Save the Seeds!

In this book, Bill Best celebrates the practice of saving heirloom seeds, emphasizing the superior taste and genetic diversity of these varieties of corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, and more.

Bowls of different seeds

Heirloom seeds are those that have been handed down for generations in a particular region, many of which would be lost forever if not for their careful collection by small farmers.

Photo by Fotolia/aboikis

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As small seed companies have been gradually overtaken by food conglomerates, hundreds of varieties of plants have been lost in favor of only a few hardy varieties of daily vegetables. In the meantime, heirloom seed savers have worked tireless to preserve the genetic diversity of different crops. These collectors provide a much-needed alternative to corporate agriculture. This book is a tribute to the hard work and forward thinking of those people who know such diversity is worth maintaining, and Bill Best makes a case for why it’s important to keep these crops in circulation.

Best has been farming and collecting seeds from across Appalachia since the 1960s, and in Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2013), he has created a history of seed saving and the people who preserve both the unique flavors and the Appalachian culture associated with them. As Best shares anecdotes about his grandmother, tells humorous stories about seed savers and the seeds themselves, and features photos of his extended family at work, we learn of the rich community bonds that are established through seed saving.

Corn

One of my earliest memories is going with my father to the mill to have corn ground into cornmeal. The mill was several miles downstream from our house after several creeks had run together to make a stream large enough to turn the overshot wheel and grind corn. The elevation of the land at that point was suitable to locate the mill: the raceway where the water ran lost altitude quickly and thus did not have to be too long before the water turned the overshot wheel.

We would take enough corn to last us two or three weeks, and the mill owner would take his pay by keeping a portion of the meal produced. He would then sell it to other people who did not bring their own corn to be ground. No money was ever exchanged.

We always grew white corn to be ground into meal, for we, like most of the other people in our community, preferred to have corn bread made from white instead of yellow cornmeal. At that time, most of the corn grown locally was white open-pollinated corn because hybrid, mostly yellow, corn varieties had not come to our community.

When hybrid corn varieties did become available, my father was the first in the community to try them. I was in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) club at that time and in the 4-H club as well. My FFA projects were animal related, while my 4-H projects were field crops, specifically corn.

Daddy gave me an acre of land in the summer of 1951 on which to grow my 4-H corn project. I tried a just-released hybrid, U.S. 282, and dutifully kept all records on that acre. Instead of simply replanting missing hills of corn, I used a shovel and transplanted corn from rows where the stalks were too thick to areas where the stalks were too thin. This brought about some good-natured teasing from my parents, who asked me if I was trying to set a new corn record. They thought the transplanted corn stalks would not live, but most of them did, thanks to some timely rains, giving me an excellent stand.

At the end of a nearly ideal growing season, when my acre of corn was tested by the 4-H agent for approximate yield, the test revealed that my projected yield (a near record) was sufficient to justify a completely measured and weighed harvest. My father decided to go along, and we rounded up about twenty people, including uncles, cousins, and other community people, along with two agricultural agents. The acre was hand harvested and taken into town by trucks to be weighed.

To the surprise of a lot of people, my acre of corn set a new North Carolina per-acre production record of 163.19 bushels. I was fifteen years old. At first, the thinking of the state agricultural establishment was that I should be declared only the 4-H record holder, but after much discussion at several levels, it was decided that I should be declared the overall champion corn grower because my record beat the existing record of 148 bushels per acre by 15 bushels. It remained the record for nearly twenty years.

My acre of corn sent me to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago that November and allowed me to meet many other young people from many states who were interested in agriculture and rural communities in general. The trip also deepened my interest in agriculture, an interest that has remained with me throughout my life.

While my father continued growing hybrids for the rest of his life (he died in 1982 at age eighty-three), many farmers in our community refused to try them for a number of years, and some never became comfortable with them, choosing instead to remain with the open-pollinated varieties even though these varieties did not produce as many bushels per acre as did the hybrids. Those farmers were wise in ways even they did not realize, because the varieties thus saved are important today in maintaining genetic diversity.

The United States became so dependent on hybrid corns that In 1970, 15 percent of the American corn crop was devastated by Southern corn leaf blight. Corn was fast becoming a monoculture crop by that time, with much of the genetic diversity previously existing in corn having been bred out by commercial plant breeders; most farmers were becoming dependent on companies producing hybrid corns, which were increasingly susceptible to blights.

I no longer grow hybrid corns and instead am trying to grow open-pollinated varieties and work with others who are trying to save the open-pollinated varieties, which are likely to be increasingly important in the future.

There are still many people in the Southern Appalachians who are maintaining their personal or family open-pollinated varieties of corn and many others who are maintaining several varieties. One of the most important growers of heirloom corn varieties is Tony West, now living and gardening in southern Ohio.

Tony, with his Cherokee heritage, is particularly interested in collecting and maintaining varieties associated with the Cherokees. However, he is also one of the most knowledgeable collectors around when it comes to the history of corn and its long-term development. Tony states,

"I have been growing things since I was a child (starting with maple trees) but started to garden in the late 1980s. I have always been interested in Eastern Woodland cultures and the Hopewell cultures of southern Ohio. As I researched these cultures, I became intrigued by their farming, and this led to more interest in my Cherokee ancestors (of southeastern Kentucky) and their farming methods. This all led me to growing heirlooms, mostly eastern Native American and Appalachian heirlooms. I have about twenty different eastern Native American corn types along with a couple of heirloom dent types. I also grow several types of squash, beans, and sunflowers. I try to grow out three different corns each year, being very, very careful about cross-pollination, not only with my own corns, but with neighbors’ Welds and gardens. My squash are hand pollinated to preserve their purity, and sunflower heads are “bagged.” Growing and preserving our edible heritage is a passion I have."

Tony West has contributed the following essay that draws on his expertise.

The History and Development of Corn

"Corn is a unique grain in that it has no close wild relative. In addition, it was entirely developed by humans and cannot exist in the wild without cultivation. Corn’s origin, dating back to 5000 B.C., is believed to be in the Mexican plateau or the highlands of Guatemala. The ancestors of corn are not known for certain, but teosinte and gamagrass are both thought to have contributed to corn’s development.

Corn was being grown in eastern North America around A.D. 250. By A.D. 1000, corn had become the most important crop in the Late Eastern Woodland cultures that inhabited the Appalachian region. Because of the favorable mild climate and rich soils of the Appalachians, the pre-European-contact Native Americans were able to develop an agricultural lifestyle that was increasingly based on corn, along with beans, squash, and sunflower.

Corn, more than any other food plant, became the most important base of life for the Native Americans. The Cherokees, who lived in the central and southern Appalachian mountain region after the days of the Eastern Woodland cultures, grew two basic types of corn: flour corn and flint corn. Flour corn was the basis of their day-to-day diet. Flour corn kernels contain almost entirely soft starch, with only a very thin outer seed coat. This type of corn easily grinds into a soft flour and was mostly grown in a solid white variety, though a mixed-colored flour corn was also grown on a lesser scale.

Flint corn, in contrast, has a hard glassy layer entirely surrounding the very small soft inner core and was grown in several colors: yellow, white, red, and a blue-and-white mix. A shortseason flint, planted in smaller patches, was used as “green corn,” as we do today with sweet corn. The Cherokees were so successful with their agriculture that they usually were able to keep in store up to two years of dry corn. An average Cherokee village would annually grow a thousand acres of corn, interplanted with beans, various types of squash, and sunflowers.

Early European settlers eagerly adopted the corns grown in the area by Native peoples, because these were well adapted to the soil and climatic conditions of the region. Along with the corn crop, European settlers adopted the Native peoples’ methods of use, such as making grits, hominy, and corn bread. Settlers were not able to surpass the achievements of the Cherokees in crop production until the various state agricultural experiment stations evolved in the late 1800s, though there were farmers in Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky working with a new type of corn.

Early explorers collected and traded seed wherever they traveled across the Americas. When an unfamiliar type of corn was found growing in Mexico, seed was obtained and brought back east both by overland trail and through shipping ports in the south. What early seed traders brought with them was a late- flowering type of corn called Gourdseed, which later became known as Southern Dent Corn. It was referred to as a dent corn because the kernel had a pronounced depression, or dent, at the crown of the seed.

Because of their high yield, these new dent corn varieties were traded and grown all through the Appalachian region. By the middle part of the 1800s, crosses between these late-season southern dents and the more familiar local “northern” flints occurred. Successful farmers selectively bred these crosses into new open-pollinated dent varieties with higher yields than either parent stock, with shorter growing seasons than the original Gourdseed had. In time these became what we know today as Corn Belt dents, and they account for about 50 percent of today’s world corn production and nearly 90 percent of North America’s corn production.

The origin of sweet corn is uncertain. Sweet corn started as a genetic mutation transforming the kernel’s starch to a sugar. The low starch levels make the kernel wrinkled rather than plump once the kernel has dried. Archaeological and biological research in recent years points to not one common origin of sweet corn but at least five independent origins.

The earliest records of sweet corn in North America refer to an Iroquois selection named Papoon in the 1770s. Seed listings in the 1820s show a variety simply called Sweet Corn, followed by Darling’s Early in 1884, Stowell’s Evergreen in the 1850s, and Crosby in 1867. Country Gentlemen was introduced in the 1890s, soon followed by Golden Bantam and Luther Hill, both in 1902. Sweet corns did not attain great popularity in early Appalachia, however, because of the primary need for flour, flint, and dent corn crops. Dent corn’s versatility for making flour, roasting ears, and livestock feed far outweighed the luxury of sweet corn on many Appalachian farms.

Before the mid-1800s, most land was worked by hand. After that, many farmers purchased horse-drawn plows, with John Deere leading the plow manufacturers (having sold more than ten thousand steel plows in 1855 alone). Walking behind a two-horse team, a farmer could plow 1-3/4 acres a day. The later-developed sulky plow, on which the plowman rode, made work easier and gave him greater control. A sulky plow pulled by four horses could plow more than 2-1/2 acres per day.

Plowing was followed by a spike-tooth harrow, which would break up clods in the field. A week or so before planting, a disk was pulled over the field to kill any new weeds, level the surface, and loosen the surface for planting. One or two discings would leave the field ready to plant. An eight-foot disk pulled by four horses could complete 16 acres a day.

Prior to 1850, corn was planted by hand. In the 1700s, corn was routinely planted in raised “hills” approximately three feet in diameter and spaced four feet apart. After the corn was about twelve inches tall, beans would be planted in these hills. As the corn grew, it supplied support for the bean plants to climb. This method of planting was acquired from Native Americans, who planted pumpkins and squashes between the hills to shade out the competing weeds and utilize the unused space.

Although some seed planters were in use in the early 1800s, mechanical corn planters did not arrive until 1853, when George Brown introduced his invention. Mechanical corn planting greatly increased the amount of area that could be planted in a season. Following hand-planting methods, most early corn planters dropped several corn seeds at a time to reproduce the familiar hill-planting method. The ideal amount of seed dropped per hill was three, while hills were spaced 3-1/2 feet apart.

The hill method allowed farmers to cross-cultivate the field, thereby keeping weeds under control through the season. This method of corn planting was common into the early 1900s. Hand planting in Appalachian regions continued on many farms into the early 1900s because of the cost of planters and the small size of Welds being planted, in comparison to the immense fields of Corn Belt farms. By hand planting in rows set 3-1/2 feet apart, one person could complete four acres in a day. By the early 1900s, the fortunate farmer who had a two-row horse-drawn mechanical planter could complete fourteen acres a day."


Reprinted with permission from Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachiaby Bill Best, published by Ohio University Press, 2013.