Tuesday, June 11

Bill Best and the Beanstalk

Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia
By Bill Best. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2013.

Thanks to SFA graduate student assistant Anna Hamilton for writing this guest blog post.

Last year, I was excited to learn that I was going to be working with the Southern Foodways Alliance as part of my graduate studies at the University of Mississippi. My parents met the news with an arsenal of ideas, and my dad, who has never been shy about lobbing suggestions at me, said that I “should go right up to Berea, Kentucky, and do something about Bill Best.” Little did he know that the SFA was already a few steps ahead: one of the organization's earliest films is a portrait of Bill Best by Joe York and Matt Bruder.

My parents, alumni of Berea College, took courses from Bill Best in their undergraduate days. Best is a farmer in Berea, Kentucky and President of Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center Inc, an organization that encourages viable farming practices to ensure food self-sufficiency, diversity and knowledge in the Appalachian region.

Greasy back beans from Bill Best's seed catalog.

Best is also an ardent seed saver who specializes in heirloom tomato and bean varieties. Have you ever tasted the tender, White Creaseback bean? Or the Fat Man bean, popular in West Virginia? How about the thick-podded Greasy Back bean? Best is your man for these botanical jewels. Farmers and home gardeners can purchase packets of heirloom beans and tomatoes from SMAC’s catalog.

Right now my parents’ garden is chock-full of Best’s beans, and my dad has more greasy beans and goose beans than he knows what to do with. He’s canning and freezing as fast as he can, and preparing to set some aside as seed for next year. A neat thing about SMAC’s seed operation is that they encourage personal responsibility when it comes to saving seeds. Best welcomes first-time buyers but discourages second-timers: He wants purchasers to save their own seeds rather than relying on the catalog each year.

In Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste, Best’s new book, Best challenges us to think of seed savers as more than just eccentrics and oddballs. Instead, he says, we should regard them as necessary protectors, defenders, and democratizers of our food supply. Best recognizes a disconnect in mass-produced, mechanized beans and the “real” heirloom beans he, as well as other Appalachian farmers, cultivate. Indeed, heirloom seeds contain important genetic material for maintaining agricultural diversity. And yet heirloom seeds possess a very real cultural value as well: They are at the center of many family and community histories and stories, and empower individuals to sustain themselves. Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste is a valuable guide to the hows, whys, and whos of Appalachian seed saving.

You can purchase heirloom seeds and find out more about Bill Best and the Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center Inc at www.heirlooms.org.