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Which came first, the tomato or the seed? UCA professor banking on seed swaps to save heirlooms

By Susan Carroll |

Dr.Brian Campell talks about UCA Seed Bank

On saving heirloom seeds: 

"We are in a precarious position, relying on so few species and varieties of crops, that's a scary place to be.”

Dr. Brian Campbell, agricultural anthropologist, University of Central Arkansas

The end of food as we knew it

One full moon, you plant the seeds you saved from a grocery store tomato; it yields nothing of consequence, because it is a hybrid. Hybrids don’t grow true. Saving hybrid seeds for replanting is basically useless, because what you plant isn’t what will grow. You have to go to the store to buy more tomatoes. Kaching!

The age of double forgetting

Such is the time of double forgetting, where first we forgot what we knew – how to garden like our parents or grandparents did; then we forget we ever knew, raising children that think fruity pebbles are a fruit group and have no clue what a ‘real’ tomato tastes like or how to grow one for survival. It is a change so profound we’ll never see the forgetting happen; but when the last voice of memory is silenced, the knowledge of the thing disappears forever.

The risk to our food supply

Food security requires engaged local growers and citizens

“At risk,” says Dr. Brian Campbell, agricultural anthropologist at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), “is people’s knowledge of how to gain food security through the production of their own food and the preservation of seed.” Today, farming is factory. Seed genetics are copyrighted. The greatest treasures on earth, true-to-type ‘heirloom’ or open pollinated seeds, seeds that thrive in specific regional conditions, are at risk of extinction right in our own back yards.  

Food should be grown for flavor and nutrition not shelf life 

“Also at risk,” said Campbell, are our taste buds, “Our society has lost its palette. We’ve been given options that don’t taste good. We’ve been eating foods designed to sit on a shelf and not designed for flavor or nutrition. And that’s a shame. We should get our palates back and enjoy our food again.”

Current oil dependent growing practices are unsustainable

“One day we may be in a position where we have no choice but to start growing our own food again,” said Campbell of escalating fuel costs involved in commercial farming, fertilizer and transport, “our current growing practices are dependent upon foreign oil, or even if it’s oil from the U.S., it’s still a nonrenewable resource. And that is a vulnerability. We need to have more local production; we need to have more people who understand that farming as it is currently practiced is not sustainable.”

Open pollinated heirloom species critical resource to preserve

When asked about heirloom species, said Campbell, “You need open pollinated varieties to allow people to grow their own food, because they grow true, and you can save the seeds that grow best and use them for the next season. The ones best adapted to the local conditions. Because we are in a precarious place in terms of food production and distribution, and to make sure people are getting the nutrition they need, people are going to get into a position where they have to grow their own food again.“

The extinction of foods especially adapted to regional needs

“We’re losing the familiarity with kids and gardening and if we’re not passing the (heirloom) seeds on to children and grandchildren, then we’ll lose the seeds. We’ve lost an enormous amount already,” said Campbell, who studied traditional Ozark farmers’ seed saving practices, “A decent amount [of farmers] still saved seeds. I saw this as a very important place to try and document the trend of seed loss, where we’re losing the variety of our mainstream crops. Commercial farms use hybrids or GMO (genetically modified organisms) and they’re not interested in preserving heritage species. Large scale commercial growers are only interested in heirloom seeds for the genetics, to create more new hybrids.”

Dr. Brian Campbell, UCA professor and founder CAAH!

CAAH! – Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage

Campbell describes his reasons two years ago for starting a seed bank at UCA along with a seed saving and seed swapping organization called Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage or CAAH! (as in, the sound a crow makes).

“There is a movement to track and catalog heirloom seeds that had not reached Arkansas or the Ozarks when I first started my study,” said Campbell, “we were losing the knowledge with no systematic research to save them. A seed bank serves as a reserve in case of crop failure."

CAAH! goals:

 - Identifying farmers still growing out traditional varieties

- To find students willing to learn how to preserve traditional varieties

- To recruit people to aid in cataloging and helping with the spring seed swap 

- To share seeds and processes

- To do research and transfer knowledge to the next generation

- To preserve at-risk regional species

Ozark Seed swap a genetic slam dunk

The biggest geneticists will tell you that seed swaps are fundamental to having a stronger food system because it trades the genetics. “Our seed swap up in the Ozarks is wonderful because people come out of the hills, out of the woodwork,” said Campbell, “I don’t even know where they all come from, and they talk about what grows well in their place and people try to identify what grows well with less inputs and without having to irrigate and it makes the whole thing more sustainable. The perk, the benefit is, that we get to know our food producers again, and start developing relationships with where our food comes from, and maybe just rediscover what things should taste like. And [strangely enough], growing your own food is a subversive act, bypassing the corporations,” said Campbell, “we are in a precarious position, relying on so few species and varieties, and that’s a scary place to be.”

For more information about CAAH! or UCA's seed bank, see the following links:

 CAAH! "Conserving Arkansas's Agricultural Heritage" 

- The CAAH! project developed by UCA assistant professor, Dr.Brian Campbell and directed collaboratively with Dr. Allison Hall,

- See CAAH! website for  Zachariah McCannon’s documentary, 1st place winner at the 2009 Little Rock Film Festival in the Sustainable Alternatives

Allison Wallace, Honors College professor, UCA, supports seed growing for the Seed Bank at UCA's Dee Brown Memorial garden, also involved with Sustainable Environment and Ecological Design (SEED) Committee; faculty advisor to Local Harvest; faculty co-advisor to the Environmental Alliance; author A Keeper of Bees

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