By Leah Smith, Sow True Seed's Director of Agriculture
I meet grower Chris Smith at his experimental farm in Leicester, NC just as the picturesque mountain valley begins gradually turning from a misty-cool haven into a steamer basket. I may not appreciate this turn in the weather, but the crops certainly do. The main focus of The Utopian Seed Project, the nonprofit that Chris founded and runs, is research on Southern heirloom crops and tropical perennials that could be adapted for Southern agriculture. Chris is not a production seed grower, but an explorer and experimenter, and most of the work he does for Sow True is trials and small seed increases. In theory, I’m here to see some of our trials in progress, but I’ve been looking forward to this visit knowing there will be all sorts of amazing things to see, and I’m not disappointed.
Purple ube and white yam climbing the tall trellis.
As we walk through the first field, Chris shows me purple ube and white yam, two tropical vining root crops, climbing an enormous twenty-foot bamboo trellis. He explains that traditionally, these plants are often grown on bamboo poles leaned into the branches of trees at the edge of a field, to save the labor and expense of building a free-standing trellis. On a larger commercial scale, they could utilize a high trellis system of the type used to grow hops. Moving on, Chris is excited to find achira, another tropical perennial root crop with potential to become an annual crop in the US Southeast, beginning to flower. Lack of proper conditions for flowering can be a stumbling block for many tropical crops in more northerly latitudes, where they experience shorter warm seasons and differing hours of daylight. Chris’s previous achira crops were propagated from rhizomes (roots that each produce a clone of the mother plant) and produced large, healthy plants but never flowered, but this year’s crop was planted from seed, and happily, unexpectedly, began flowering readily at a small stage. Flowers mean pollination, pollination creates genetic diversity, and genetic diversity means an opportunity for the crop to adapt to the Southern Appalachian climate. In the same field, we see edible dahlias, marshmallow, kenaf, and what I’m technically here to see, a southern pea trial, heirloom corn, and a very exciting and beautiful tropical-adapted eggplant variety.
Flowering achira (Canna edulis)
An eggplant blossom
From there, we head to the okra patch. Okra is Chris’s thing. He wrote the James Beard Award-winning book about it. This year, he and his assistant have planted out dozens of varieties. There are known heirlooms, along with many USDA seed bank samples. We see the first lovely pale pods developing on a row of Whidby White okra, grown for a community selection project that Chris organized and Sow True sponsored. Beyond the myriad okra varieties is a row of several closely-related species that are not actually okra but its cousins, if you will. Most of these don’t produce edible pods, but some do. A surprise and a historical mystery is hiding among those cousin species. It’s a bushy plant with huge leaves bigger than an open-spread hand. This variety is called Motherland okra, and it has been stewarded by Jon Jackson of Comfort Farms in Millegdeville, GA, whose family got it from West Africa. As the plants started to produce blossoms, Chris noticed that they resembled those of a couple of other unusual-looking okra varieties, one of which is Mayan okra. While most okra Southerners are familiar with is of the species Abelmoschus esculentus, and varieties of this species are also found all over Africa, India and Southeast Asia, Chris believes Motherland, Mayan, and this one USDA accession are actually Abelmoschus callei, a similar but distinct species originally endemic to West Africa. He wonders how many other A. callei varieties are out there hiding in plain sight, just considered to be okra like all the others. If these varieties were identified and studied, what might they reveal about the history of Abelmoschus domestication and the spread of okra around the globe? It’s a deeply ag-nerdy discourse, and I’m here for it. There are good reasons to get nerdy about okra and its Abelmoschus cousins after all - okra is fantastically heat and humidity-tolerant, but can also be drought tolerant. It’s not only a highly productive vegetable crop, but a potentially abundant source of oilseed and fiber as well. In a warming and changing climate, it’s just the sort of multipurpose adaptable crop we’d do well to pay attention to.
The okra trial plot
An unopened Motherland okra blossom, ringed by the spiky epicalyx characteristic of A. callei
We began our tour meeting unfamiliar newcomer plants, and we finish it by paying a visit to a very old and familiar crop, a stand of rare Southern Appalachian heirloom field corn, a variety that Sow True is having grown out for the first time. We’ve been told this variety can be incredibly prolific, up to five ears per stalk. And yet, it was nearly lost - only a couple families that we know of still save the seed. In order to adapt our agriculture to our changing world, we’ll have to look to the past and the future, rediscover the wisdom of our heirloom varieties, learn to use old crops in new ways, and get to know plants that are entirely new to us. At Sow True, we’re honored to join Chris and The Utopian Seed Project in this work.
Learn more about The Utopian Seed Project and the crops they're exploring here.
The Utopian Seed Project's trial plots are located at Franny's Farm, an organic farm and event venue in Leicester, NC.