If past is prelude, it can also be a second act.
Many small farmers and gardeners in Arkansas are proving that as interest in heirloom and “family” seeds experience a resurgence through swap meets and shared knowledge. And whether powered by nostalgia and taste buds, eschewing hybrids and GMOs, or a desire to keep from letting another species slip quietly into extinction, there is something undeniably wonderful about the trend.
See documentary trailer on the Arkansas seed swap movement here .
A slate of new swap meets has been scheduled for 2013 (see latest list here ). As folks prepare to walk into community centers, town halls, libraries and churches carrying hard-earned seed packets – and hopes of finding some new, long-lost seed variety to drop in the ground come spring – Farm Press spoke with the architect of the swap movement, Brian Campbell.
Campbell, an agricultural anthropologist and professor at the University of Central Arkansas, is the leader of Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage  (CAAH). Campbell trained in South America under Dr. Robert Rhoades, a pioneer in the agricultural anthropology field.
“He ran a project through USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) called ‘SANREM  (Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management),’” says Campbell. “My role in that was working with indigenous people in Ecuador to document and recover traditional varieties of crops. Those ranged from quinoa to tubers like oca, ulluco, potatoes and others.”
Rhoades also co-founded the Southern Seed Legacy, which was out of the University of Georgia. Campbell was also was trained under the Southern Seed Legacy in the field of agricultural biodiversity conservation – “a more formal term,” he says “for ‘seed swapping.’”
For more on CAAH, see here .
While international seed-saving efforts have made much noise in recent years (see here ), Campbell’s focus is “on Arkansas, the Ozarks and up into Missouri and a bit of Oklahoma. The goal is to ensure that we don’t allow anymore family heirloom varieties to go extinct.
“What we do is work with families that don’t have children or grandchildren who are continuing the gardening or farming tradition using open pollinated seeds. We make sure we document them, grow them out, and then give them away to people who will continue growing them. We must ensure these varieties aren’t lost.”
Among Campbell’s other comments:
Who started this effort?
“I began it based on my dissertation research on agricultural change in the Ozark region.
“I knew there were still significant numbers of families engaged in small-scale agriculture – maybe they supplement an income as a teacher or in automotive repair. At the same time, they’ll keep a cow-calf operation and/or a large kitchen garden where they grow out family seed varieties.”
I understand this has mushroomed and grown in popularity very quickly…
“There was definitely a domino effect. As soon as we held the first swap – I believe it was in 2008 at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View – it picked up speed.
(Note: a seed swap will be held at the Ozark Folk Center on Feb. 9, 2013.)
“After that, we held another one in Conway for Faulkner County and began to get interest from all over the state. Now, we’re up to 15 swaps, or more. It’s hard to keep track of how many requests we get from communities wanting help in establishing a seed swap.
“Actually, I don’t think we’re necessary. Any community can say, ‘Hey, we’re going to host this thing, announce it in the newspaper.’ People will show up because there is definite interest around the state.
“As for the number of varieties being swapped, we have no idea. Right now, there are several hundred true family heirlooms we’ve documented. However, there are many more varieties than that in our seed bank that are open-pollinated, not patented varieties that people can save the seeds from.
“We want to improve the genetics of the open pollinated varieties that had dwindled down to only a few families.
“Between all the swaps, I believe thousands and thousands of varieties are being traded.”
On the effort being self-sustaining…
“I don’t just want to begin a seed swap somewhere. Rather, there must be an on-the-ground collaborator. Then, I’ll bring seeds to give away. That’s because in many cases people are looking for seeds but they don’t have true heirloom seeds to swap.
“So, I’ll bring the seeds. And as long as there’s a community collaborator for the local community, we proceed. The idea behind that is that when I pull out this effort will continue and that it will be self-sustaining. At that point, we know that the community has enough of a foundation to, hopefully, bring others out with their family varieties.”
On what kinds of seeds are swapped…
“It surprises some people that true heirloom tomatoes from Arkansas are rare. Tomato seeds are more difficult to save seeds from. So, they haven’t continued in families as easily as corn, beans, field peas, okra, even sorghum. We have more varieties of sorghum that are true family heirlooms than we do tomato varieties with a story and that have been passed down.
“There are three or four key corn varieties that continue to be saved: hickory cane, pencil cob, Tennessee red cob, and an Indian corn. Those came into the state, were saved continuously and ended up taking on different names.
“Families would name their special corn. You can look at the corn and see it’s, say, Tennessee red cob. However, they’d have named it something else.”
Have you noticed a region of the state that has picked up on this?
“Not really. The swaps and interest in this is popular throughout. Arkansas has a strong contingent of real gardeners and small farmers interested in acquiring these seeds.
“The idea that these are free, or swapped, is intriguing to everyone. It is part of the state’s heritage – neighbors providing seeds that had done well.
“Turnout for the events are high from Little Rock to Eldorado to Jasper to Beebe to Russellville to Yellville.”
If someone wants to attend a swap, how should they prepare?
“That’s a key question. I’d encourage people to read up on how to properly save open pollinated seeds so they don’t cross.
“They must be grown a particular way. You don’t want to grow members of the same species near each other when it comes to tomatoes and peppers.
“As for corn, you need at least a mile between similar varieties. Or, you can stagger them. That means you grow one, make sure it’s tasseling, then you can grow the next variety later. Our growing season here has gotten quite long so you might be able to stagger in three different corn crops.
“The same is true of okra – (that it crosses easily across long distances – not that you can stagger it, because its flowers continuously produce pollen, unlike corn).
“Also, if you don’t have open pollinated seeds, don’t go buy hybrid seeds to swap. We don’t want those at the swaps because they don’t grow true. I am not against hybrids – they certainly have their place and purpose. However, that isn’t what this is about.
“If you don’t have any heirloom seeds to swap, bring envelopes, bring tools. It’s nice to have something to trade because there will be people there who have worked very hard to save the seeds properly and put a lot of effort into it. It’s nice to trade something tangible even if you don’t have seeds.”
The CAAH Facebook page can be found here.