Saving the Southern Legacy: Heirloom Plants and Local Knowledge for Profitable, Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for LS96-078

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1996: $152,816.61
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $100,748.00
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Robert E. Rhoades
University of Georgia
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Project Information


One month after the end of the SARE’s three years of support (Sept., 1999), the Southern Seed Legacy (SSL) was established as an independent, self-supporting institution. Over 175 members voluntarily contributed $10 or higher membership donations. Over 300 heirloom seeds were curated, a resource directory of 116 pages and a teaching packet/tool kit were published, the annual seed swap was successful and numerous presentations were made at conferences. A marketing study was conducted and Pass Along Southern Seeds (PASS) was implemented. Virginia Nazarea, Co-PI, won a national anthropology award for “memory banking” in SSL.

The aroma of old-timey Plumgranny melons, the pattern of speckles on Moon & Stars watermelon, the flavor of broth from Blue Goose peas...these are some of the exceptional qualities of old-timey varieties. Their quaint names have a familiar ring to long-time Southerners and raise the curiosity of newcomers. Through a broad-based collaborative effort, the Southern Seed Legacy (SSL) strives to reverse the erosion of genetic variation and cultural knowledge in the South through research and education. The research component is focused on “memory banking,” interviewing people across the southern states familiar with their local heirloom varieties in order to more fully document the associated knowledge and expertise. Also, SSL is promoting on-farm and university-based research assessing genetic variability and adaptations of heirloom varieties to further our understanding of their use within sustainable agriculture production systems.

The Southern Seed Legacy, originated informally in 1993 to correct the absence of the American South in the emerging national system of grassroots networks dedicated to saving U.S. crop heirloom diversity. Funded in 1996, our initial research found active seed saving and exchange of particularly Southern varieties of vegetable, fruit, ornamental and other useful domesticated plants. These varieties were important as heirlooms in some families and ethnic groups, but they were becoming less and less available. In addressing “genetic erosion”, SSL has expanded efforts to both document and bolster support for seed saving and continued cultivation of these “old-timey” crops in their home regions. To date, we have documented over one thousand heirlooms with more than 300 samples held in curation. Moreover, we are discovering through our memory banking research that many of these heirloom seeds and plants serve as artifacts of larger cultural expressions (cuisine, folklore, community values, social customs), that they serve as connections to ancestry, identity and what it means to be Southern in a globalizing world.

The outreach and education component of this project has involved building a Southern region-wide SSL Network, outreach visits, presentations, exhibits, display gardens, teaching kits, and SSLP-sponsored workshops/conferences. The SSL Network, a communication and information network, is linking seed savers and seed seekers of different states and is encouraging and supporting heirloom variety cultivation, seed saving and exchange among growers. While appreciating the value of formal germplasm repositories, heirloom seed companies and national seed exchanges, the SSL Network addresses and supports the complementary need for decentralized, on site conservation by people within the different agroeco-regions of the South, whether in backyards, on farms, in gardens, in schools, or at historic sites.

Project Objectives:

Specific objectives with key accomplishments of the project were:

1. Identify and contact individuals, communities and organizations active in heirloom plant conservation, seed savers and documenting heirloom varieties being maintained in the South. The “Southern Seed Legacy Resource Directory” contains a listing of 242 seed savers from twelve Southern states. In addition, 375 organizations (living history farms, botanical gardens, etc.) interested in seed saving are listed. The SSL has over 175 paying members who receive the resource directory and annual newsletter. Members and other people interested in heirloom seeds participate at the annual seed swap held in May. A website ( was also established.

2. “Southern Memories”study and map the “at risk” heirloom plant varieties culturally and historically relevant to ethnic groups within the agroecoregions of the South. The Southern region was mapped by agroecological zone and ethnicity and heirloom plant locations pinpointed. A Ph.D. dissertation research and two M.S. thesis on the coast, piedmont and Appalachian region and ethnic valuation of heirlooms was supported. Rich data reporting from Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, but less from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida and Virginia. Most heirlooms are preserved in the mountain river valleys of Appalachia and the Ozarks.

3. Document knowledge and expertise associated with heirloom varieties. Preserve the expertise, personal memories and knowledge of the people who use these varieties through memory banking. During the three years, data on 200 individuals regarding seed stories and memories has been collected. The oral tapes are being transcribed. A survey in 1997 of 68 seed savers provided information on 790 heirlooms. A number of books and articles were published by Pis and staff on “memory banking” (see publication list). One of these booklets “Yesterday’s ways, Tomorrow’s Treasures: A Guide to Conserving Memories, Seeds and Other Slippery Gems” (Kendall/ Hunt: Dubuque, Iowa) is in its third printing. Mr. Ernest Keheley, an 85 year old seed saver, won the 1999 SSL Award for his efforts. Virginia Nazarea won the National 1999 Praxis Award in Anthropology for her “memory banking” concept.

4. Conduct marketing and “value added” studies on heirlooms and products. Jim Worstell, Delta Land and Community Coordinator, in a study of 221 farmers markets in the Delta learned that only four involved seeds saving participants. In 1999, Todd Crane, a graduate student at UGA, conducted a major study in the Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina area. He also looked at commercial market across the U.S. (catalogs, on-line listings, retail seed outlets). In farmers markets, heirlooms fetch a higher price while through commercial outlets (Virtual Seed, Burpee, Harris Seed) heirlooms are cheaper. The marketing study will be published as a report in 2000.

5. Facilitate the exchange of both germplasm and associated knowledge. During the three years of the project, the SSL organized three annual seed swaps, participated in more than 20 conferences, made 18 presentations and communicated with literally hundreds of seed savers in the South. Through our 1999 Resource Directory (300 copies distributed) and regular newsletter, we have spread information far and wide. Copies of “Yesterday’s Ways, Tomorrow’s Treasures: Heirloom plants and Memory Banking”, the Teaching Packet and Tool Kits were sent to over 50 educators and have been used for large introductory classes in Anthropology and Environmental literacy. A revised 2000 edition of the SSL Resource Directory is in process and will be available in September, 2000. Also in the SSL Resource Directory are state-by-state listings of farmer’s markets, living history farms and museums, botanical gardens, seed saving and alternative agriculture organizations, regional seed companies, agricultural newspapers, kindred web sites and a bibliography of suggested readings. This year also saw the further development of PASS. We have added information about PASS: Passalong Southern Seeds initiative and listings of seed available to our Southern Memories web site ( This has generated over 30 requests for seed that participants will agree to grow out, record performance information about and then return one third of the seed to SSL, keeping one third for themselves and pass along the final third.


The importance of conserving land races or heirloom crops has received a great deal of national and international attention in recent years. A large number of both scientific and lay publications have appeared (e.g., Raeburn 1995; Weaver 1997; Rhoades and Nazarea in press) and major conferences have been convened to address the issues surrounding both ex situ and in situ conservation of land races (e.g., “Preserving Crop Biodiversity and Saving Seeds in the Northeast” held in November, 1997, at Penn State and funded by SARE). This concern grows from a complex of mutually reinforcing factors -- higher yields, profitability, markets, machine harvesting and consumer demand -- which have made farmers increasingly dependent on hybrid varieties of relatively homogeneous genetic makeup (Hawkes 1990, National Research Council 1989). The danger of over-dependence on a narrow genetic base was dramatically driven home in 1971 when almost 50% of the southern corn crop was devastated by a new fungus (Rhoades 1991). A study by the National Academy of Sciences (1972) shortly afterwards revealed that a lack of biodiversity in most major American crops made them vulnerable to disease, vagaries of climate and pests. This trend of genetic erosion leaves modern plant breeders, not to mention low-resource farmers balancing precariously on the brink of poverty, with little margin for error.

In response to the urgent need to enhance diversity of the plants crucial to American agriculture, corrective steps were taken after the 1971 corn blight by policy makers, plant breeders and local farmers. The USDA national germplasm system was strengthened through increased funding and improved facilities. Plant breeders and germplasm collectors stepped up their efforts to collect and preserve the wild ancestors and folk varieties of our most important food and fiber crops. Although biosphere reserves and gene banks have offered solutions for the conservation of cultivated crops and their wild relatives, they cannot effectively substitute for in situ conservation of heirloom varieties. Farmers and gardeners who maintain folk varieties, or old, rare, or commercially unavailable varieties of crops are practicing in situ conservation. Currently, in situ practices conserve plant genetic resources at no cost of the world’s citizenry, since smallholder farmers subsidize the dynamic evolution of crop varieties under constant human and environmental selection. In addition, crop genetic resources remain locally controlled and accessible to folk breeders themselves (Soleri and Cleveland 1993: 206).

To fully appreciate farmer’s roles in the development and maintenance of crop diversity, researchers have investigated knowledge systems of local people pertaining to plants and other components of the environment as well as the factors that influence their decisions and behavior (Boster 1984; Behrens 1989; Furbee 1989; Armanor 1991; Nazarea-Sandoval 1992; Osunade 1992; Chitere and Omolo 1993). These researchers have discovered that local people have complex classification systems for numerous components of their agricultural systems including plants, insects and soils. Indeed, local people possess valuable, detailed information about the characteristics of different crop varieties (e.g., drought, flood, or pest resistance, storage characteristics and gastronomic characteristics and visual appeal) based upon the accumulated experience of centuries of interaction with the environment. This knowledge base shapes and directs the selection of various crop types for consumption and re-planting. Consequently, numerous researchers have suggested that in situ conservation is best achieved through the maintenance of traditional knowledge and agroecosystems (Nazarea 1996; Altieri and Merrick 1987; Brush 1989, 1991; Oldfield and Alcorn 1991; Soleri and Cleveland 1993; Rhoades 1994).

One response to the need to save and promote traditional varieties has been the seed saving movement in the United States. Especially active have been local seed savers, small and large seed companies, representatives of the National Germplasm System and non-profit organizations in the Northeastern region (e.g., Eastern Native Seeds Conservancy), Midwest (Seed Savers Exchange), Southwest (e.g., Native Seed Search) and West Coast (e.g., Good Seed Company). In virtually all listings of such groups, however, the American South is absent except for a couple of commercial seed companies. Curiously, even in the South when sources of seed saving are discussed only seed saving groups geographically outside our cultural region are mentioned (e.g., in William Woys Weaver’s new 1997 book “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening”). This, we feel, is a grassroots concern which needs to be addressed in the South by the people of the South.


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  • Virginia Nazarea


Materials and methods:

The SSL is composed of a wide range of scientific disciplines and user groups to collect, preserve and multiply the heirloom materials and to record the cultural information which is embedded in the heirlooms themselves. Thus, farmers, gardeners, orchard owners and community action groups are joined by a team of ethnobotanists, plant geneticists, horticulturalists, students, private business, cooperative extensionists and government officials in a concerted effort to preserve both cultural and genetic diversity. All participants have personal or professional roots in the South. These individuals are working together to build data collection and sharing protocols. In addition to networking through the newsletter, field trips, conferences and participant observation, the SSL promotes user-friendly methods to collect both seeds and information about Southern heirlooms and their curators: participant surveys, memory banking in-depth interviewing, seed collection, in situ experiments and field trips.

1. The Southern Seed Legacy participant survey.
Beginning in January, 1997, a brief informational survey questionnaire was included in the first mailing of the newsletter Seedlink to potential participants. In addition, the survey was sent to interested persons and distributed at conferences and workshops on sustainable agriculture. The aim of the survey was to build an initial information source to link prospective seed savers and to build the resource directory. Subsequently, we have followed up with additional mailed surveys which have continued to yield valuable information.

2. Memory banking methods
Selected seed savers contacted through the newsletter, visits to the field, at workshops and through telephone inquiries were approached to be interviewed using our memory banking protocol (published as a booklet by Kendall Hunt Company). During Spring, 1997, three graduate students from UGA contacted individuals for in-depth research on Southern cowpeas and moon and stars watermelons. In addition, a summer field school called “Southern Memories” involving three UGA students was directed by Nazarea and assisted by Eleanor Tison and Robert Rhoades. The result of these efforts yielded over twenty-five in-depth in-depth interviews which have been transcribed and placed in the database. This work continues as more participants are contacted.

3. Collection of seeds.
Based on accession methodology designed specifically for our project, 300+ varieties are stored at the Ethnoecology/Biodiversity Laboratory, with possibly 100 or more still to be catalogued and prepared for storage. Each accession is cross-referenced to the taped oral description given by the seed saver.

4. In situ horticultural experiments and gene banks.
During early Spring 1997, varieties were grown out in the Department of Horticulture green house at the University of Georgia. Some of this material was transferred to a Southern Seed Legacy garden established at the Georgia State Botanical Gardens in Athens, Georgia. The former, supported by the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of agriculture and the Southern State Agriculture Experiment Station, has the capacity to characterize, maintain and evaluate genetic resources of agricultural and horticultural crops, including wild species, wild and weed relatives, land races, obsolete and current cultivars and genetic stocks. The latter, with its environmental education programs already in place, will assist in development, display and research of collections associated with the Southern Seed Legacy Project. The Southern seed Legacy Garden was visited by hundreds of patrons of the Botanical Gardens. Each heirloom seed was identified by its common name. In select cases, descriptions of the personal lives of seed savers were displayed in front of plants. A horticultural study on ‘moon and stars’ watermelon was funded by the project.

5. Map the actual distribution of heirloom varieties and location of participatory seed savers.
This component involves agroecological mapping and determination of “at risk” varieties is only now getting underway. A basic level of data collection was necessary for this activity. A base map has been generated and the geographical location of the varieties reported or collected by SSL has been determined. Initial findings show that the highest intensity of seed saving occurs in the marginal zones to agro-industrial agricultural areas (e.g., mountains, coastal islands, etc.). The “at risk” varieties are now being analyzed. The work of the Delta Land Community group led by Dr. Jim Worstell has been mot illuminating in relation to the Delta area and its surrounding agroecosystems.

6. Marketing study.
Two marketing studies were conducted: one in 1997 by Dr. Jim Worstell (Delta Land and community) which was very preliminary and a more detailed one by Todd Crane (UGA graduate student) during the summer of 1999. Results are presented below.

Research results and discussion:

1. Summary of Southern Seed Legacy Participant Survey (1997)

During 1997, 75 Southern Seedy Legacy Participant Surveys were returned to the Ethnoecology/Biodiversity Lab. The Participant Surveys were distributed with Seedlink newsletter, in Fall 1996 and Spring 1997, at the Heirloom Plant Workshop at the State Botanical Gardens, Spring 1997 and at a heritage festival in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, Fall 1997. The surveys were returned from nine states. Thirty-nine percent were returned from Tennessee, 19% from Georgia, 14.7% from North Carolina, 7.4% from both Kentucky and South Carolina, 4.4% from both Alabama and Arkansas and 1.5%, or one survey each, from both Mississippi and Oklahoma. In 1998-99, we received an additional 60 survey forms which have not yet been analyzed.

The survey requested the participants’ name, address, phone number and organization. The participants were also asked to describe themselves or their organization as home gardener, commercial farmer, scientist, museum, or botanical garden, etc. and the landscape type where they live or garden. Other information obtained from the survey was whether the participants had any information about heirloom varieties, as well as the names of any heirloom varieties they would like to find. Finally, participants were asked whether they would like to be listed in the Southern Seed Legacy Project Resource Directory and if they would be willing to give a personal interview.

Forty-seven percent of the 1997 survey respondent were female and 76.5% were home gardeners/seed savers. Eight percent of respondents were commercial farmers, 4% were researchers/scientists and 2% were from a living history museum/heritage site or heirloom seed company. Not all of the participants indicated a landscape type, but of those that did; the majority were from the Piedmont, eighteen respondents; followed by those from the Mountains and Coastal Plain, fifteen and twelve respondents respectively. Three participants indicated that they were from the Central Plains and two were from Floodplain landscape type. Seven participants noted that they were from some other landscape type than the choices offered on the survey.

Of those who responded to the survey, 75% were willing to be listed in the Southern Seed Legacy Resource Directory and 35.8% were willing to be contacted for a personal interview or visit. Seventy-five percent of the participants indicated that they saved seeds or that they had heirloom varieties to offer. Half of the respondents listed heirloom varieties that they were currently searching for, about which they would like more information.

2. Summary of Heirloom Varieties Listed in SSLP Survey Response (1997)

The Southern Seed Legacy Project (SSLP) has been informed of 788 heirloom varieties of plants from the respondents to the SSL participant survey (see attached Tables 1 and 2). Respondents to the SSL survey were asked to list any old-old-old-timey, heirloom, or rare variety that they knew about or from which they were actively saving seed. The majority of varieties listed were apples. One respondent from Gadsden, Alabama indicated that she had 200 varieties of apples on here property in the Mountain Region. Another respondent, from Pinnacle, North Carolina, wrote that he had over 400 varieties of apples on his farm in the Piedmont (Table 3). Of the remaining heirloom varieties about which SSLP was informed, the majority were beans, at 109 varieties. Twenty-three varieties of beans were reported from the Coastal Plain, 57 from the Mountain Valley region, 16 from the Piedmont and the rest were from the Central Plains, Floodplain, Mountain, or other regions (with 5,2,3 and 3 varieties, respectively). There were also thirteen varieties of melons reported, including cantaloupes, plumgranny and watermelons. Two varieties of melons were reported from the coastal plain and four varieties were reported from both the Mountain valley and Piedmont Regions. Eight varieties of tomatoes were reported and seven varieties of peppers. Survey respondents reported knowing a total of four heirloom varieties of okra, three varieties of garlic, three varieties of peanuts and two varieties of both cucumbers and sweet potatoes. Other varieties that were only mentioned once were gourds, lettuce, strawberries, turnips and Chinkapin and cherry trees. Participants in the SSL survey also reported four varieties of flowers, two varieties from the Mountain region and two varieties from the Piedmont.

3. Research on Southern Seeds of Delta Land and Community (1998)

Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky each have several counties in the Delta and others in the hills. Agriculture is king in the Delta and increasingly secondary in the hills. In the Delta regions of each state, farmers markets seem to be dying, few people raise gardens and anyone who saves seed is almost viewed as eccentric. In the hills just a few miles away, whether in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas, or the Appalachians, gardening and saving seed is common and usually seen as admirable pursuits.

In some parts of the hills, such activities are even seen as morally superior. Church of the Seventh Day, Pilgrim Baptist Church and various Holiness churches believe the scriptures say not to use hybrid seed. Members are exhorted to save their own seed (Bill Neismith, University of Kentucky, personal communication, November, 1997).

In the Delta, the prevailing attitude is expressed in comments such as:

∙ “Hardly anyone even gardens in Walthall County anymore and everyone who does buys their seed fresh every year.”- Lamar Adams, coordinator of the now dormant Walthall County Farmers Market in Tylertown, Mississippi
∙ “No one around here saves seed anymore because hybrids yield so much better.”- Billy Carter, Manager Central Farmers Market, Jackson, Mississippi
∙ “No one at the market saves their own seeds.”- Louise Scroggins, coordinator of the Crawford County Farmers Market in Van Buren, Arkansas
∙ “There used to be a lot of seed savers, but they’re all in nursing homes.”- Anonymous vendor at River Market in Little Rock, Arkansas

But climb just a few miles into the hills, for example to Columbus, Mississippi and the Columbus Farmers Market has a strong contingent of seed savers selling vegetables every day of the season. These farmers include:
∙ Doris Bucci, whose family has saved a type of corn they call “Yellar Jarvis.” Yeller Jarvis has fat ears with unusually plump kernels that older people like to cut off, put in a skillet with butter and fry, because it tastes better than regular sweet corn. Her husband’s family has saved the “Hillbilly tomato” which is red with orange stripes or markings and has a great taste-not bland like Adkins or too acidic like Better Boy.
∙ Lacy Freeman saves the “Poinsettia pepper”- This red pepper grows in clusters, sticking straight up with 20-30 fruit in a cluster.

These seed saving farmers are like most of their brethren- they all know other people who save seed. The beans the Columbus market farmers like best were obtained from Ira Gosa of Bean Station, Tennessee. Bean Station is home to several people who save bean seed. Two of the most popular are the Goose bean and the Turkey Craw bean. The former is said to have originally come from the craw of a goose and the latter from a turkey.

Several dozen lines of Goose beans are present in Appalachia. Loyal Jones of Berea College has found that each of the lines in Eastern Kentucky is alleged to have been cut from the craw of a goose by a grandmother or aunt or great-grandmother in each family.

The second most common bean seed saved in Kentucky seems to be the Greasy bean- so called because it lacks the fuzzy pods of most beans.

In Bean Station, a similar bean with the same smooth skin is called the Greasy Back. Ira Gosa grows the White Greasy Back. It’s one of three types of Greasy Backs he’s familiar with. The other two are the Cutshort (which is a brown bean) and the Brown Greasy Back (which he’d really like to have, but can’t find).

In Eastern Kentucky, the Cutshort (named due to the squared off ends of the beans resulting from close spacing of beans in the pod) is also common and the same three types of beans are the commonly cited variants of the Greasy bean.

The taste of the Cutshort has been responsible recently for changing the eating patterns in up-scale restaurants in Lexington, Kentucky. Several restaurants, such as Alfalfa’s, now serve only Cutshort, according to Bill Best of the Lexington Farmers Market.

This local renaissance of heirloom varieties through the agency of farmers markets appears to be a phenomenon of the hills, not the Delta. In Arkansas, the trend is similar. Seed saving in the Delta seems to have virtually disappeared, while in the adjoining hill country, seed savers thrive. Many of the Arkansas seed lines migrated form the hills of Kentucky to the hills of the Ozarks. Clarksville, Arkansas has a number of families which save a no-name variety of pole bean. These beans came from Kentucky with the families who first settled this part of Arkansas. They are multiple use beans- used as green beans, dry beans and shelly beans. When used as shelly beans, the beans are treated much as sweet corn, they are shelled out of the pod and usually boiled, just briefly.

The strategy of contacting farmers markets in the Delta to find seed savers has not been as successful as anticipated. Twenty-two markets in Mississippi, seventeen in Arkansas, four in Kentucky, one in Louisiana and one in Missouri were contacted with personal visits and/or phone calls to market coordinators. About one out of seven had any growers who saved seed. Whenever a market did have a seed saver, he or she usually knew of others and often from other states. These contacts were almost invariably outside the Delta. It appears that the few Delta seed savers who still exist maintain vital contacts with people where seed saving is more prominent.

People who do save seed appear to always be a node in an informal network. The social reinforcement of knowing people who encourage instead of ridiculing seed saving may be crucial in maintaining this practice- especially in the face of official discouragement from land grant researchers and extension agents. One plant pathologist in Kentucky, recently searching for virus resistance in heirloom bean varieties, was surprised when people responded, “You’ve been telling many of us to not save seed for years and now you want us to find saved seed?”. Yet he found that many people had been ignoring the modern advice of Extension. He was inundated with over a hundred different bean varieties resulting from a single one-page letter to county offices.

This inundation did not come from the Delta, however; saved seed availability declined precipitously the further away from the mountains and the further into the richer farmland of Western Kentucky. In addition, when seed saving does persist in the Delta, it appears not to be prevalent among those who grow for the fresh produce market.

The family which manages the Open Air Curbside Market in Laurel, Mississippi saves seed of an heirloom butter bean, but none of the growers at their market saves seed. The manager of another small open-air market in Mississippi observed that “Delta people don’t save seed.” He suggested trying counties up on the Tennessee line where he is from where, “Lots of people up there save seed because poor hillbillies had to save money every way they could.” None of the growers at his market saved seed, but he thought local home gardeners might.

Establishing a seed savers network in the South is vital, but locating members for the network through farmers markets was not as fruitful as expected. Most growers, who sell at farmers markets in Arkansas and Mississippi, choose commercial varieties and very few save seed. In most counties in the region, seed saving is done only by home gardeners for their own use. A better source of seed savers might be the master gardener program. As part of this survey, we have encountered three Master Gardener groups- all of which included at least one seed saver. Each Master Gardener program has a local county contact in the Extension office. Informal networks of seed savers (including the seed saving churches of Appalachia) appear to exist throughout the more marginal areas of agriculture in the South. Looking for seed savers in the Delta has uncovered a number of links to seed savers in other areas. In the Delta, as in many other rich agricultural areas, the forces of commodification have captured seed saving. To counter this trend, delta Land and Community will continue its work to encourage and publicize seed saving in the Delta. Dr. Ari Mwachofi of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, established a welfare-to-work project which combines seed saving with market gardening. However, the path to a revival of Delta seed saving will be steeper than in other regions such as Eastern Kentucky and the Ozarks.

4. Marketing Study

In addition to the Delta Land and Community study mentioned above, we supported a UGA anthropology graduate student to conduct a study of heirloom markets in the South. Following a literature search in the library, the internet and a phone survey of key informants and commercial companies in the South, the student (Todd Crane) visited individual markets in Georgia and North Carolina. Commercial outlets (organic stores, seed stores, gardening chains) were also visited. Heirlooms are defined as: open pollinated, over 50 years old, and have a history or narrative that comes along with them. The study showed a paradox: heirlooms as the paragon of informal culture is now becoming a highly commercial phenomenon. They fetch premium prices at farmers’ markets or at upscale restaurants. A series of new research questions are raised.

5. Memory banking results

The “memory banking” component focused on interviewing people across the Southern states familiar with their local heirloom varieties in order to more fully document the associated knowledge and expertise. Data on over 200 individuals were collected and entered into the data files. This information was colleted through a variety of mechanisms, including direct interviews in the field, “Foxfire”-style data collection involving students interviewing their parents and grandparents and interviews at seed swaps/conferences. Approximately 500 undergraduate students in two introductory anthropology classes at the University of Georgia participated in the project by doing memory banking with their families, neighbors and others with knowledge about heirlooms. This part of SSLP was supported through a small University of Georgia teaching grant, “Memories at the Millennium”, awarded to the Principal Investigators. With the widening gulf between generations and subsequent erosion of Southern heritage and heirloom seeds, this is and excellent opportunity to engage young people’s interest in their heritage. For our efforts in working with the Foxfire Fund of Rabun Gap, Georgia, to save the Foxfire archives (a project also connected with a class offered by Dr. Nazarea on data analysis), the team was awarded the 1998 President’s Award given to non-archivists by the Society of Georgia Archivists.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Nazarea, Virginia, Eleanor Tison, Maricel Piniero and Robert Rhoades. 1997. Yesterday’s Ways, Tomorrow’s Treasures: A Guide to Conserving Memories, Seeds and Other Slippery Gems. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1996. Fields of Memories as Everyday resistance. Cultural Survival Quarterly. 10(1): 61-66.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1997. Memory Banking Protocol: a Guide for Documenting Local Knowledge Associated with Traditional Crop Varieties. Southern Seed Legacy: Athens, Georgia. 28 pages.

Rhoades, R. and V. Nazarea. 1996. Local-Global Disarticulations in Plant Genetic Resources Conservation. Diversity. 12(2): 5-6.

Tison, Eleanor and Gabriella Flora. 1996. Saving the Southern Legacy: Heirloom Seeds, Traditional Practices and Memories. Bifurcation. 3(2): 1-2.

Yates, Stephanie. 1997-98. The Changing Face of Agriculture in the US: The Case of Carthage, Tennessee. Bifurcation. 5(1): 7.

Price, Katie. 1997-98. Are Mexican Immigrants in Atlanta finding what they left behind? Bifurcation. 5(1): 5.

Diana Dry, for Masters in Conservation Biology/Sustainable Development, UGA A Cowpea Comparison: Towards and Understanding of the Biological and Cultural Value of Heirloom Cowpea Varieties (Vigna unguiculata ssp. Unguiculata). Completed 7/97.

Rhoades, Robert E. And Virginia Nazarea. 1998. Local Management of Biodiversity in Traditional Ecosystems. In W. Collins and C. Qualset (eds.), Biodiversity in Agroecosystems. Boca Raton, New York, London: CRC Press.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1999. A View from a Point: Ethnoecology as situated Knowledge. In V.D. Nazarea (ed.), Ethnoecology; Situated Knowledge/Located Lives. Tucson: University of Arizona.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1999. Lenses and Latitudes in Landscapes and Lifescapes. In V.D. Nazarea (ed.), Ethnoecology; Situated Knowledge/Located Lives. Tucson: University of Arizona.

Rhoades, Robert E. 1999. Introduction: Foxfire Eleven. New York: Anchor Books. Pp1-5.

Seedlink newsletter- Seven issues of 500 copies each distributed Fall 1996, Spring 1997, Spring and Winter 1998, Spring and Winter 1999 and Winter 2000. Each issue contains numerous articles, research briefs and news items.

Nazarea, Virginia D. 1999. Cultural Memory and Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Southern Seed Legacy. 1999. Southern Heirloom Resource Directory. Athens, Georgia.

Brown, Stephanie. Thesis for Masters in Horticulture, UGA. Genetic Variation and Local Adaptation of Moon and Stars Variety Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus v.): A Multi-regional, On-farm Trial (in progress).

Ethnographic Research Training Project, Heirloom Varieties and Seed Savers in Sea Island and Coastal Georgia-Eleanor Tison, doctoral student in Department of Anthropology (based on Summer 1996 research funded by NSF grant, anticipated completed date 1/97) Doctoral dissertation on same topic continues at the filing of this final report.

Education and Outreach

The project components are linked with each other principally through the SSL network made up of both users (farmers, gardeners, herbalists, museums, consumers) and scientists. Over the past year, the network has contacted hundreds of heirloom savers. A directory is in its final stages of preparation which will contain the addresses and seed specializations of many of those savers.

Strategies for outreach and education, as well as network building and maintenance, include:

1. Newsletter- Over the past year, 500 copies of seven issues of Seedlink (Fall 1996, Spring 1997, Spring and Winter 1998, Spring and Winter 1999 and Winter 2000) our project newsletter, have been published and mailed to interested parties. The newsletter contains articles of both a scientific and general nature. It also includes information from individuals from which seeds and local knowledge are collected and other interested parties.

2. SSL Resource Directory- A directory of network members has been distributed to 300 individuals. It will be distributed to network members and other interested parties. The directory also includes information concerning organizations and institutions which can provide technical support to growers.

3. Agreement with Foxfire Foundation- Southern Seed Legacy and Foxfire have agreed to work together on a number of issues including research and outreach. A special seminar in the Winter quarter, 1998, led by Dr. Nazarea, in which University of Georgia students analyzed information on plants (wild and heirlooms) and determined the degree of genetic and memory erosion which had occurred over the past thirty years. For this effort, the class won the 1998 President’s Award from the Georgia Archivists Society.

4. Seedlink Regional Representatives- Local active network members will be encouraged to collect voucher specimens of their regions heirloom varieties for demonstration purposes, interview local seed savers and bring this information to a wider audience by putting up displays at county and state fairs and at state agricultural expositions and sustainable agriculture conferences, as well as serve as liaison to the Seedlink newsletter reporting on events, heirloom profiles and seed savers from their region.

5. Memory Banking Web Page- An interactive multimedia website called “Southern Memories” has been developed and is presently being updated and refined ( This website is linked with the Memory Web ( in the Ethnoecology/Biodiversity Laboratory at the University of Georgia which has an international focus.

6. “Seed Heritage” and Memory Banking Teaching Packets- With public schools and 4-H clubs, pilot teaching packets and lesson plans geared towards middle schools in the South are being developed, tested and revised.

7. PASS (Pass Along Southern Seed)- PASS is an initiative to promote the conservation through use of both cultural knowledge and heirloom plants of the American South. It was initiated in the Spring of 1999, at the turn of the new millennium, by passing on seeds that have been conserved by Southern farmers and home gardeners and donated to SSLP over the past two years. The aim is to connect seed savers with home gardeners who are looking for old-timey varieties and to pass along heirlooms and knowledge associated with the plants as well. SSLP makes the seeds available for exchange, offers cultural background on each variety to interested participants and provides plant journals and film for recording the performance of the seeds In return, we request that the caretakers return a copy of their detailed records on the performance of the seeds, the characteristics and cooking quality of the produce, as well as their growing methods. The growers keep one-third of the harvested seed, return one-third to SSLP and pass along one-third to other interested gardeners/farmers.

8. Annual Seed Swap- Seed Swaps were held in 1997, 1998 and 1999. Over 150 farmers, gardeners and visitors participated by swapping seeds. It was also a cultural event with a live bluegrass band, a survival skills demonstration, a pig roast and cookout. The Seed Swap will continue each year on the Agrarian Connections Farm, located in Oglethorpe County, Georgia.

9. Listings in Magazines and Guides- The SSL is now being listed as a resource in heirloom sections of garden magazines (National Gardening), newspapers (Atlanta Journal and Constitution) and places like USDA series on “Vegetables and Fruits: A Guide to Heirloom Varieties and Community-Based Stewardship (Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, USDA Beltsville, Maryland)

10. Outreach Trips: In efforts to identify existing seed exchange networks, contact potential SSLP members, pass on information about SSLP, and record the diversity of culturally relevant crops, representatives of the SSLP project attended many agricultural events in the fall of 1996 and the following county fairs, harvest festivals, and experiment station field days. Trips outside of the southern region provide examples of how similar projects are operating and meeting their community’s needs.

- Harvest Festival at the Farm, Summertown, TN September 28-29, 1996
- Georgia Agricultural Fair September, 1996
- Mule Day, Washington, GA October 6, 1996
- Blairsville Experiment Station field Day, GA October 11, 1996
- Annual sorghum Festival, Blairsville, GA October 11, 1996
- Southern Appalachia Man and the Biosphere Conference November 5-7, 1996
- Carolina Farm Stewardship Meeting November 9-10, 1996
- High Desert Research Farm, Abiqiue, New Mexico November 9-10, 1996
- Georgia Organic Growers Sustainable Agriculture Conference November 24, 1996
- Interview with Ernest Kehely, Marietta, GA January 3, 1997
- Tennessee Heirloom Seed Collecting Trip January 30, 1997
- Southern Heirloom Gardening Symposium May 10, 1997
- Washington Mule Day October 3, 1997
- Heritage Festival, Red Boiling Springs, TN October 5, 1997
- Museum of Appalachia, Anderson Co., TN October 12, 1997
- Interview with Ernest Kehely, Athens, GA October 18, 1997
- Georgia Organic Growers Sustainable Ag. Conf., Jackson Co., GA Nov 22, 1997
- Exchange booth at 13th Annual Carolina Farm Stewardship November 6-8, 1998
Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Clemson, SC
- Collecting trip and visit to North Carolina (Robert Rhoades March, 1999
and Cary Fowler)
- Mule Day, Washington, GA October 10, 1999
- Foxfire Festival, Mountain city, GA October, 1999
- Exchange booth and workshop at 14th Annual Carolina November, 1999
Farm Stewardship Association, High Points, NC


Local-global (Dis)articulations in Plant Genetic Resource Conservation. Symposium organized by Drs. Robert Rhoades and Virginia Nazarea at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings, March 27-31, 1996, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Virginia Nazarea. Memory Web: A Database for Local Knowledge by Local People. Paper presented at the 5th International congress of Ethnobiology. Nairobi, Kenya. September, 1996.

Tison, Eleanor. Memory Banking in the south. January 17, 1997. Ethnographic Research Training Departmental symposium, department of Anthropology, Athens, Georgia.

Tison, Eleanor and Diana Dry. ‘Nothin’ like our red pea!’ the Cultural Relevance of Heirloom Varieties. Plenary Session Paper at Society of Ethnobiology Annual Meeting, Athens, GA. March 27, 1997.

Tison, Eleanor. People as Biodiversity Managers: Building a Southern Seed Legacy. Paper presented on the Southern Seed Legacy at the Southern Appalachia Man and the biosphere Conference, Gattlinburg, Tennessee, November 5-7, 1996.

Tison, Eleanor. Panel discussion member on session discussing Community Resource Use. Open to the public Seabrook Museum Makin’ Do conference/Festival, Midway, GA. October 31-November 2, 1996.

Nazarea, Virginia. Creating a Memory Web for Sustainable Agriculture. Keynote Address, Gatlinburg Symposium on Sustainable Agriculture: Crop Improvement and Resource, 1995.

Dry, Diana; Stephanie Brown, and Eleanor Tison. Organized a session on “Southern Seed Legacy” at Society of Ethnobiology Annual Meeting, March 1997.

Nazarea, Virginia and students. Organized a session “Roots and Rootedness in Southern Appalachia” at the 1998 American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia, PA.

Nazarea, Virginia and Robert Rhoades. “The Southern Seed Legacy: Pass Along Seeds and Memories.” Invited presentation to the Oglethorpe County Historical Society, Georgia. 1998.
Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Cultural Memory and Biodiversity: A Matter of Persistence. Colloquium Series on the Cultural-Biological Interface of Plant Genetic Resources Research and Conservation.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Jumping Genes and Seed-Saving Genies: Lessons from Barbara McClintock. Department of Anthropology Colloquium, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Memories, Anyone? Cultural Persistence as a Key to Biodiversity Conservation. Biodiversity Conservation Series, Agroecology Program, Ohio State University, Wooster and Columbus, Ohio.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Refracted Landscapes. Invited paper for Session on Ethnoecology and Sense of Place. 97th American Anthropology Association Annual Meeting. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Yesterday’s Ways, tomorrow’s Treasures: Memory Banking for Biodiversity conservation. Invited presentation for Session on Community-based Conservation Strategies. 3rd International Symposium on Sustainable Mountain Development, Quito, Ecuador.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Locally-initiated and Locally-sustained Memory Banking and In Situ Conservation. Invited lecture to Ecosiencia, Quito, Ecuador.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Colporteurs, Seedsavers, and jumping Genes. Center for the Humanities Lunch-in-Theory Series, Athens, Georgia.

Nazarea, Virginia. 1998. Collecting Traditional Knowledge About Herbs. International Herb Conference, Athens, Georgia.

Tison, E. And Maricel Piniero. The SSL presented to Farmers Group, Athens-Clarke Co. Cooperative Extension Service, Athens GA. January, 2000.

Displays and Exhibits

Southern Heirloom Demonstration Garden, Georgia State Botanical Garden, Athens. In collaboration with Botanical Garden personnel, a garden containing heirloom varieties collected by SSLP representatives and donated by individuals across the south was planted and exhibited in 1997-98 at the State Botanical Garden, Athens. Interpretive displays next to the various heirlooms included individual farmers’ (horti)cultural practices and stories, along with pictures of them and/or their farms and gardens.

Southern Heirloom Demonstration Garden at Seabrook Museum, Midway, GA. Demonstration was varied out in spring and summer of 1997 emphasizing local heirloom cowpeas, and Seminole Red pea.

Atlanta History Museum, Atlanta, GA. Provided input and advise for the design of native American garden demonstration in the display “Native American Lands in Georgia” (1999-2000).

SSL Mobile Displays. The display for the SSL project includes a map of the agroecological regions and associated crops, describes methods for collecting information, and also discusses memory banking initiative.
- Baldwin Hall, Anthropology Department, University of Georgia, spring/fall 1996.
- Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia, spring 1996 - present.

Georgia Organic Growers Association Workshop on SSL, presented by Jennifer Cruse, Jian Lan, and Katy Price. Jackson county, GA, November 22, 1997.

Hosted Workshops and Meetings

- Memory Banking Field Methods Training Workshop, January, 1997.

- “Southern Heirloom Gardening” at the Georgia Botanical Gardens, Athens, GA. Morning symposium with invited speakers followed by an afternoon of demonstration of seed saving techniques, plant breeding, and southern cooking heirlooms. May 10, 1997.

Collaborator Meetings

- SSL Collaborator Planning Meeting, UGA, December 6, 1996.

- Periodic planning meetings of local collaborators, Spring, summer, Fall, 1997.

- Heritage Garden Planning Meeting, botanical Gardens, November 20, 1996.

- SSLP Collaborator Planning Meeting, UGA, December 6, 1996.

- Annual SSL Seed Swap, 1997, 1998, 1999.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

1. Adoption by Native Seeds/Search, Tucson, Arizona of the Cultural Memory Approach of SSL and reported in a Mother Earth News article entitled “Sowing Seeds of Diversity” by Kirsten Whatley (Oct./Nov. 1997, pages 38-43, 52). The memory banking protocol was relayed to Native Seeds after a visit to the University of Georgia by Gary Nabhan, Founder of Native Seeds. This adoption of our methodology by an older, more established seed saving group indicates that our approach has novel, cutting-edge qualities.

2. Raised awareness of cultural and biological importance of heirlooms in the South. The large number of telephone, mail and email requests, speaking and display invitations and calls from the media indicate that we are increasing public awareness of Southern landraces. In addition, breeders and scientists on experiment stations are showing more interest in local heirlooms as a source of breeding material (see Delta Land Community Report). The importance of this effort was underscored by the official recognition of the SSL given by the USDA secretary of agriculture through the National Genetic Resources Council. Also, Dr. Nazarea won the National Praxis Award for her memory bank work, given by the Washington Association of Practicing Anthropologists.

3. Potentially, heirlooms combined with the growing organic vegetable market can mean increased incomes for smallholders in the South. A potential impact of the project is the promotion of heirlooms in the growing organic market of the South. In the United States, the organic market has grown more than 20% annually and now accounts for about $3.5 billion each year. Since landraces do not require the same level of inputs (pesticides, fertilizers) as hybrids, they will play a major role in future organic markets. The SSL has begun a study of the diverse types of potential heirloom markets in the South with a preliminary focus on the Piedmont, Southern Appalachia and the Atlanta metropolitan area. In addition, the mapping of the distribution of the heirlooms is underway and there will be an attempt to correlate ecological conditions, socioeconomic indicators and markets with the incidence of landraces.

4. Transferability of the SSL experience to international settings. Through another project of the Pis in Ecuador (SANREM), the Southern Seed Legacy is illustrating how biodiversity can be preserved in very different contexts. The memory banking is critical.

Farmer Adoption

Cooperative Efforts

Since the Southern Seed Legacy is ultimately a voluntary network based on self-motivated concern for heirloom seed conservation, we do not intend to establish a rigid bureaucratic structure; instead we will rely on mutual dedication which will guarantee the project’s continuance after the present funding is finished. The present members include independent farmers/gardener seed savers, commercial academics who are scattered across the southern states. We provide by linking mechanism such as the newsletter, southern seed legacy website (Southern Memories), seed swaps, and other events which bring individuals together to exchange and appreciate Southern heirlooms.

Principal Gene Bank support, Technical Advisors, and Research Collaborators:

Jim Affolter, The State Botanical garden of Georgia, Athens, GA.- Dr. Affolter is the director of research at the State Botanical Garden and an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture. Dr. Affolter has been a partner in the design of southern Seed Legacy Garden and active in the symposium held at the State botanical Garden. Two of his graduate students worked on the project.

David Bradshaw, Professor of Horticulture, Clemson University, South Carolina. Dr. Bradshaw has been an active collaborator in southern seed saving through establishing his own collection of heirloom at the Clemson Botanical Gardens.

Steve Kresovich, former Director, USDA-ARS Plant Genetic Conservation Unit, Griffin, GA. Dr. Kresovich has been a leader in the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources units in the nation and as a Scientific Liaison Officer for the International Board of Plant Genetic Resources (IPGRI) in Rome. He has provided information from the gene bank regarding landraces.

Freddie Payton, formerly with The Southwest Georgia Alternative Agriculture Project, Bainbridge, GA. This project is to assist farm communities in southwest Georgia, north Florida, and south-central Alabama move towards sustainable agricultural systems through community participatory research and education activities that support alternative agriculture.

Henry L. Shands, Associate Deputy Administrator for Genetic Resources, National Program staff, Agriculture Research Service, USDA, Washington DC. He remains responsible for the Agency’s network of plant germplasm collections located across the country. He is largely a technical advisor to the project.

Bobby Ann Starnes, President, Foxfire Foundation. Dr. Starnes has agreed to work with the SSL in the study of the Foxfire files which carry a record over a thirty year period of heirloom in the Rabun Gap, Georgia area.

Jim Worstell, coordinator, Delta Land and Community, Inc., Almyra, Arkansas. Delta Land and Community, Inc. Will work through the SSLP to catalyze networks of seed savers in their region of the south and within Appalachia where Dr. Worstell has many connections. He holds a subcontract from SSL funds.

Agrarian Connections (Dr. Robert Rhoades, Executive Director) will now (2000 and beyond) provide an umbrella support for Southern Seed Legacy in its self-supporting capacity. Agrarian connection is a 501(c)(3) dedicated to sustainable agricultural issues.


Areas needing additional study


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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.