PIKEVILLE — Horticulture intersected with history, Saturday, at the Pike County Cooperative Extension Service, as growers from around the state shared seeds and stories, during the second annual Appalachian Heirloom Seed Swap.
Those attending the swap found lots of gardening information and demonstrations, but the stars of the event were the seeds available for trade or purchase, as well as the stories behind them.
Joyce Pinson, who, along with Neil Hunt, helped create the event, said the seed swap offers not only the appeal of gardening, but of history, as well.
“The ability to pass seeds from one generation to the next is an exciting thing,” Pinson said. “You see, you’re saving history. Anytime you have a packet of seeds, you’re touching history.
“When I speak to school kids, I have some Conover beans, and I make them hold those beans. … And I tell those kids, ‘Now think of how those beans came to Kentucky,’ and they came back in the pocket of a Civil War soldier. That’s how long they have been in these mountains. How cool is that?”
One of the people trying to save that history is Frank Barnett, a Floyd County native now living in Georgetown. Barnett now seeks out heirloom beans throughout Eastern Kentucky and occasionally across the border in Virginia and West Virginia. Filling a box on his table were dozens of seed packets, each containing a label identifying the variety, as well as where it came from.
Among the beans in Barnett’s collection were three varieties from Floyd County, including one grown by his grandmother, as well as others from Breathitt, Clay, Laurel, Leslie, Letcher and Morgan counties, in Kentucky, Wise County, Va., and Lewis, Logan and Monroe counties, in West Virginia.
As was the case with the inaugural event last year, interest in the seed swap far exceeded organizers’ expectations. Last year, Pinson said about 50 people were expected, but 120 attended. This year, organizers planned for 150, only see over 200 show up.
Bill Best, a farmer and author who was at then event signing copies of his book, “Savings Seeds, Preserving Taste,” said part of the reason for the blossoming interest in local foods and small-scale agriculture is a growing distrust in commercial agriculture. Best said most produce sold in supermarkets today is engineered to provide resistance to pests or long shelf-life, without much thought given to how the food tastes or what effect it has on the people who eat it.
Best views GMOs — or “genetically modified organisms” — with particular disdain.
“Monsanto is our best friend,” Best said. “With all the GMOs they’re producing, people are wanting to get back to real food.”
Cathy Rehmeyer, an assistant professor at the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine who writes about her experiences with gardening throughout the year on her blog, motherofahubbard.com, agreed that a growing distrust of commercial food is spurring renewed interest in natural, locally-grown foods. She said people have grown wary after seeing countless news reports about the dangers of the global food supply system.
“People have heard the horror stories, about illness outbreaks and about GMOs,” Rehmeyer said.
But beyond safety concerns, Pinson said there is another good reason for rejecting commercial agriculture and either gardening or buying from small, local producers — taste.
“I think there’s a backlash, especially in Appalachia,” Pinson said. “I think people are tired of California produce. I think they’re tired of things coming in from all over the world, when they know that our is better, and they had forgotten that … They’re just starting to remember. They’re remembering what a real tomato tastes like.”
Pinson also views seed swapping as a way to connect generations.
“You’re seeing all this resurgence — the kids, how they respond, and how the old people are getting energized,” Pinson said. “Nobody’s asked them about these things. How many grandmas have passed away and nobody got the beans? I say, don’t worry about the silver, don’t worry about the china, get the beans! …
“The younger generation wants to hear those stories and they want to grow those seeds. That is my hook. I’m glad the older people are involved, but if I can get the younger people involved, I’ve done my job for the next generation.”