WNC farmers experiment with resilient crops for a changing climate

ALL EARS: At Green Hill Urban Farm in West Asheville, Mike Fortune has been crossing South American corn varieties with Native American flint corn to create a fast-growing hybrid suited to Western North Carolina's climate. He's also experimenting with hardy avocados, citrus, guavas and bananas. Photo by Laura Hackett

In Mike Fortune’s West Asheville backyard, home of the 3-acre Green Hill Urban Farm, there are agricultural wonders sprouting to life: grape-sized kiwis from Siberia hardy enough to survive a southeastern winter, several lime-orange tree hybrids with promising future genetics. And most remarkably: a crossbreed of North and South American corn that feeds itself nutrients thanks to a mucouslike, nitrogen-producing gel that drips from its roots.

“My whole plan is to adapt corn that would never grow here in the past,” says Fortune. “Our seasons used to be late April to early October, now they’re early April until early November, which allows for a lot of these corns. Normally they stand absolutely no chance of being able to produce, but because our seasons are longer, I’m able to do this.”

As the ramifications of climate change continue to surge and shake up the world’s agricultural landscape, the lines between what can and cannot be grown are shifting as quickly as seasonal weather patterns. For farmers like Fortune, these shifts have prompted experimentation with nontraditional cultivars of crops, with the hopes that they will have the potential to be more resilient in the face of adverse climate conditions.

”One thing most people don’t understand about climate change is that, while average global temperatures will rise, the most important effect will be more variability at the extreme ends of weather — higher highs, lower lows, stronger and more frequent storms, more flooding, longer droughts,” explains Dee Eggers, associate professor of environmental studies at UNC Asheville. “For food production, this has major implications. We can expect more crop failure due to weather and pests than at any time in memory.”

In this region in particular, rampant flooding has damaged agricultural livelihood. In the March story “WNC Farmers Look to New Business Models After Last Year’s Flooding,” Xpress reported that 2018 was the wettest year on record for the region. As a result, “farmland in the region got doused as rivers and streams repeatedly crested their banks, drowning crops, saturating fields and killing livestock.”

Get with the system

For farms to remain resilient in the face of these challenges, implementing sustainable growing systems is a must, asserts Lee Warren, executive director of Organic Growers School.

“If you have systems in place, disturbance and impact are going to be less,” Warren says. “The three major components that go into a sustainable system are having a diversity of species, minimal disturbance and recycling nutrients.”

She continues, “As the climate warms, more water is sucked into the atmosphere, and it’s dumping back down on farms. There are 500-year floods happening often, meaning you have to rely on techniques to not lose your soil. … When you have a lot of wet, plants aren’t going to thrive unless you have soil with good drainage and sustainable systems to avoid erosion with the three components I mentioned.”

So what do hybridized corn and Fortune’s other experimental crops have to do with all this? Well, assuming they’re grown with sustainable agricultural practices, increasing the diversity of such crops can help support our ability to adjust to changing conditions, invent creative solutions and capitalize on new opportunities, according to Asheville-based food resilience consultant Laura Lengnick, author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate.

“Anyone working to increase the diversity of useful plants in our region’s resilience toolbox is helping to increase the chance that our community will do well as the climate changes,” says Lengnick.

Deep roots

Fortune says his corn, which integrates the deeper roots and taller stalks of the South American crop, has greater stability in the soil, allowing the plants to resist disruption from floodwaters. He’s also incorporating the genetics from the Mexican Jala, the longest ear of corn in the world, as well as the Peruvian Cusco Gigante, a variety known for its giant kernels.

But what really excites Fortune is the possibility of a stabilized cultivar that could self-produce nitrogen as its food source on a large scale, thereby mitigating the harmful effects of added nitrogen in our soil systems, including ocean “dead zones,” greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. “Corn is the biggest crop we grow,” says Fortune. “To create a corn that feeds itself on a widespread basis, that grows faster and taller and produces larger kernels. For those to be products we eat in North American instead of them being romantic ideas from the equator. That would create a huge change.”

Another South American variety Fortune is focused on — this one, more for its nutritional benefits — is the Maiz Morado, famous for its deep purple hue and abundance of antioxidants. In order to create a hybrid that’s better acclimated to WNC, Fortune has crossed it with a Native American flint corn, resulting in a more nutrient-dense and fast-growing cultivar that can be harvested after just 90 days.

COMMON GROUND: The Utopian Seed Project has planted 43 improved cultivars of the native American groundnut to explore the agricultural potential of wild foods. Photo by Chris Smith

“I went to Peru five or six years ago and came across Maiz Morado, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, these corns are amazing; how do I bring them here?’” he says. “The content that makes it purple is anthocyanin, which is a superfood that’s said to offer anti-cancer benefits and fights free radicals in your body.”

While corn is Fortune’s primary focus (he’s grown it in myriad forms for the last 20 years), he’s also experimenting with guava, kumquats, caviar limes, hardy bananas and avocados to see whether or not they’ll be able to adjust to the region’s future climate. And he’s seeing increasing success on his quest (that builds on the work of University of Texas faculty) to hybridize orange and lime trees to create a hardy citrus plant.

“Florida is being ravaged by a greening disease that’s killing the citrus industry,” he explains. “The version I’m growing has lots of seeds and a harder peel, but it’s here in Western North Carolina where the greening disease doesn’t exist for it yet.”

He’s also testing out a Siberian pomegranate plant that he says “hypothetically should grow here but has never really been done.” He plans to save its seeds to show others if it’s a viable crop for the region.

“I’m saving a whole refrigerator full of seeds and filling 5-quart buckets,” he says. “I’m hoping to open a seed bank and start offering these seeds out to the community as these successes start to come.”

Hedging bets

Like Fortune, Chris Smith, founder and executive director of the Utopian Seed Project, has also been spurred into action by the impending threat of climate change. Recognizing the importance of crop diversity, Smith’s employer, Sow True Seeds, gave him the green light last year to devote 20 hours of his workweek to growing and saving crop seeds that offer the promise of resilience.

After a successful plunge into the world of okra genomes that resulted in the cataloging of more than 75 varieties, a pursuit that Xpress shared in April’s “Chris Smith Takes a Stand for Okra Diversity,” Smith has expanded his focus to include the cultivation of tropical perennials and wild natives.

“The doomful side of the story is that, you know, obviously the climate is warming and will continue to warm even if there’s some miraculous stopping of emissions,” Smith explains. “So given that reality, then hedging our bets and learning how to grow tropical crops is not a terrible idea. We’re on the edge of being able to grow these things, but if and when the climate warms further and all the crops we used to know how to grow are failing, we’ll have the knowledge of how to grow these new foods. That’s a pretty exciting part of the project.”

Currently, Smith is testing out tropical perennials including taro, yacon (Bolivian sunroot), arrowroot, water chestnuts and chayote, a subtropical variety of squash.

“Chayote is an incredibly productive plant — you can eat all of its parts, from the stems to the leaves to the roots, and it doesn’t have diseases like summer and winter squashes here,” he says. “You’d expect something so wonderful to be at all the farmers markets, and we’re wondering why it’s not.”

Another element of Smith’s research involves cultivating native plants that have been foraged in the wild but never farmed, such as the American groundnut. There was actually a significant amount of research happening around this crop, which grows legumes from its protein-rich roots, in the 1980s by a professor named Bill Blackmon at Louisiana State University, says Smith. But the program was prematurely ended before researchers found any conclusions.

Courtesy of Blackmon, however, 40 strains of the groundnut have been given to the Utopian Seed Project, allowing Smith to pick up where the 1980s research left off. He’s now observing them, identifying promising strains and sharing his discoveries with area chefs. “It has the potential to be a brand new crop,” Smith says. “And being native, there’s an inherent element of resilience from disease and bugs.”

After an initial observational trial, the top 25% of cultivars are replicated in a new trial and examined in greater detail regarding yield and the amount of time from planting to harvest. In the second year, yields are weighed, and in the third and final year, the seeds saved from those experiments are distributed to farmers to extract further data.

Despite working with limited time and resources, Smith says the project has effectively built momentum and will hopefully find funding opportunities in the future. Already, his tastier okra varieties have generated a buzz from chefs and attracted business from restaurants in the Charlotte area.

“We don’t want to just have trials and evacuate — we want to have the whole ecosystem enriched by these food types,” says Smith. “Our mission is to support diversity of food and farming, but we’re operating under the bigger vision of trying to address climate change through sustainable and regenerative agriculture.”

For more on the Utopian Seed Project, visit theutopianseedproject.org or donate at patreon.com/theutopianseedproject.

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