion and told them not to tell her what leather britches were. Finally, the dietitian asked the cook if she knew and she replied, "Boy, I reckon I do. I'd like to have me some right now." - Jim Veteto, Director, SSL

I am sure that not everyone in the north is clueless about leather britches, but the story is a reminder that some really good foods that grow well in the Southern U.S. could be lost without efforts like those at SSL.

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