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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: sorghum (milo)


  • Crop Production: seed saving
  • Farm Business Management: market study
  • Sustainable Communities: ethnic differences/cultural and demographic change


    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.

    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.