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

Project Overview

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


  • Agronomic: corn, potatoes, sorghum (milo)
  • Fruits: apples, berries (other), cherries, grapes, melons, pears
  • Vegetables: beans, cucurbits, garlic, greens (leafy), onions, peas (culinary), peppers, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: herbs, ornamentals


  • Education and Training: extension, participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: biological control, cultural control, genetic resistance
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, ethnic differences/cultural and demographic change, local and regional food systems, social capital, social networks, sustainability measures


    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.

    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.