An Old-Timey Seed Swap

At this swap meet, the antiques are alive.

By Lynn Coulter | Photos By Mary Margaret Chambliss

Cloudy skies can’t stop real gardeners from getting outdoors, and a little rain seems to energize as opposed to impede us. But the folks who turned out for last year’s Old-Timey Seed Swap and festival in Crawford, Ga., really showed their gumption, plodding through muck and mud, and braving thunderstorms and tornado warnings, just to trade and share a few seeds.

Except these weren’t just any seeds. They were heirlooms, old varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables like our ancestors used to grow. All seeds are capsules of genetic information, programmed to grow into the next season’s sunflowers or squash. But heirlooms, often referred to as open-pollinated, are much more.

Heirlooms are living antiques handed down from one generation of gardeners to the next. They are valuable and interesting enough, it seems, to bring folks out into the elements and brave threats of inclement weather, just for a handful of seeds.

At the Old-Timey swap, heirloom gardeners trade throughout the day, which was in years past held on the rural farm owned by Dr. Virginia Nazarea and her late husband, Dr. Robert Rhoades. The couple, both anthropology professors, launched the swap 14 years ago, after co-founding the Southern Seed Legacy Project (SSLP) at the nearby University of Georgia. (For more on SSLP, click here.)

Like other similar events held around the country, the swap is a lively affair. You don’t have to bring heirloom seeds to trade; if you look longingly at a wooden bowl filed with brown speckled beans or shiny, black watermelon seeds, someone is sure to press a plastic bag into your hands anyway, asking only that you take them home and grow them out. No heirloom seed, they’ll tell you, should be wasted.

Their value is all the more appreciated these days because many heirloom varieties have vanished over time, dropping out of seed catalogs and disappearing from farms and gardens as hybrids took their place. (For more on the difference between hybrids and heirlooms, see “Ugly Is In.”)

Today, SSLP volunteers and seed swappers like Cara Sipprelle are determined to bring heirlooms back. Sipprelle, who grew up in Los Angeles, fell in love with gardening after she enrolled in a class taught by Rhoades.

“He took us out to his garden where he was growing seeds from his collection and passed around kale for us to eat,” she says. “I was a city girl, and I went, ‘ew,’ but I took a bite of a leaf. Literally, in that moment, everything changed for me. It was like I learned some kind of secret. It was the first time I ever ate something right out of the ground.”

Heirloom seed savers are all about that kind of passion, and at the swap, they roam from table to table, trading for dark red Bloody Butcher corn; Whippoorwill peas, said to bloom when the whippoorwills sing; and Moon and Stars watermelons, fruits with dark green rinds splashed with small yellow “stars” and a larger “moon.” Under umbrellas and tarps, swappers offer trays of carrot and tomato seedlings for sale, along with fresh farm eggs, and herbs for teas and seasonings.

Despite the stormy weather, Dr. Jim Veteto, who is assuming the leadership for the SSLP, mans a barbecue grill, and soon the tantalizing smell of pork ribs drifts across the field. Bottled drinks chill nearby in coolers as festival-goers wind up their trading to stop and eat.

Every year, people come to the swap to share gardening tips and seeds, but this year is sadly different. This time, friends and colleagues offer speeches in Dr. Rhoades’ honor, and present a plaque to Dr. Nazarea to commemorate her late husband’s work.

Sipprelle remembers how Dr. Rhoades inspired her. “I absolutely attribute much of my passion for [heirloom gardening] to him as a teacher. He was a real character who wore a cowboy hat and walked like he’d just gotten off a horse. He acted kind of gruff, but he was really a teddy bear.”

This is probably the last swap on the old farm. In 2012, Veteto plans to move the swap, along with the SSLP seed collection, to Denton, Texas, where he teaches at the University of North Texas. Nazarea feels it’s a good move. Veteto will have more lab space there, along with research assistants and refrigeration units to better preserve seeds. Veteto says that after he settles in, he hopes to help organize more swaps in other parts of the country.

Today, the folks who’ve come out into the rain raise a toast to its founders. The weather hasn’t deterred them. Like all good gardeners, they realize that sometimes you’ve got to endure a little rain, to make new things grow.

A New Home
While the SSLP seeds are being relocated to their new home at the University of North Texas, other swaps are popping up around the country. Veteto will co-host a swap on April 9 in Conway, Ark., with an agricultural organization called Conserving Arkansas’s Cultural Heritage.

Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) 12th Annual Seed Swap – Friday, May 4, 2011, 7-9 p.m.  Includes potluck dinner, hoedown music, seed sharing. Can’t make the swap? Sign up at the library to “check out” seeds from their collection.

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, Sept. 17, 2011, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Features a seed swap; seed saver’s tours of the Monticello flower and vegetable gardens; educational talks, food tastings and cooking demos.

Can’t make it to a swap? Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange sell heirloom seeds online.

Also, the Old Farmer’s Almanac provides an online forum to swap seeds (swapping for pay is not permitted).

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