Connecting Communities through Seeds

Jonathan WinskieAppalachianHistory.net recently featured a post from a good friend of mine, Jonathan Winskie. For those of you unaware, Joanthan is the red headed menace on the About Me page. His post focuses on heirloom seeds and their ability to forge “metaphoric ‘bridges'” by serving as “vessels to facilitate deep and powerful connections between community members, students and potentially, the future.” The North Georgia Appalachia Studies Center has focused on heirloom seeds for a few years, presenting research at conferences and giving presentations in Washington, D.C. I felt I would give Jonathan a bump from my readership and hopefully intrigue some discussion about heirloom seeds and their communal properties. Below is an excerpt from Jonathan’s post, but I invite you to follow the link above to the original website. It has some terrific art work as a part of their presentation as well as photographs of the people involved.

For many of the students involved, the heirloom seed project served to rectify the problem by creating a dialogue between student and community member, and thus, I hope, the beginnings of a sense of mutual understanding and respect. In talking with my fellow students, many of them view this as an invaluable part of their college career. Several maintain contact with the community members with whom they worked, and I would venture to say that almost all see this project as personally and academically enriching.

Though there may have been some initial confusion as to our intentions, the reaction from the community towards our project and our students has been generally positive, with many being proud to share a little bit of their culture with those outside of their mountain town. I hope that we have built a bridge between campus and community that will continue to be mutually enriching and beneficial for years to come.

I feel that this project has the potential to build a bridge between the present generations and those of the future. In a world of growing dissatisfaction with corporate agribusiness, harmful chemicals, and genetic viability of food, heirloom vegetables offer a potential sustainable and healthy alternative. Many of our “seedkeepers” remarked that they practice heirloom gardening not out of necessity, but out of a desire to maintain some sense of autonomy and control over their food. Some practice heirloom gardening in order to help maintain genetic diversity among plant species. In heirloom gardening we can see the beginnings of social and environmental activism, and thus we have a potential blueprint for helping to create a more sustainable future for all.

I’ll let you read the rest on the original website. Personally, I think Jonathan makes some quality inferences about the heirloom seed in the modern world and how a concentration on what seems like a minuscule topic can bring people together. I believe it does more than metaphorically bridge the community of Lumpkin County to the University of North Georgia. It also bridges a generational gap, fostering connections between old and young Appalachians, as Jonathan alludes to. Additionally, it dispels stereotypes, tying the mountainous community to a more ‘mainstream’ college crowd. It allows these students from diverse backgrounds to the see world absent of prejudice and ridicule.  I posed two questions on the original website to Jonathan’s post and I’d like to add a couple more to consider. Perhaps a decent discussion will formulate as a result.

1.) Given the ever shrinking minority of people who farm for subsistence and/or supplement, how many connections can heirloom seeds actually foster? In the answer is few, does that render this project moot?

2.) How many of the college students involved in the project at North Georgia, or the younger generations as you stated, are Appalachians? Will they foster that culture in Appalachia and/or take it elsewhere?

3.) Does the project help Appalachia(ns) or our understanding of the Appalachian region? Does it help to spread the culture beyond the mountains? Can this model of heirloom seeds connecting communities be applied elsewhere?

4.) How does the heirloom seed project foster growth of the North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, and by consequence, the University of North Georgia?

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10 thoughts on “Connecting Communities through Seeds

      1. Two distinct groups. There’s also “sustainable farming” — a growth industry that attracts younger people Then there’s he distinction that needs to be made between farmers and gardeners. How do you define subsistence farmer? How do you define supplemental farmer?

        1. Since I differentiated between the two: subsistence farming is a farmer who grows as a means of feeding him/herself and/or his/her family with little left over for market value; supplemental farming is farming in addition to food already bought and/or received, though it may not be necessarily needed. Jonathan refers to this in the article.

          I use the words “Gardner” and “Farmer” somewhat interchangeably though I realize there are differences. For instance, my Papaw is a farmer who uses his garden that he gardens in as his primary source of food, using store bought things as supplements to that food. However, he is also involved in livestock, horses, hay, and commercial poultry. So he gardens and he farms.

  1. I told you I’d get around to commenting eventually! These are very perceptive questions, and ones that I hope will be influential in developing the project moving into the future. I think the overarching goal of this project (though we may have failed to explicitly state this in the blog post on Dave Tabler’s blog) is to make people aware of a potential alternate source of sustenance. I think it is both unique to Appalachia in the types of vegetables being grown and the people currently growing them, but it also appeals to the larger local food movements currently sweeping through the country due to a dissatisfaction with the quality and environmental issues arising from large scale corporate agribusiness. It has fostered connections in the past, and I think it is creating a tie to the region and to local food through the participating students as well. I know many of us have been inspired to grown our own food and get involved in local foodways, and the project has gathered great interest from those who have heard our presentations at ASA and at ATP. So no, I don’t think the project is moot. I hope that this project will inspire and reproduce itself not only in Appalachia, but also that it will find paths to supplement local food movements outside of the region.

    However, as we performed our research, one of the things that we found was that the people who still practice heirloom gardening in Lumpkin County do so out of a desire to retain their independence, not out of economic necessity. In fact, most of those who we interviewed were comparatively well off. Those who struggle financially are far more likely to spend their money at Wal-Mart than to grow their own food. Growing your own food can be more expensive and time-consuming than simply going to the grocery, luxuries that less financially stable individuals do not necessarily have. So, if we truly care about food security and local foodways, in my opinion we have to find a way to make heirloom gardening or at least going to a farmer’s market a viable economic alternative. If we don’t, localism will be nothing but a trend, a temporary movement of a dissatisfied and marginal group of middle-class citizens.

    1. It took you so long to respond that I literally had to go back and read my post and yours for context.

      What types of vegetables are Appalachian specific? I’m assuming you mean that a specific vegetable is popular to the area, and not necessarily only found in Appalachia. Hopefully UNG students will provide the segue that connects Appalachian gardens to mainstream America.

      And the one question unanswered is: How does the heirloom seed project foster growth of the North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, and by consequence, the University of North Georgia?

  2. I hope that this project is a starting point that will lead the Center to bigger and better projects. Food security is certainly a pertinent issue today, especially given increasingly scarce water sources, climate change, etc. I think the Center should elucidate the overarching theme of food security more clearly. If it does so, we will certainly gain more interest/notoriety than we have with a seemingly niche focus on heirloom seed gardening in Appalachia.

    1. But do you think that a university system in Georgia will care about projects such as that, when they are obviously attempting to establish international relations built around a business model?

  3. Rosann Kent

    Rob, here is our mission statement. Students who work and serve a local community in Appalachian can use those same skills and insights for any community across the globe. “We use art, history, music, nature, and storytelling to create a community of meaning as we explore the intricate web among people, culture and ecology in Southern Appalachia. Through experiential learning, service, and research, undergraduates are positioned as scholars and scientists, artists, and activists and empowered to effect positive community-driven change, both here and abroad.”

  4. Rosann Kent

    As far as fostering the growth of the Center…UNG is one of 16 institutions in Appalachia that are invited to create solutions to this question through the Appalachian Teaching Project: “How can we create positive sustainable future for Appalachia?” We could have answered that question in many ways: solar energy, tourism, heritage preservation, etc. Instead we selected heirloom seeds and seedkeepers for several reasons: 1) We wanted to find a way to bridge town and gown. 2) Appalachia is one of the most agro-diverse areas in the United States. Yet, many Appalachians do not have food access, food security, food justice. 3) We already had research protocol and IRB approval. An anthropologist at UGA helped set up the seed project in 2007 based on their model. 4) Food is one of the hottest topics on college campuses. It’s relevant. It’s the future.

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