Protecting yesterday’s beans

College may very well be intellectually enthralling and socially beguiling, but all that excitement calls for small sacrifices. As any frosh will readily confirm, being a full-time student means wearing flip-flops in the shower, sharing the remote for the student-lounge T.V. and giving up one's garden.

Courtesy James G.K. McClure Jr. Farmers Federation Collection, Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill College

More than 40 students gathered at Mars Hill College earlier this month for a community event billed as a "Seed and Story Swap," in which participants were supposed to trade seeds saved by their families and share the stories behind them. But the vast majority of students arrived empty-handed, bearing the same story: Their parents made a garden, and they wanted to make a garden too, homesick as they were for vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh snap beans. But without a patch of land on which to plant, they'd been forced to get their horticultural fix from Halloween pumpkins and decorative bamboo stalks.

"I can't garden here," complained junior Breanna Mason, a regional-studies major who grew up in Brevard.

Mason's grandmother, a Haywood County native, sends her relatives seeds in film canisters.

"My grandparents have always gardened, and now we've all gotten into it," says Mason, who immediately backed the germ of a proposal that emerged halfway through the meeting: a campus garden, where students might grow Madison County's distinctive heirloom crops.

"I would love it if we had something like that," Mason says. "We're all about pushing competition here, and that would be great, to see who has the best beans. I miss having a part in that."

While event organizers stressed they haven't even decided yet whether to repeat the seed-and-story program, the campus-garden concept meshes well with the sponsoring group's mission. The college's Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies is dedicated to the preservation of Southern Appalachian culture and — in conjunction with a National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant — has made its Farmers Federation collection a priority this year.

James G. K. McClure, a Chicago transplant whose descendants still farm at Hickory Nut Gap, founded the Farmers Federation, a cooperative that helped many Western North Carolina farmers turn a profit, in Fairview in 1920. "McClure partnered with folks here," explains Amy Carraux, acting Ramsey Center program coordinator. "He said, 'How can we work together?' It grew really quickly and became a Western North Carolina staple."

The Farmers Federation operated through the 1950s, supporting and ennobling area farmers. A Mars Hill College garden could carry on that tradition, Carraux says.

With food politics a hot issue on collegiate campuses, many schools have recently set aside land for student gardens. But most of those gardens were created to connect urban students with their food, provide organic vegetables for their cafeterias or serve as community-building devices. When Wake Forest University this fall inaugurated a student garden, it issued a release heralding the new opportunity for students "to better understand and influence the social, environmental, biological and political consequences of food production and consumption." Establishing a garden so students could uphold their own homegrown habits and guard local-seed varieties, as Mars Hill students are suggesting, is a rather more unique proposition.

Heirloom-seed expert Bill Best, who ambled into the meeting after a day spent chasing seed leads, spoke to the importance of having a place in which to cultivate Madison County seeds.

"You need to know you're sitting on the Garden of Eden, as far as seeds go," Best said. "I think you have a resource here that's unlike anything on earth."

Best worries that — absent a garden in which to practice their craft — Western North Carolina's younger generations will forget everything their elders knew about beans.

"We're sort of scarce in terms of bean lore here," Best said, looking around the room. "How many people know what cut-shorts are?"

Seeing just four students wave their hands, he continued, sadly: "This kind of knowledge was common knowledge when I was a kid, but it's exceptional knowledge now."

The Mars Hill faculty and staff members who joined the meeting fell into two camps: New-school locavores who spoke lovingly of catalogs crammed with evocatively named tomatoes, all strangely shaped and oddly colored, and old-school gardeners who extolled canning and confessed they didn't know the fancy names of their ancestors' favorite plants.

Karen Paar, who showed off a pumpkin grown from her grandmother's seed, said, "You can see it's not the prettiest pumpkin. But my family wanted it for the taste."

Echoing Best, she added: "We're losing some of this knowledge. It's a lot easier to save genes than knowledge."

Not every student at the meeting grew up gardening the way Mason, Best and Paar did. One student fretted she didn't even know pumpkins had seeds until recently, while another offered, "I'm trying to grow some plants in my room. Broccoli and cabbage."

"Nice save," another student snickered.

But most of the students came from Western North Carolina gardening families, much like the families McClure no doubt encountered when he formed the Farmers Federation to protect the area's rural heritage.

"We had a freezer full of seeds," one student recalled when asked why he'd skipped dinner with his friends to attend the meeting. "We didn't really have the luxury of buying them. We didn't know their names. We didn't know their varieties. But Dad had all these old okras. I hope one day Dad gives me some of those okra seeds."

And, if Mars Hill students follow through on their campus garden idea, he might just have somewhere to plant them.

Food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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