As concern for our food system grows, a new social trend has picked up momentum over the last few years. Seed swaps offer us the opportunity to learn more about a region or family’s heritage while helping to re-establish a sustainable food system.
Arkansas history is heavily woven with the thread of agriculture. But as modern agricultural practices of the last century grew, the legacy at the (pardon the pun) root of that history was in danger of being forgotten. Seed swaps are more than just an opportunity to get a handful of free seeds for your garden. Each seed holds a story and history of the people that grew it. And the act of saving these seeds not only saves that history but also contributes to the survival of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds that are essential to a self-sustainable environment.
Each year as I bring out my small collection of seeds, I think back to when and from whom I acquired them. The stories and names are scribbled on the backs of envelopes or pieces of paper slipped into mason jars that rattle with my storehouse of seeds.
My collection doesn’t just represent a variety of plants I can continue to plant and grow each year. It represents friendships and moments. I remember the dear friend who sent an envelope full of tomato varieties in the mail. There’s the older gentleman I sat with who told me how his family brought this corn variety with them to the state 100+ years ago and how he still plants it. Or handing over an envelope of the purple hull peas I grow and save every year to a new gardener along with my recipe for how to cook them.
The seed swap currency is open-pollinated or heirloom seeds. These are seeds that are pollinated by insects, birds, wind, humans, or other natural methods. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will be the same as the parent plant the seed was saved from. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds that have a history passed along with it. You won’t see hybrid seeds. There isn’t anything inherently bad about them, but they aren’t for saving and swapping. Their method of pollination comes from two different species or varieties that are crossed by human intervention.
For more information about the history of heirloom seeds in Arkansas and the revival of the seed swapping phenomena, watch “Seed Swap in the Ozarks,” the documentary directed by Zachariah McCannon. This film explores the “seed-saving subculture of the region.”