Seeds of Persistence: The Ethnoecology of Crop Agrobiodiversity Maintenance in the American Mountain South

Final Report for GS08-074

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Grant Recipient: University of Georgia
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Major Professor:
Robert E. Rhoades
University of Georgia
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Project Information

Seeds of Persistence: Agrobiodiversity, Culture, and Conservation in the American Mountain South

Little is known about the persistence or existence of agrobiodiversity in the American Mountain South, despite scientific recognition of the importance of constructing biodiversity inventories in marginal mountainous landscapes worldwide. After decades of research focusing on the utilitarian basis of agrobiodiversity persistence, recent studies in ethnoecology and other closely related disciplines have shifted to the investigation of cultural salience as an important primary causal factor in the agricultural decision making of local farmers to continue to maintain folk crop varieties. Both evaluation of agrobiodiversity inventories and analysis of farmer decision making are central to the promotion and conservation of in situ and in vivo seed saving and agrarian lifeways.

This research, through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, evaluates agrobiodiversity levels, agricultural decision making in the maintenance of folk crop varieties, and conservation practice and theory in the southern Appalachian and Ozark mountains. In fourteen months of fieldwork, oral history interviews and socioeconomic surveys were conducted with 60 growers and various conservation initiatives were studied and collaborated with. Particular attention was placed on the role of culture in promoting agrobiodiversity persistence.

The results of this research indicate that the American Mountain South is home to some of the highest agrobiodiversity levels in North America and that Mountain South growers are maintaining diverse folk crop varieties for reasons that can be largely understood as cultural in nature. The importance of agrobiodiversity to distinctive regional foodways, the performance of cultural identity, and everyday occurrences and resistances in the face of modernity provide culturally salient motivations for gardeners and farmers to maintain regional agrobiodiversity. Various conservation initiatives in the Mountain South are, to different degrees, geared toward the promotion of cultural themes to complement genetic conservation. This research suggests that a continued and expanded conservation focus on cultural salience will have the greatest degree of success in supporting local in vivo seed saving.

Key Words: Agricultural Anthropology, Agrobiodiversity, Appalachian Studies, Cherokee Studies, Conservation, Ethnoecology, Farmer Decision Making, Mountain Anthropology, Ozark Studies


Culture has long been the central idea that American anthropology has formed,theoretically debated within itself, and given to the world as an academic and popular concept. Like many topics of anthropological theory (Nazarea 2006), the culture concept has undergone a process of formation, establishment, crisis, and re-formulation. From Tylor’s oft-repeated initial definition in 18711 and Kroeber and Cluckhorn’s (1952) compilation of over one hundred definitions in circulation circa 1950, to post-modern challenges to the validity of the concept itself in the 1980s and 90s (e.g. Clifford 1988, Abu-Lughod 1991, Friedman 1994, Appadurai 1996) and what today might be conceived of as uneasy truce; questions of culture and its manifestations, transformations, and constructions have continued to drive the discipline.

In ecological and environmental anthropology, the relationship between local agriculturalists and agricultural biodiversity has been a sustained topic of interest (e.g. Conklin 1954, Johnson 1974, Brush 2004). Ethnoecology, cultural ecology, agrarian ecology, and political ecology have been the prominent approaches within ecological/environmental anthropology that have engaged this topic, but have only been marginally examining the complex links between agrobiodiversity2 and culture until recently (Nazarea 2006, 2005, 1998; Perales at al. 2005, Brush 2005). More prominent—particularly within ethnoecology—has been the tendency to characterize farmer decision making regarding agrobiodiversity as being primarily guided by economic, agronomic, or ecological considerations. Sociocultural criteria for selecting and maintaining folk crop varieties3 has been seen as marginal and only affecting farmer decision making regarding agrobiodiversity in tangential ways. Recent work by Stephen Brush (2005) and others (e.g. Perales el al. 2005, Gonzales 2000) has suggested that culture is actually more than a mere residual factor in explaining the persistence of crop biodiversity. Yet, the difficulty of connecting culture—which seemingly defies quantification—directly to agrobiodiversity has been a limiting factor for researchers. Food, taste, and culinary traditions have been identified as the most promising salient cross-linkages. This research project attempts to investigate the connection between agrobiodiversity and culture—and specifically cultural salience as a primary causal variable in explaining the persistence of agrobiodiversity.

In addition to a general lack of consensus or understanding regarding the articulation of culture and agrobiodiversity in local agricultural systems, little is known about the persistence of folk crop varieties in industrialized nations of the Global North. Significant research has demonstrated that agrobiodiversity levels are very high in areas of the Global South such as the Philippines (Nazarea-Sandoval 1995), the Andes (Zimmerer 1996), Mexico (Bellon 1991), Africa (Sperling and Scheidegger 1997), and the Middle East (Brush 2004). Outside of the American Southwest, where Native American communities have been studied extensively by anthropologists (e.g. Nabhan 1989, Soleri and Smith 1999, Soleri and Cleveland 1993), researchers have largely assumed (e.g. Fowler and Mooney 1990) that since modern regions in the US have few full-time farmers that they are not suitable for productive studies on agricultural biodiversity with very few exceptions (e.g. Southern Seed Legacy 2010, Nabhan 2008). It has largely been left up to seed saving enthusiasts and hobby gardeners to seek out, maintain, and occasionally document heirloom varieties in Global North nations (e.g. Whealy 2005, Weaver 1997). Compiling agrobiodiversity inventories has been identified as an urgent task and important research methodology for conservation in world mountain areas (Spehn and Körner 2009, Rhoades 2006), yet has never been attempted for Southern Appalachia or the Ozarks.

In addition to documenting agrobiodiversity levels and examining farmer decision making regarding folk crop varieties, a third concern for environmental anthropologists conducting research on the subject has been long-term conservation for the future benefit of rural communities. Ex situ strategies of collecting seeds around the world for storage in centrally located facilities prominent from the 1930s to the 1980s (Hammer 2003, Holden and Williams 1984) has given way since the 1990s to more contemporary in situ strategies that focus on supporting conservation programs in the fields of the farmers of the world (Brush 2000) or in vivo strategies “beyond design,” recognizing that seedsavers on the margins have been maintaining agrobiodiversity from time immemorial and deserve our support but perhaps not our traditional scientific interventions in their everyday lives (Nazarea 2005).

Project Objectives:

This research has three primary objectives. First, it undertakes a comprehensive inventory of folk crop biodiversity in order to understand current levels of proliferation, inform conservation efforts, and place the Mountain South in comparative perspective with other regions. Secondly, it focuses on understanding farmer decision making and how this is related to the persistence of folk crop varieties in local cultural contexts. The final objective is to analyze seed conservation efforts across the Mountain South and apply the results of this research to conservation theory and practice.


Materials and methods:

This research was conducted with fourteen months of fieldwork from July 2008 to August 2009. I lived for six months in western North Carolina (July-December 2008) and eight months in the Arkansas Ozarks (January-August 2009). A longer period of time was spent in the Ozarks because I had conducted less research there than in Appalachian previously and because seedsavers were more difficult to locate in the region. A regional approach was undertaken with the goal of understanding the overall structure of the remaining agrobiodiversity across the Mountain South, which would have been impossible to achieve by studying one community. A wide diversity of perspectives from across each region was also sought to more broadly understand farmer decision making in relation to agrobiodiversity. Both regions contain higher levels of agroecological, ethnic, and cultural diversity than has been assumed by earlier generations of researchers (Blevins 2002, Billings et al. 1995) and an attempt was made to be as inclusive as possible.

My previous findings (Veteto 2008, 2005) indicated that in most Appalachian communities only one or two people (if any) were maintaining a significant number of heirloom cultivars, with an occasional cluster of high agrobiodiversity in certain traditionally-oriented communities. During the course of this research my previous findings were confirmed as an accurate assessment, as most seedsavers are spread out across each region with a few communities having larger clusters of seedsavers (e.g. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Marshall, Arkansas). Within each region, Western North Carolina and the Arkansas Ozarks were chosen because they are the most mountainous and ecologically diverse areas of the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, making them particularly interesting because of the correlation between mountains and biocultural diversity found worldwide (Rhoades 2007, Stepp et al. 2005, Brush 2004, Rhoades and Nazarea 1999).

The multi-scale approach to studying Mountain South agrobiodiversity in this study can be understood as falling under the rubric of multi-sited ethnography as broadly conceived by Marcus (1995), a popular approach to understanding contemporary anthropological questions (Hannerz 2003, Brosius 1999). Early in the research process it became clear that employing a multi-sited methodology would be the only way to achieve the research objectives of this project. This multi-sited research takes place within the comparative context of two regions, within three states (with a fourth—Missouri—contributing one participant), among two federally recognized American Indian tribes (which were once united), and among both seedsavers on the individual level and organizations within both regions working to gather, document, conserve, and promote heirloom crop varieties. The transportation of seeds and plants by migrants and visitors between the two regions, both historically and contemporaneously, also correlates in some ways with the study of human and material “flows” that Marcus outlined in his multi-sited approach. In addition, results from this study are compared with other work done by the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) program on the scale inclusive of most of the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico (see below).

Extensive participant observation was carried out in communities, towns and cities across each region. Drive-by visits to gardeners and farmers out in their fields were conducted as were visits to dozens of roadside stands, farmers markets, and hardware stores to talk to knowledgeable local people. To locate further locate seedsavers in each region a purposive cluster sampling strategy was used. Cluster sampling has been shown to be useful in identifying populations for which no formal lists exist (Bernard 2002) and purposive sampling has been shown to have similar results in confidence levels to random samples in anthropological research (Handwerker and Wozniak 1997). Letters of inquiry were sent out to every county extension agent in each region to recruit participants. Individuals who are maintaining or are most knowledgeable about folk crop vegetable varieties were identified based on the recommendations of the extension agents. In North Carolina, letters of inquiry were sent out to every senior center in Appalachian counties and visits conducted to several, but since this did not yield any participants, the process was not duplicated in the Ozarks. Using an extensive network of contacts previously developed in each region, a chain-referral method was also used to identify seedsavers.

Through the participant observation methods described above and phone conversations following trails of chain-referral recommendations, approximately 100 knowledgeable local people in each region were consulted, which provided important contextual information for understanding the past and present context of Mountain South agrobiodiversity. Once those seedsavers who were maintaining the highest numbers of folk crop varieties in the widest diversity of locales were identified; in-depth, semi-structured oral history interviews were conducted with thirty seedsavers in western North Carolina and thirty seedsavers in the Ozark Highlands. Each interview participant was asked to free list (Ryan et al. 2000, Martin 1995) what folk crop varieties were still being grown and what varieties have been lost by each individual or family. Open-ended interview questions also elicited information about cultural and agroecological aspects of each variety and detailed information was asked about motivations for saving the seed of folk crop varieties. To get at motivations for seed saving, the informants were simply asked, “What makes this a variety that you choose to grow?” about every variety that they had mentioned in the free list activity and their reasons were recorded without further prompting. This slight turn-of-words from the “What is this plant used for?” that is more often employed ethnobotanical studies was used in an attempt to provide for a wider spectrum of farmer motivations for seed saving.

Interview and survey methodologies generally followed those established by Nazarea (1998) for the “memory banking” of farmers cultural and agroecological knowledge about traditional cultivars to complement the more traditional scientific ex situ conservation strategy of collecting and storing folk crop varieties in seedbank facilities. Detailed cultivar descriptions, including all the information that was provided by seedsavers in the oral history interviews, have been documented in Appendices A-D. Wherever possible, gardens or farms were surveyed and photographed for structural features and pictures of folk crop varieties were taken for later use in identification and comparison, and seed samples were collected for the same purpose and also for seed banking at The Center for Cherokee Plants and the CAAH! program. Oral history interviews were recorded, transcribed in their entirety, and coded according to key themes and attributes.

The data from the surveys, along with data from the freelist exercises, were organized and entered into Microsoft Excel and SPSS so that data files could be created. Levels of significance for the most relevant socioeconomic variables were establishing by conducting a multiple correlation analysis, using local knowledge with respect to folk crop varieties known, maintained, and lost as the dependent variable in each of three trials. To compare the mean level of agrobiodiversity knowledge between Southern Appalachia and the Ozarks, a series of T-tests were run. Quantitative data that emerged from the survey-based statistical tests was used to triangulate qualitative data from the oral history interviews and give a more complex understanding of the research objectives. Methodological triangulation through the complementary use of qualitative and quantitative techniques in data collection and analysis has been shown to be an effective tool in social science research in general (Driscoll et al. 2007) and also ethnoecological studies (Nazarea et al. 1998).

Collaborative conservation (Maffi and Woodley 2010, Campbell 2009a) was used as a methodology in working with several local conservation programs in each region. This follows recent ethical trends in conservation work that recognize that local communities—not just academic researchers—should benefit from the research process and that local people should have control over their own biological resources (Hunn 2007). In North Carolina I worked collaboratively with the Center for Cherokee Plants to identify research participants, record and transcribe oral history interviews, collect and bank seeds, and train a Cherokee intern in ethnoecological methods. In Arkansas, I worked collaboratively with Dr. Brian Campbell of The University of Central Arkansas, and contributed recordings and transcriptions of oral history interviews along with heirloom seeds that were collected to the “Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage” (CAAH!) project. Thirty seed varieties were also donated to the Ozark Seed Bank in Brixey, Missouri, where I was invited to give a lecture on the preliminary results from the Ozark phase of this research.

An important task of this research was to place Mountain South agrobiodiversity in context with other regions within North America. Supported by a fellowship from The Cedar Tree Foundation and working in collaboration with the Renewing Americas Foods Traditions alliance (Nabhan 2008), an inventory of Mountain South folk crop varieties that are currently known to exist or to have gone extinct was developed (see Appendices C and E). This involved compiling plant lists such as those developed or published by folk crop experts like Dr. Bill Best of The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center Inc. in Kentucky (where I also inventoried a freezer of 400 heirloom varieties that had not been previously documented), the lists of apple hunters Lee Calhoun (1995) and Tom Brown (2009) in North Carolina, and the variety lists of The Southern Seed Legacy Project (2008) of The University of Georgia and the Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage (2010) project at The University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. The resulting inventories were analyzed and compared with similar lists that had been developed by RAFT alliance researchers in other diverse “foodsheds” (ecoregions) of North America.

Research results and discussion:

As the industrialization of global agriculture increased in pace throughout the 20th century, pioneering scientists increasingly issued forth calls for the conservation of agrobiodiversity. This discourse started with a “narrative of erosion” (Brush 2005) that climaxed in the wake of The Green Revolution and focused on the ex situ conservation of endangered landrace varieties in centralized gene banks (Holden and Williams 1984), shifted in the 1990s to a focus on in situ conservation in farmers fields and the grow-out plots of researchers (Brush 2000, Maxted et al. 1997), and has more recently began to orient toward the recognition that cultural diversity (Perales et al. 2005) and the idiosyncratic in vivo efforts of individual seed savers are primary movers in the maintenance of agrobiodiversity—worthy of promotion, recognition, and support Nazarea 2005).

Throughout the history of western scientific interest in agrobiodiversity the bulk of attention has been focused on documenting, collecting, and conserving landrace varieties in the
Global South. Much less research has been conducted in Global North nations, the assumption being that the industrialization of agriculture has driven family farmers out of business and eliminated the diversity that once existed in farmers fields (Fowler and Mooney 1990). Yet,studies from around the world have shown that high agrobiodiversity levels often exist in communities or populations characterized by environmental, economic, and social marginality (Rhoades and Nazarea 1999). This research investigated whether such high agrobiodiversity levels exist in one of most historically marginalized areas of the US, the Mountain South, which has been understudied to date. Providing baseline data about the persistence of heirloom seed savers and cultivars in the region will help inform future research, enable comparative studies with other regions of North America and the world, and clarify whether it is an appropriate area for conservation efforts.

The results from this research show that the American Mountain South maintains some of the highest known levels of folk crop diversity in North America. In particular, Southern and Central Appalachia are home to nearly 2000 documented folk crop varieties of heirloom vegetables and fruits, which makes it the region with the highest known agrobiodiversity levels in the US, Canada, and Northern Mexico. Within the American Mountain South, Appalachian folk crop varieties outnumber Ozark heirloom cultivars by an almost 2:1 ratio. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is still maintaining high levels of agrobiodiversity whereas the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has lost almost all of their heirloom cultivars due to various historical and agroecological reasons. Beans, Apples, Tomatoes, and Corn are most prominent among traditional crops being saved across the region. Seed savers are primarily male, low income home gardeners who average almost 70 years old and have less than a high school education.

The relation of farmer decision making to agrobiodiversity is also a question that has increasingly interested anthropologists. No longer content to describe and collect folk crop variety complexes that exist in farmer’s fields, researchers have been more recently trying to understand underlying reasons why farmers and gardeners continue to maintain agrobiodiversity in the midst of social and economic pressures that would otherwise be assumed to threaten it.

Increased market and road penetration, a tendency for younger generations to work off farm at wage paying jobs, and the loss of local cultural traditions and subsistence livelihood practices in an increasingly globalized world increase the probability that local farmers will no longer choose to grow landrace cultivars (Tuxill 2005). Early frameworks for understanding farmer selection and maintenance of traditional cultivars were guided by ecological, economic, and agronomic interpretations, but more recent work has shifted the focus to understanding the cultural contexts, meanings, memories, and identities that motivate farmers to conserve agrobiodiversity (Nazarea 2006, Tuxill 2005). This research project sought to understand why farmers and gardeners across the Mountain South are maintaining folk crop varieties by conducting in-depth oral history interviews and garden visits that included detailed questioning about the reasons why growers chose to grow every variety documented in this study.

The results of this research show that growers of heirloom crops across the Mountain South emphasize cultural themes when expressing why they continue to maintain the seeds of their ancestors. Specific culinary uses, locally-defined tastes, food preservation technologies and their resulting foodways, and cultural heritage and memory are the most important reasons why heirloom cultivars are maintained. Folk crop diversity is an important aspect of what it means for local people to live in distinctly Mountain South ways that they consider to be appropriate and good. Cherokee bean bread wrapped in hickory leaves and served at the Indian Fair, a pot of Greasy Cutshort beans served up at an Appalachian family get together or local church meeting; or cornbread made from Pencil Cob corn, ground at the local mill, and consumed in the Ozarks all give special cultural significance to local foodways throughout the Mountain South and fundamentally contribute to their maintenance and conservation. Secondary utilitarian reasons for persistence such as market value, high yield, and local adaptation are complementary reasons for agrobiodiversity maintenance; but are ultimately seen as less important from the perspectives of local farmers and gardeners.

Conservation strategies across the region are utilizing a variety of approaches. The Center for Cherokee Plants with their motto, “Putting Culture Back in Agriculture,” and Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage are both using memory banking methodologies to emphasize cultural themes in their complementary in situ and ex situ conservation strategies. The Cherokee Nation Seedbank is also using complementary strategies to help improve the self-sufficiency and nutritional health of their tribe, and is emphasizing the performance of Cherokee identity in propagating heirloom cultivars, despite having lost most of their own folk crop varieties in the recent history of the western branch of the tribe. The agricultural exhibit at The Cherokee Indian Fair, though not explicitly a conservation program, has been encouraging the promotion of Eastern Cherokee agrobiodiversity for almost 100 years by rewarding local growers for maintaining tribal folk crop varieties and for continuing agricultural innovation. The results of this research confirm that heirloom growers throughout the Mountain South, who are largely beyond the reach of any conservation program and practice time-honored in vivo seed saving, emphasize cultural themes in their maintenance of local agrobiodiversity and could benefit from support from conservation programs and researchers who share the same perspective. Examples from around the world, including diversity fairs and repatriation efforts in the Andes (Tapia 2000), the revitalization of local foods throughout North America by the RAFT alliance (Nabhan 2008), the ritual importance of folk crop varieties among indigenous people in Mexico and Peru (Tuxill 2005, Zimmerer 1996), and everyday resistances and occurrences in the Philippines (Nazarea-Sandoval 1995), provide evidence that the prominence of cultural reasons for agrobiodiversity persistence are not a merely US phenomenon.

Heirloom gardeners in the Mountain South are maintaining the folk crop varieties of their ancestors despite trends all around them to acquiesce to a more modern lifestyle and mentality. They value the cultural memory and heritage in their seeds and gardens, the unique tastes and flavors heirloom varieties give to their time-honored culinary traditions, and the everyday resistances and occurrences the persistence of their gardens represent in an increasing unstable and alien world. Mountain South seeds, gardens, and gardeners are indeed a milieu of memory and conservation that is living and vibrant—yet threatened—and are worthy of our support and respect as the groundwork for any conservation efforts in the region.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:


2010. Veteto, James R. Seeds of Persistence: Agrobiodiversity, Culture, and Conservation in the American Mountain South. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, Athens GA.

Forthcoming. Veteto, James R. “Down Deep in the Holler: Chasing Seeds and Stories in Southern Appalachia” in Andrea Pieroni and Justin M. Nolan (eds) Making Friends in the Field: Personal Stories of Ethnobiologists and Their ‘First Time’ in the Field. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

2009. Veteto, Jim. Mountain South Agrobiodiversity: Notes from the Field. Seedlink (summer).

2011. Veteto, James R., Gary Paul Nabhan, Regina Fitzsimmons, Kanin Rouston, and Deja Walker. Place-Based Foods of Appalachia: From Rarity to Community Restoration and Market Recovery. Tucson: Renewing America’s Food Traditions.

forthcoming. Veteto, James R. and Kevin Welch. “Food from the Ancestors: Documentation, Conservation and Revival of Eastern Cherokee Heirloom Vegetable and Fruit Cultivars.” In Seeds of Resistance/Seeds of Hope: Place and Agency in the Conservation of Biodiversity, ed. Virginia D. Nazarea, Robert E. Rhoades, and Jenna Andrews.

Presentations at Professional Conferences

2010. Veteto, James R. Central/Southern Apple-achia: Contemporary Center of Agrobiodiversity Persistence in the US, Canada, and Northern Mexico. 33rd Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference. Dahlonega, GA.

2009. Veteto, James R. Situating the Seeds: On-the-Ground Documentation and Conservation of Ozark Heirloom Vegetable and Fruit Cultivars. Missouri State University-West Plains Ozark Studies Committee 3rd Annual Ozark Studies Symposium. West Plains, MO.

2009. Veteto, James R. Invited Plenary Session Presentation. Food from the Ancestors Eastern Cherokee Heirloom Seeds, Traditional Dishes, and Strategies for Continuance and Revival. 32nd Annual Meeting of The Society of Ethnobiology. New Orleans, LA.

Public Presentations

2011. Veteto, James R. The Southern Seed Legacy and How to Save Seeds in the American South. Hot Springs Community Garden Association. Hot Springs, AR.

2010. Veteto, James R. Appalachian Heirloom Seeds and Foodways. Food For Life in the New Millennium 12th Annual Conference, Sequatchie Valley Institute. Dunlap, TN.

2009. Veteto, James R. Seed Saving Fundamentals for Southern Gardeners. 13th Annual Georgia Organics Conference. Athens, GA.

2009. Veteto, James R. Southern Appalachian Heirloom Vegetable History, Seed Saving Techniques and Propagation Fundamentals for Home Gardeners. Highlands Biological Foundation’s Annual Conference on Landscaping and Gardening with Native Plants. Highlands, NC.

2009. Veteto, James R. Seeds of Persistence: Southern Appalachian Heirloom Vegetable and Fruit Cultivars. Highlands Biological Foundation’s Annual Conference on Landscaping and Gardening with Native Plants. Highlands, NC.

2009. Veteto, James R. Top Garden Speaker. Eastern Cherokee Heirloom Seed and Culinary Traditions. Spring Garden Show. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Bakersville, MO.

2009. Veteto, James R. Top Garden Speaker. Heirloom Seeds in the Ozarks. Spring Garden Show. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Bakersville, MO.

2009. Veteto, James R. The Ozark Seed Legacy. Ozark Seed Bank. Bixey, MO.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Applied, Collaborative Contributions to Conservation

This research project had a goal of not only documenting agrobiodiversity levels, farmer decision making, and conservation efforts across the Mountain South; but also to contribute to existing efforts through applied, collaborative conservation. This approach is consistent with The University of Georgia Anthropology Department’s stance that, “We believe the distinction between basic and applied research and development should be abandoned” (University of Georgia Department of Anthropology 2010). Working collaboratively with several of the conservation initiatives in the region made it easier to study and understand their motivations and methodologies. It is probably a human truism that people are more willing to share with you if they are receiving something that benefits them in return and more recent developments in environmental and ethnoecological research suggest that communities should have control over their own local knowledge and should receive tangible benefits from the research process (Hunn 2007).

Collaborative conservation was achieved during the course of this research with several projects in the following ways: 1) The Center for Cherokee Plants—two months of collaborative fieldwork produced recordings and transcriptions with fifteen Eastern Cherokee Seed Savers; 128 folk crop varieties were identified, documented, and many were gathered for ex situ storage; a Cherokee intern was trained in ethnoecological research methods and the center adopted memory banking protocols as one of its major conservation methodologies; 2) CAAH!—recorded and transcribed oral history interviews and seed varieties collected during the Ozark research phase were donated; 3) RAFT—a master list of at-risk central/southern Appalachian folk crop varieties was developed. Due in part to the results obtained from this research, RAFT identified Appalachia as its current region of focus for its local foodways conservation initiative “Forgotten Fruits”; 4) The Ozark Seed Bank—thirty Ozark heirloom cultivars collected in this research were donated and an invited lecture on Ozark agrobiodiversity was given at the program’s Brixey, Missouri facility. It should be noted that all of these projects are not-for-profit educational programs explicitly focused on supporting and promoting local agrobiodiversity.

Local seed savers and colporteurs were also supported during the course of the research in ways that are less publicly visible. Most participants in this study were pleased that anyone would take an interest in their local and familial heirloom varieties. Oral history interviews about seeds provide a non-politicized venue for local people to celebrate memory and culture and to be recognized for the valuable contributions that they are making to conservation. It is likely that such occasions help to reinforce the commitment that participants have to maintaining heirloom cultivars by emphasizing the importance of such everyday acts. Another, unexpected,way in which this project contributed to the promotion of local agrobiodiversity was by facilitating the transfer of certain seed varieties. On many occasions research participants would lament the loss of varieties that they had grown in years past. Several of those lost varieties had been gathered from other seedsavers during the course of this research and were shared with those who had lost them. In this way, the seed collections of participants were complemented and associated cultural memories that had been latent were re-kindled and brought back into circulation.


Areas needing additional study

Limitations and Future Directions

As research and conservation continue in the American Mountain South, further inventorying will need to take place to more completely understand agrobiodiversity persistencein the region. This research project, in collaboration with RAFT, has provided a baseline, but further research is necessary. Now that a master heirloom variety list has been created for central/southern Appalachia, a similar task could be undertaken in the Ozarks, and again this research provides a good baseline to work from. Although results from this study indicate that the Ozarks contain lower agrobiodiversity levels than in Appalachia, the Ozarks are still relatively rich in folk crop varieties and local foodways. Once the master list from Appalachia has been fully incorporated into the RAFT project in the near future and lists from other regions of North America are updated, it will be possible to further verify the tentative conclusions of this research.

In addition, levels of bean and apple diversity can be compared more definitively with other secondary and primary centers of world diversity. This research shows that when compared with results from Sperling and Scheidegger (1997) in Africa, that central/southern Appalachia is likely a secondary world center for bean diversity. The list of heirloom apple folk taxa generated in this research also suggests that Appalachia could be a secondary world center for apple diversity. The insurance of methodological commensurability needed to further validate such comparisons is beyond the scope of this research, but is a fruitful future direction for agrobiodiversity researchers. Lists will have to continue to be cross-checked as much as possible to eliminate redundancies caused by cultural over-classification for some cultivars and grow outs and/or genetic testing conducted to provide further empirical validation. Such research is time consuming and never ending, but RAFT has created a collaborative umbrella under which future work can be fruitfully pursued. Attempts must also be made to make sure that similar research assumptions and protocols have been followed in each region studied in order to insure legitimate comparability. This process is unlikely to ever be perfect, but attempts at improving methodologies and results can continue to evolve.

More research is needed among orchardists and fruit tree owners across the Mountain South. Although this research did some preliminary investigation into heirloom fruits, it was hindered from being more comprehensive because of its sampling methodologies. A criterion for inclusion in this study was that an individual needed to be maintaining several heirloom vegetable varieties, but not necessarily fruit varieties as well. Heirloom fruit cultivars were documented but only as a complement to vegetable folk crop varieties. A more focused and comprehensive ethnographic investigation of the relationship between apples and culture in southern Appalachia is warranted to supplement the long-term apple collecting and documentation of regional experts such as Lee Calhoun (1995) and Tom Brown (2010). RAFT recently announced that is focusing its most recent agrobiodiversity conservation initiative called “Forgotten Fruits” on documenting, promoting, and reviving apple diversity in southern Appalachia, a development that could serve as a useful collaborative platform for more intensive research. In the Ozarks, apple orchards and backyard varieties have decline precipitously since the 1940s and are a rarity in the region today due to a variety of agroecological and economic factors. Since Ozark environmental conditions favor the growing of warmer season fruits, an intensive study of heirloom peaches and related cultural patterns would likely produce more significant results.

This research has shown that recent calls for more studies on the interrelationship between culture and agrobiodiversity (e.g. Nazarea 2006, 2005, 1998; Brush 2005, Perales et al.2005, Gonzales 2000) are not unfounded. Cultural salience was the most important factor guiding decision making in the Mountain South for continuing to grow heirloom cultivars. The recognition that agrobiodiversity persistence can be interpreted as falling into two broad categories—cultural and utilitarian salience—correlates with conclusions that Brush (2005) has made after four decades of intensive worldwide agrobiodiversity research. Further research could be conducted in diverse areas of the world to investigate motivations for agrobiodiversity persistence in comparative context. This research suggests vigorousness with which to pursue such studies. For every variety that is documented, farmers can be asked, “Why is this a variety that you choose to grow?” and then answers recorded verbatim and coded into cultural or utilitarian categories.

Researchers should discontinue a priori assumptions (usually based on previous studies that employed a priori assumptions) about why farmers maintain folk crop varieties and make sure that they question growers during fieldwork about every variety that they are maintaining before they come to conclusions. This last suggestion makes for intensive fieldwork but should be viewed as unavoidable if empirical understanding of the subject is desired to complement and develop conceptual frameworks. In addition, questions should continue to be asked about the categories that researchers employ to describe agricultural decision making. Though cultural and utilitarian salience are the most useful variables found in this research, they are not without their drawbacks, and the categories of researchers should never be assumed to correlate exactly with on-the-ground reality. Categories are a useful heuristic tool to understand research questions; but should always be questioned, refined, and improved upon by subsequent developments in the research process.

Local in vivo familial and community seed savers and are the basis for agrobiodiversity persistence in the Mountain South. In situ conservation programs that emphasis cultural identity, memories, and heritage along with local culinary traditions have already been established in the region and correlate directly with grower decision making processes that perpetuate heirloom cultivars. The strong interrelatedness of agrobiodiversity, culture, decision making, and conservation that this study reveals is in agreement with recent conceptual developments in anthropology (Nazarea 2006, Brush 2005) and also with empirical fieldwork conducted by researchers such as Tuxill (2005) in Mayan milpas in Yucatan, Mexico.

It would not be surprising if direct links between the retention of culture and agrobiodiversity were a worldwide phenomenon, as recent research on the subject has shown. However, applied collaborative research projects such as this one will need to be pursued in diverse locales to provide more empirical evidence on the subject and help improve in situ conservation and support in vivo seed savers. In the Mountain South, as is probably the case in other areas, agrobiodiversity conservation projects are hampered by low budgets, few personnel, and time crunches. Local seed savers often labor on the margins of society, are usually low-income and of the older generation, and do not often receive recognition or support for their important contributions to culture and agriculture. Academic research that is intent on both studying and supporting such in situ and in vivo efforts is indeed a timely example of how collaboration can be of benefit to everyone involved.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.