Saving Seeds, Saving Cultures
By Haley Casey
Owen Taylor with ‘Landis Winter’ lettuce. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
One small seed company is ready to make a big name for itself by helping growers reclaim and cultivate seeds that reflect their heritage. Launched in December 2017, Truelove Seeds is the creation of Owen Taylor, a seed collector who runs the Philadelphia Seed Exchange and grows open-pollinated seeds, medicinal herbs, and flowers at Mill Hollow Farm in Edgemont, Pennsylvania. The idea for Truelove came during his four years working with world-renowned heirloom seedsman William Woys Weaver at the Roughwood Seed Collection. “I wanted to find a way to share my new knowledge and skills with the food justice communities I’d worked with for the last 15 years,” Taylor says. “I’m committed to supporting community-based solutions to the inadequacies and injustices of the globalized food system.” And he’s fulfilling this commitment through his work with Truelove Seeds.
Aurora Sikelianos gathers with friends to shell peas and beans for Truelove. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
While a focus on community-based solutions has certainly influenced Taylor’s dedication to agroecology and food sovereignty when it comes to the more than 20 small-scale farmers already working with Truelove, the founding principle of the company is even more personal: “We believe it is essential for growers to play a role in preserving their cultural heritage by saving and sharing their own seeds, as well as the traditions and stories connected to those seeds.”
“We ask the farmers to identify crops that are part of their ancestry or that are particularly important to their region,” Taylor says. And therein lies what sets Truelove apart from other seed-saving operations. Not only does 50 percent of every seed packet sale go back to the farmer who grew the crop, but each farm focuses, at least in part, on growing seeds that are connected to their culture. “Kristyn Leach at Namu Farm specializes in growing Korean crops; VietLead’s Resilient Roots Farm focuses on Vietnamese crops; and several farms like Sankofa Community Farm and Soul Fire Farm focus on crops of the African Diaspora.” When he found that Bear Bottom Farm in Virginia was growing the molokhia cultivar of one of their farmer’s Syrian grandfathers, Taylor sent them several seeds of other Syrian cultivars from his own collection. And there are Native American seeds available on the Truelove website; in their descriptions, Taylor has included a call to the people of those tribes to reach out to him if they’d like the seeds rematriated — an Indigenous concept that means “to restore a living culture to its rightful place on Mother Earth.”
Owen Taylor and a group of Truelove apprentices and volunteers harvest ‘Winterspinat Haldenstein’ winter spinach seeds. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
Even before beginning Truelove Seeds, Taylor saw the power that a culturally important crop can bring to a community when it’s available to grow, purchase, and consume. While living and working in New York, he watched the Caribbean population in Brooklyn flock to the market at East New York Farms to buy and sell callaloo, a beloved Caribbean green. In fact, he says that the seeds he’s most excited to sell are those that are hard to find in the United States. Perpetuating crops from an ancestral homeland is made personal on Taylor’s own farm, where he grows Irish ‘Lumper’ potatoes, ‘Delaway’ kale, and ‘Daniel O’Rourke’ peas, as well as southern Italian ‘Lunga di Napoli’ squash, ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes, cima di rapa (broccoli rabe), and ‘Jimmy Nardello’ and ‘Friariello’ peppers. “When I grow and eat these crops — particularly the ‘Lumper’ potatoes and the two Italian frying peppers — I think of my respective Irish and Italian great-grandmothers in their homelands growing and eating similar crops, and I feel deeply connected to their joys and struggles. It’s so fulfilling!”
Farm School NYC students shell ‘Fagiolina del Trasimeno’ black-eyed peas at Truelove. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
The value of these food stories is proclaimed across Truelove’s products. Not only is the information about the grower of each cultivar listed on their seed packets and their website, but the descriptions are written by the growers themselves. Taylor carefully researches the history of each seed they sell, valuing both oral tradition and trusted, documented histories. But at the end of the day, the story of a crop is best understood by the communities to whom it’s important. As Taylor says, “The sense of home that can be found in a seed is so valuable. A seed story can be wrapped up in a group’s sense of self, providing inspiration, hope, and meaning.” And however the seeds have passed through generations, or traveled to make it back into the hands of those to whom they mean the most, Truelove’s hallmark is ensuring that cultural meaning is preserved in every packet.
Chris Bolden Newsome, co-director of Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden, with ‘Speckled Brown butterbean’ seeds. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
‘Better’ Chamoe (Korean Melon) (Cucumis melo var. makuwa)
Kristyn Leach grows this beloved cultivar on Namu Farm. Though she now works in Winters, California, Leach was born in the Gyeongsangbuk-do province of South Korea, the center of chamoe melon production, and she continues the legacy of her birth place by selling the seeds of this cultivar that predate Japanese intervention into the breeding of the melon; most modern commercial strains are now hybrids. The products of Leach’s seeds, while slightly less sweet than chamoe hybrids, have an original, refreshing, almost floral flavor, reminiscent of cucumber, honeydew, and apple. Its production habit reflects desirable traits for subsistence farmers: vigor without the need for commercial fertilizer, a long harvest window, and a harvest volume appropriate for small scale. Surprisingly, the chamoe may become an international discussion; the deployment of a United States military missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), has disrupted the small South Korean village Soseong-ri. Citizens of the village, many of whom are chamoe farmers, have now turned to activism, afraid of the effects of the military’s presence. One citizen said that the day after THAAD arrived, melon prices dropped — a potentially devastating consequence to the county that supplies nearly 70 percent of the chamoe sold in the country, especially when you consider chamoe cultivars, such as Leach’s, that are only protected by small-scale growers in South Korea.
‘Better’ chamoe is a cultivar that predates the modern hybridization of chamoes. Photo by Kristyn Leach.
‘Burmese Rat-Tail’ Radish (Raphanus sativus var. caudatus)
Teacher and garden organizer Adam Forbes began working with refugee families in Philadelphia 10 years ago. As they advocated for and eventually built community gardens in the city, refugee gardeners showed him seeds they had sewn into waistbands and hats to keep safe as they fled their homes. A woman named Mimi, a Karen refugee from Myanmar, brought to the gardens her ‘Burmese Rat-Tail’ radish seeds, a crop from her home village that was grown by her family for generations — on Mimi’s wedding day, her mother gave her a small sack full of their family seeds as a gift. Some Karen community members say that this plant gives people energy all day; they used to grow them on the edges of fields to eat as a regular snack while farming or walking through the village. So when Mimi carefully tended and finally grew radishes in the Philadelphia garden, many community members were astounded to see the plant; they flocked to Mimi’s plot to beg for some of this taste from their homelands. And when they started to sell the radish at the Novick Family Urban Farm stand, Myanmar refugee families came from all over to buy the greens, flowers, and pods, brought to tears to see plants they hadn’t tasted since childhood.
‘Burmese Rat-Tail’ radish is native to South Asia. The cultivar is sweeter than most rat-tail radishes, with a spicy flavor. Photo by Adam Forbes.
‘Burmese Rat-Tail’ radish. Photo by Adam Forbes.
‘Purple Kingsessing’ Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris)
William Woys Weaver was entrusted with these seeds — also known as ‘Lenape Blue Bread’ beans — when their previous keeper in Oklahoma passed away. Many Lenape people now reside in northern Oklahoma after being forced there in the 1800s by the United States government. The name “Kingsessing” is derived from the Lenape word “chingsessing,” which means “the place with the meadows.” Originally, this was the name for the land between the Schuylkill River and Cobbs Creek, in what is now west and southwest Philadelphia. Through William Woys Weaver and Owen Taylor, the seed was brought back to its original land for the first time and is now grown by staff at the historic Bartram’s Garden.
‘Purple Kingsessing’ beans have a meaty flavor, and are often used in stews and baked into bread. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
‘White Garden Egg’ Eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum var. gilo)
This white, bitter eggplant is popular among West African and Southeast Asian families, who are able to grow and enjoy the treasured crop in the United States thanks to Adam Forbes and the community gardens he helped start in Philadelphia. To the people of Nepal and Myanmar, many of whom are refugees, the plant is crucial to a number of soups, curries, and even cultural ceremonies. It’s highly sought after in communities from Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. And when refugees from Congo resettled in Philadelphia amongst the Southeast Asian population, the groups bonded over the plant; both cultural histories used a broth from boiling the garden eggs to cure skin ailments, and in early ceremonies with newborns. The seed was saved by Maryland farmer and ethnic crop specialist Yao Afantchao. Originally from Togo, Afantchao brought ‘White Garden Egg’ seeds back from his grandmother in Africa more than two decades ago. They’re now grown at the Novick Family Urban Farm.
‘White Garden Egg’ eggplant is a versatile crop that can be eaten raw, boiled, sautéed, or cooked into a variety of dishes, including soups and stews. Photo by Truelove Seeds.
Haley Casey is an editor at Heirloom Gardener, an aspiring gardener, and a collector of new ideas for natural health and delicious recipes.
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