|Sand Mountain Seed Bank Dedicated to Preserving Our Food Heritage|
Industrial Food Pales in Comparison to the Food of our Ancestors
Have you ever eaten Choctaw sweet potato squash? How about Old-Time Tennessee melons? If you are like most people you probably haven’t. These are some of the precious heirloom foods our ancestors depended on for their very survival and they are disappearing at an alarming rate as elderly gardeners hang up their hoes.
You may remember your grandparents saving seeds from one crop to use in the next year’s production. As a child I thought the only reason my grandmother did that was to save the cost of buying new seed. While that may have entered into it, I realize now those seed often were not available at any seed store and they were also preserved because of their unique taste, hardiness, or perhaps even because they evoked memories from her childhood.
Often seeds of a particular variety have been passed down through countless generations and even made epic crossings with our immigrant ancestors as they risked everything to leave the Old World and create a hopeful new life in America. These seeds were often sewn into the hems of dresses and carried in hat bands as they made the harrowing voyage.
Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek tribes of the Southeast also had a rich heritage of farming. Many of our varieties were developed at enormous effort by our Native American ancestors and then cultivated for the last three hundred years by the Scots-Irish people of the South.
The Sand Mountain Seed Bank is a private organization run by Charlotte Hagood and Dove Stackhouse with the assistance of Dove’s husband, Russell. Operating on a shoestring budget these women have done yeoman’s work in preserving hundreds of plant varieties on the verge of extinction.
Talking to Dove about these plants gives one a sense of the urgency of the task.
She said, "We have gone from relying on hundreds of varieties of potatoes to four."
She sees this as a very disturbing trend for several reasons.
Every year seed companies reject the cornucopia of plant species available and select only a handful of plants bred to tolerate chemical fertilizers, pesticides and provide long shelf-life.
"If you look into a typical seed catalog you will see only four or five varieties of beans listed while there are hundreds out there," Dove pointed out.
If these rejected varieties are not used, they eventually disappear. She noted each of these species existed because they provided some strength or advantage in a specific situation.
What is going on is similar to a diverse and rich hardwood forest being cut down and replaced with row upon row of pine trees. Hunters refer to these pine tree plantations as "pine deserts." As the voracious pine beetle has proven a monoculture can be a biological disaster.
While my grandmother‘s generation realized the varieties they saved were well adapted to their particular area, tasted good and were free with a little work, they did not realize their efforts were important for another reason. Plant geneticists are telling us that by allowing the huge variety of garden plants to become extinct and becoming totally reliant upon a small number of varieties we are leaving ourselves open to a food catastrophe. The earth’s normal climate changes or the rise of a particular disease or pest can wipe out some varieties of a species while not harming others. If those other varieties do not exist, we have nothing to fall back on. Many of those varieties took hundreds of years to develop and cannot be replicated in decades — let alone a few months.
Interestingly, one of the first things to be sacrificed was good taste. I can recall several years ago my father reading a statistic about the huge decline in the pounds of fresh tomatoes consumed by Americans. He said that didn’t surprise him since eating the typical grocery store tomato was like eating a baseball. Dove pointed out that when you select for a particular trait you always lose something in the deal. When we select for a thick skin for shipping the taste suffers.
I did not realize how far things had changed until recent years. I remember as a teenager hearing elderly friends and neighbors complain the food from the grocery store wasn’t fit to eat because the taste was so bad. At the time I attributed it to the natural decline of their ability to taste, but now I realize at least part of the problem was the foods they were eating really did not taste as good as the fare they had grown up on.
In the last few years, I have enjoyed some of the succulent vegetables grown from seeds the Sand Mountain Seed Bank seeks to preserve and I can testify there really is a difference. Industrial food pales in comparison to the real food of our ancestors. I don’t believe parents would have such a difficult time getting their children to eat vegetables if they could offer them these heirloom varieties.
Wendell Berry, author of the classic "The Unsettling of America," has long encouraged younger generations to not only save the seeds of their families but to record the history of those plants. Dove and Charlotte have been doing just that by preserving the stories behind their seeds. For example, the Johnston Family Bean is believed to have come from Europe to Georgia where it fed the family before traveling with them to Sand Mountain in the mid-1800s. The family subsequently moved to California for three generations and has now returned to Alabama still carrying those treasured seeds. They have donated some to the seed bank where the history of the Johnston Family Bean has been faithfully recorded.
Charlotte and Dove will be offering some workshops on seed saving and they need some gardeners to take some of the seed to grow out as a way of increasing the supply. Also, Dove said Charlotte is an excellent speaker and is available for garden clubs and other groups.
Perhaps one of the silver linings of these tough economic times will be a renewed interest by families in gardening and self-reliant living. We could do a lot worse than spending our time in the garden teaching our children how to grow their own food. While we are at it, let’s devote some effort to saving these treasured gifts from our ancestors.
Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.