, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 121-134

The history and survival of traditional heirloom vegetable varieties in the southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina

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Abstract

Southern Appalachia is unique among agroecological regions of the American South because of the diverse environmental conditions caused by its mountain ecology, the geographic and commercial isolation of the region, and the relative cultural autonomy of the people that live there. Those three criteria, combined with a rich agricultural history and the continuance of the homegardening tradition, make southern Appalachia an area of relatively high crop biodiversity in America. This study investigated the history and survival of traditional heirloom vegetable crops in western North Carolina and documented 134 heirloom varieties that were still being grown. I conducted interviews with 26 individuals from 12 counties in western North Carolina. I used a snowball sampling method to identify individuals or communities that maintained heirloom vegetable varieties, and used the “memory banking” of farmers’ knowledge as a strategy to complement the gathering of seed specimens. Most of the varieties were grown and saved by homegardeners; beans were the most numerous. Results indicate that usually only one or two individuals in a community maintained significant numbers of heirloom varieties and that many communities have lost their heirloom vegetable heritage altogether. The decline of the farming population combined with a lack of cultural continuance in family seed-saving traditions threatens the ability of communities to maintain crop biodiversity. Some of the cultivars may represent the last (small) populations of endangered varieties.