From the perfect storm of a downturned American economy and climbing grocery bills, a renewed interest in gardening has blossomed. Anthropology Professor Dr. Brian Campbell is nurturing this growing trend through his own research interests, which include building a bank of heirloom seeds at UCA and sharing a portion of them with individuals throughout the state.
Campbell is an ecological anthropologist. He studies how humans think about and utilize the plants and animals they live around. His focus is on traditional farming communities: people who produce food to feed their own families. In order to continue their gardens year after year, people have two options: save the seeds from each year’s bounty to produce a crop the following year, or buy new seeds. Saving seeds is becoming a lost art. “It’s very time consuming to save seeds,” Campbell said. “And as the world has become fast-paced and removed [from such traditions], people in our society save fewer seeds.”
Seeds that have been saved within a family and passed down from one generation to the next are called heirloom seeds. These seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they are not crossed with other varieties of the same fruits and vegetables. Plants grown from open-pollinated seeds will produce seedlings that will be very similar to the parent plant. The best-producing, open-pollinated seeds are saved for future crops and passed down through the family generations, becoming heirloom seeds.
Many gardeners in the U.S. will purchase packets of seeds or seedlings from a hardware or general store. Most of these seeds are not heirlooms. Rather they are hybrids, crosses between two distantly related members of the same species, selected for certain characteristics. While a hybrid will produce very well under ideal conditions, their seed will not “grow true” to the parent plant. Therefore, new seeds must be purchased each year. The development of hybrid seeds and their replacement of open-pollinated varieties in farmer/gardener’s fields over the last 75 to 80 years has resulted in a significant decline in open-pollinated seeds. As farmers adopted hybrid seeds, they became dependent on hybrids for future crops. But hybrids require open-pollinated seeds for their creation. Without access to open-pollinated seeds, hybrids will lack the genetics that provide the useful characteristics such as drought tolerance and pest and disease resistance. Losing open-pollinated seeds makes our industrial food system even more tenuous.
Campbell saw firsthand the devastation that can occur from the loss of heirloom seeds when he was an graduate student at the University of Georgia. “I conducted research in northern Ecuador, and you can see how modern agriculture had caused them to abandon their traditional processes, and in some cases these people were duped,” he said.
Campbell interviewed indigenous peoples in the region known as Kichwa, who had been encouraged to use hybrid potato varieties, which produced well with the chemical fertilizers provided for free the first year. Many Kichwa adopted the “High Yielding” hybrid potatoes and replaced heirloom varieties in their fields. But the Kichwa who adopted were soon trapped in a never-ending cycle of buying fertilizers and seeds to produce crops year after year. Previously self-sufficient, they were forced to peddle their produce in order to buy the necessary supplies to grow the next crop; and in order to sell their crop, they needed the fertilizers and hybrid seeds to produce more crops. They were now stuck on the “technological treadmill” of modern agriculture.
“This demonstrated, to me, the importance of food varieties and making sure we don’t lose them,” Campbell said. “You could see how upset these people were that their heirloom seeds were no longer available to pass on.” Dr. Campbell’s research focused on the documentation and rediscovery of local heirloom varieties that had been lost by some families. “I would try to find and acquire seeds to distribute to people who needed them and I documented what was lost,” he said.
“In the United States, we don’t know how to save seeds and don’t know why it’s important,” Campbell said. His goal is to educate individuals and bring awareness about the importance of saving heirloom seeds. He hopes to show people that while saving seeds is time consuming, it’s not that difficult. “We also want to let people know about the seed bank,” he said. “We are using this bank to conserve the different varieties of fruits and vegetables because down the road we may need them.”
Seeds donated to the seed bank are divvied up – some go into a reserve box to be saved and another portion goes into the surplus box to be shared and planted. In a converted office space in Irby Hall, seeds of various shapes and sizes are organized and stored in envelopes, freezer bags, and mason jars. Seeds saved for the reserve are stored in a pharmacy-grade lab freezer that was donated by the College Square Retirement Community.
Campbell is growing some of the surplus seeds in various community gardens around town. In the spring, he and some student volunteers planted a small garden at UCA’s Child Study Center, a university-operated pre-school that serves as a practice site for early childhood education majors. “There’s the concern with youth not being familiar with the concept of gardening and where food comes from,” Campbell said. At the Child Study Center, Campbell and his crew planted several hardy plants that the children would be familiar with including tomatoes, sunflowers and pole beans”
They also planted heirloom seeds at the Dee Brown Memorial Garden on campus behind the Physical Therapy Center, at the McGhee Center community garden and at the Grace United Methodist Church garden. “We’re trying to grow out these heirloom seeds once every couple of years,” he explained. “We make sure that only one variety of each fruit or vegetable is planted in each garden. If two varieties of beans or watermelon or okra are planted near each other, then because of open pollination they will potentially cross.”
Campbell has found help in some of his anthropology students. Those expressing an interest in ecological anthropology assist him by working in the gardens, tracking down and collecting heirloom seeds and interviewing individuals who donate heirloom seeds to the seed bank. “We have a family in Newton County, Ark., that has been a source of a lot of seeds,” Campbell explained. “Many of the seeds [in the Ozarks] are named for family members or neighboring families who pass down the seeds. There is a variety locals call Alfred Drury corn, for example, which we have learned is a type of Tennessee Red Cob corn that their ancestors brought with them when they homesteaded the region.”
Campbell not only saves and grows plants using heirloom seeds from the seed bank, but also shares them through the seed swaps he has organized as part of his Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage project. Two and a half years ago, he partnered with the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View to host the first Ozark Seed Swap. Farmers and gardeners with a legacy of heirloom seeds were invited to bring their seeds and stories to swap with other seed savers. Individuals without seeds, but with a desire to begin growing plants with heirloom seeds, were also invited to participate. Last spring, Campbell hosted a second Ozark Seed Swap and an inaugural Seed Swap at the Faulkner County Library.
In addition to facilitating the swap of seeds among local residents and distributing numerous varieties, Campbell collects seeds from each swap to add to the seed bank. “The seed swaps help ensure that these open-pollinated versions are grown out and distributed,” he said. “It also offers more support for these varieties that could be lost. When people trade seeds, we encourage them to also trade emails and phone numbers so they can share their knowledge about the seeds, like when to harvest or how to cook or use something.”
Campbell recalls his mother asking him how to string the heirloom green beans he provided her from the collection. “The beans we eat typically have the strings removed already, so that was something she hadn’t encountered before,” he explained. Like many in his parent’s generation, they traded the farm for urban life when they grew up.
Today, Campbell and others like him are leading a relearning process that will help people return to their agrarian roots and begin to understand and appreciate those tiny little miracles we call seeds.