Sustaining Locally-Grown Food One Seed At A Time
By Frances Nevill
As more and more people are revisiting growing their own food, greener living practices and sustainable choices in their day-to-day life, an age-old practice of saving seeds can lay the foundation to begin that journey. Carol Koury of Asheville’s Sow True Seeds hopes to provide today’s growers with all they need to sow successful plants for generations to come.
Sow True Seeds sells only “open- pollinated” seeds. Tell us what that means?
Open-pollinated is the old-fashioned seed. For example, you plant a Cherokee purple tomato and you choose the nicest ones from a few of the different plants in your garden. You would save the seeds and you would plant them next year. And what you would come out with is a Cherokee purple tomato. That is open-pollinated. It means that the fruit of a plant, the seeds of a plant, will “sow true.” That is to say that they will be true to what they started out as. Whereas if you take a hybrid squash, for example (and there are some wonderful hybrids out there) and save those seeds and plant them again, they will most certainly not look like what you had from the previous year. This happens because it’s not a stable seed. Sow True specializes in only open-pollinated seeds.
Tell us about the inspiration for your company, Sow True Seeds?
In 2008 I received an inheritance. I really wanted to put it to good use. I had been a gardener all of my life. I have been growing my own food since I was a little kid. This is because my grandmother grew all of the food we ate on her farm in New Hampshire. She grew our potatoes, our corn, our greens, peas, beets and other vegetables. And she raised chickens. She would put up food for the winter. At that time in the 1940s and 50s, my grandmother had no running water and she had no electricity. In order for her to can food, she would do it on a woodstove in July and August. It was so hot!
So I learned about organic gardening from her. She would have never have called it “organic” because it wasn’t a term people used at that time. But she used no artificial pesticides or herbicides. We had a compost pile.
We gardened organically. As a kid I was charged with going out into the garden with a 12-ounce Pepsi bottle with a little kerosene in the bottom, and I would have to pick out potato bugs. If I could fill the bottle, I got a nickel for an ice cream cone.
After I received the inheritance, I talked with friends and family and realized that Asheville is just a wonderful region for local foods. There are so many growers here, and there are lots of farmer’s markets, and there are lots and lots of plants of various kinds. But the basis of all agriculture is seed. And there was no seed company. So I decided with the help of a partner at the time, and friends, to open a seed company. I wanted to base the seed company on my experience as a gardener and based on my grandmother saving seeds. This would be a seed company that would sustain local agriculture. And that meant open-pollinated.
You have a lot of Appalachian favorites offered in your catalog.
Absolutely. For example. we have so many unique things like greasy beans which are hairless beans that look waxy. You eat them pod and all and you cook them longer than you do a regular green bean. These are interesting because they are a particular kind of bean grown in the western mountains of North Carolina, and east Tennessee and parts of Kentucky. They are absolutely delicious. There are a large variety of them because if your great-grandma got some beans from somebody in her area, and your grandma planted them, and then your mother planted them you now have an heirloom seed. And you probably have a bean that is a little bit different than the guy on the other side of the mountain who isn’t nearby, so the genetic material of the plant hasn’t crossed so you have your own little bean. There are lots and lots of different kinds and we’re working on getting more.
A number of local favorites are named for the Cherokee people. There are varieties like the Cherokee purple tomatoes, Cherokee wax beans and more. We also have the standard things people like to eat like collards and mustard greens and kale, corn, squash and so much more. We try to get varieties that grow well in this region, but many of these grow well other places, too.
For people who want to begin to live more sustainable lives, what advice do you give them?
Know where your food comes from. A hundred years ago, you would know who grew the food you were eating. One of the problems of not knowing where your food comes from is the increasing presence of foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Sow True Seeds are not only open-pollinated but are organic, untreated and GMO-free. People should ask if their food is GMO-free. We don’t currently have any laws requiring us to label foods as GMO-free. It’s important to communicate with your lawmakers. It’s important to get the conversation going.
Where does the gardener being to learn about saving seeds?
Sow True offers classes and workshops throughout the seed season. We have classes for beginning gardeners where people can learn basic plant care and how to save their seeds. There weren’t seed companies years ago. People had seed swaps. We saved our seeds and we traded them.
What is the future of Sow True Seeds?
To have more and more local growers and more and more seed providers. We want to be involved in the community and be sustainable.
What have seeds taught you?
Resilience. Year after year, you can count on nature and seeds to grow and nourish you.
Tell us why you love Western North Carolina?
That’s easy! Asheville is the most welcoming community you’d ever want to live in. It’s filled with the most friendly, vibrant and creative people. I grew up on the other end of this mountain chain in New Hampshire. But it’s still the same mountain chain. I love the beauty, the people and the culture.
To find out more about Sow True Seeds and Sow True Seeds work on issues regarding GMOs, visit their website at sowtrueseed.com.
Frances Nevill is a freelance writer who writes about the people and places that make the southeast unique.