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Welcome to Appalachia—Home of the Original Locavores

A university program sustains the rich tradition of gardening and preserving in the Southeast.
Sep 26, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

People living in Appalachia, said Dr. Rosann Kent, "have a long history of displacement.” Kent, director of the Georgia Appalachian Studies Center at the University of North Georgia, told me how “these large corporations have come into areas of Appalachia to extract things from the earth—coal, gold, copper, marble, forest—but not to the benefit of the local people.”

Despite the successive and sometimes simultaneous waves, the residents of America’s oldest mountains have developed a rich agricultural tradition over the centuries. When the mining company or the logging firm came to town, Kent said, sometimes “people had to move, they had to migrate, they were displaced. But what they could take with them were their seeds.”

Her students have been collecting heirloom seeds—defined, in this case, as seeds at least 50 years old that have never been bought or sold—for the past two years as part of the interdisciplinary program Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories. The project recently received a $4,000 grant from the Appalachian Teaching Project to fund its work.

“You can teach anything through a seed,” Kent said. “The seed is just the lens through which we look at, examine, and hopefully become a part of this community.” Through interviews with “seedkeepers” in UNG's mountain community of Dahlonega, Ga., and surrounding Lumpkin County, 65 miles northeast of Atlanta, students are preserving stories of self-reliance and political resistance and turning them into art.

Within those seeds—Purple Mule Beans, Birdhouse Sunflowers, October Beans, Three Sisters Coon Corn—is a food tradition with deep roots in this part of southern Appalachia, a tradition that's now under threat. “There are issues of poverty here,” Kent said. “And yet there’s a deep, deep tradition of self-sufficiency. We began to listen to how people eat and participate in their community.”

Take Carol Meeks of Lumpkin County. She remembers when she was growing up in the 1960s and '70s, if neighbors had an excess yield, “you just went over and got it, whatever they had.” Or Robert “Pop” and Elizabeth Grindle, who built a cannery in the shade of a sloping creek and still grow and preserve all of their own food.

Though it's common in these parts for people to grow and raise all that they eat, “very few of them are actually farmers,” Kent explained. “They’re avid gardeners who can or put by,” as people in Appalachia say, preserving foods for the winter.

“People here still have can houses” in their backyards, she continued, where they have the space to preserve enough vegetables to last until spring. “This is what Appalachian people do. They don’t see it as special.”

With Walmart and McDonald's increasingly common in Appalachia (and everywhere else), though, that culture of self-reliance is in danger of being supplanted by convenience and speed. “It is a dying tradition,” Kent said.

SAGAS’s mission is not only to seed-bank but to memory-bank, preserving agriculture and culture alike.

In past years, students of SAGAS fabricated a map as big as a king-size quilt, rendering the migration of plants across Lumpkin County with images of seeds, their seedkeepers, and students. The map, called a communograph, includes quotations from oral history interviews and illustrates community relationships with backstitched red thread. Students have also created smaller garden flags the size of pillowcases, decorated with photo transfer and embroidery, that tell each seedkeeper’s story. This year, students are using the art department’s antique printing press to create block-printed broadsides bearing slogans culled from interviews. The art serves not only to preserve a community’s history but to start a conversation about our food systems.

“If we take these large-scale public art installations to the farmers market, people will come over and look at our booth. That’s when we can start engaging with them: ‘Have you ever had a garden?’ ‘Would you like some seeds?’ The art draws people in,” Kent said.

So while SAGAS will continue to document and honor seedkeepers in the community through storytelling and art, it's expanding its focus this year to look at larger issues of food democracy.

“Who is hungry in our area, and how can we help them—or cocreate with them—real food? We want to get more young people to the farmers market and to get them participating in local foods,” Kent said.

SAGAS has partnered with the farmers market in Dahlonega, where it has a booth, and students are studying a neighboring county with a farm-to-school program with an eye toward developing their own. Heirloom winter greens will sprout as part of the Food Is Free Project, in which vegetables are grown on a publicly accessible plot of land, accompanied by a sign that encourages people to take what they need. Every year the program expands while sustaining its foundational initiatives, including the seed bank and a demonstration garden, where Kent regularly sees students cutting across campus to snack on what’s growing there.

It’s just one way Kent sees the students “rediscovering their own heritage.” The seedkeepers “are just doing what they always did. So when their grandchildren start listening to their stories and saving these seeds, that kind of fuels that regeneration.”

She recalls how, two years ago, a woman named Ms. Bonelle gave SAGAS its first Irish potato for the seed bank, just one of the many vegetables she’s grown at home for ages. “We saw her grandson this year at the farmers market,” she said, “and he’s growing Ms. Bonelle’s vegetables and selling them.”

In September, Pivot TV is featuring an entire month of “Food for Thought” programming to explore what’s really happening in the American agriculture system. Head over to the “Food for Thought” page to find out when the next program airs and take action.