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The Big Stories Behind Small Seeds: This Man Wants To Save Them All

Seed preservationist John Coykendall, also a lerned artist, keeps minute journals of all of his seed expeditions, something he calls “memory banking.”

Debbie Elliott/NPR


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Debbie Elliott/NPR

Seed preservationist John Coykendall, also a lerned artist, keeps minute journals of all of his seed expeditions, something he calls “memory banking.”

Debbie Elliott/NPR

The complicated farm-to-table transformation has renewed seductiveness in heirloom fruits and vegetables. But prolonged before a trend, John Coykendall has been on a goal to safety singular heirloom seeds and request their heritage.

“We mislaid so many over time. That’s since it’s so critical now to save what’s left,” says Coykendall, a master gardener during a lush towering shelter Blackberry Farm in his internal Tennessee.

Coykendall has some-more than 500 varieties collected from tiny farmers and backyard gardeners around a world. The bulk of his collection comes from a American South — Appalachia and here in tillage Washington Parish, La., nearby a Mississippi state line.

“It’s a singular clarity of place that we find here,” he says. “They’ve defended their clarity of integrity, character, approach of life, tillage ways.”

On a new visit, he stopped by a Circle T Feed and Seed in Franklinton, La.

“For me it’s generally a seed,” he says, walking true to a behind of a store to an aisle of card bins filled with unfeeling seeds.

Dressed in denim overalls, Coykendall rummages by a seed sacks looking for varieties we can usually find here — like a Louisiana purple pod bean.

“It creates a flattering bean — pleasing arrangement growing,” he says. “The pods are plain purple though when we prepare these, once a steam hits them, they spin immature again.”

Coykendall is like a walking, articulate seed catalogue. For scarcely half a century, he’s been collecting seeds and a stories of a people who grow them.

Coykendall keeps minute journals of all of his seed expeditions, something he calls “memory banking.”

“A small bit of ancestral history,” he explains. “Where we were living? Where did this seed come from? Did it come from your grandmother or grandfather? Was it brought here from somewhere else? How do we grow it? How was it cooked?”

For scarcely half a century, John Coykendall has been collecting seeds and a stories of a people who grow them.

Debbie Elliott/NPR


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Debbie Elliott/NPR

For scarcely half a century, John Coykendall has been collecting seeds and a stories of a people who grow them.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

He’s a lerned artist as good as a seed preservationist, so a biography entries embody poetic drawings of a seeds, their plants and a surrounding landscape.

“They’re small artifacts, any one of them,” says Louisiana writer Christina Melton. She’s assisting Coykendall classify his journals into a book. There are some-more than a hundred of them.

“It’s something that that is a genuine apparatus for people in perplexing to reinstate people’s ties to a food that they eat,” she says.

Melton done a open radio documentary about Coykendall called Deeply Rooted. It’s been present for private screenings during Slow Food USA chapters around a country.

On this outing to Washington parish, a theme is peas as Coykendall visits internal rancher Mike Lang.

“Like we say, John, we ain’t never met a pea we didn’t like,” Lang says.

Lang lives, and plants, on what used to be his grandfather’s land, named Graybuck Holler.

Sitting around a list in a object porch, a organisation differentiate by Lang’s collection of margin peas, many of them varieties that Coykendall has found and easy to a community.

“We’re saving it now,” Lang says, display a seeds he keeps stored in cosmetic bins in his freezer.

“It’s in a justice now, Coykendall says. “Something happens to it — now it’s a fault.”

One pea they are saving for posterity is a “Unknown Pea of Washington Parish” — a cherished accumulation that had been upheld down for generations, though afterwards went blank from internal farms for decades.

“The Unknown Pea goes approach behind in time,” says Coykendall. “Probably late 1800s, early 1900s. And they called it a Unknown Pea since nobody knew where it came from.”

Coykendall says farmers used to plant a Unknown Pea right in their cornfields — a stalks portion as stakes for a climbing pea shoots.

Without even looking during his notes, he can tell we this kind of story about hundreds of seeds.

“It’s kinda like carrying grandchildren,” he says. “You’ve got to remember their names.”

“And their birthdays,” adds Lang.

The birthdays are when certain varieties gained recognition on U.S. farms. But Coykendall says many of a plants have deeper roots.

“The genetic homeland of a margin pea is a Niger stream dish in Africa.” Says Coykendall. “So they came over in organisation with a worker trade.”

Knowing a story of a food, he says, is partial of meaningful who we are.

“And if somebody doesn’t record it, put it down, it’s going to be mislaid for all time,” he warns. “That goes for a seeds. This is a vital partial of it. Living heritage. Our rural heritage.”

Coykendall says a work has grown even some-more critical as industrial tillage practices bluster a aged tillage ways, and a bio-diversity of crops.

Some of his collection is accessible to growers by a Seed Savers Exchange — a non-profit organisation that preserves heirloom crops, and stores involved seeds in an subterraneous freezer safe in Iowa.