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An Eastern Band of Cherokee Farmer Fosters ‘Memory Banking’ and Growing of Heirloom Seeds

Kevin Welch is helping Eastern Band of Cherokee growers save heirloom vegetables from extinction. (Courtesy Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cooperative Extension)

Kevin Welch is helping Eastern Band of Cherokee growers save heirloom vegetables from extinction. (Courtesy Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cooperative Extension)

Ask Kevin Welch what he does, and he’ll tell you he’s a “professional farmer.” But he’s no ordinary farmer.

In his unique role with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Cooperative Extension, Welch has become a nationally renowned speaker on health, nutrition and the benefits of traditional agriculture. He has served as a lecturer-in-residence at Purdue University and spoken at the University of Georgia as well as to the Association of American Indian Physicians in San Diego, California and Anchorage, Alaska, preaching the importance of traditional plants and their roles in combating diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression.

But in his day-to-day life, his passion is preserving the heirloom seeds of his heritage. And that’s what makes him a farmer.

In 2007, Welch established the Center for Cherokee Plants, headquartered in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina on the Qualla Boundary. The project is funded by the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the Cherokee Choices Healthy Roots Project through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Welch’s interest in preserving traditional Cherokee methods of farming, creating a heritage seed bank, and sharing with the community is known far and wide. And he regularly receives donated seeds from growers who have passed them down from generation to generation. Though some of these seeds were cultivated for centuries by Cherokees, the tradition of growing these ancient crops had been all but lost. Welch’s mission is to preserve and propagate plants that are considered culturally relevant to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and to maintain a seed exchange program for enrolled members who agree to grow the seeds in isolation, thus keeping them pure, and to share 10 percent of their first harvest with the Center.

During growing season, Welch’s office is an ordinary single-level white outbuilding off U.S. 19 beside a large open field where he tends to his crops on a two-acre parcel of land alongside the Tuckaseegee River in a fertile valley. On the same stretch of ground lies the sacred Kituhwa Mound—the site of the first Cherokee Village.

The long concrete structure, once a former dairy, is used mainly for farm equipment, but it is here in a small room where Welch first carefully records the history and provenance of the rare cultivars.

Harold Long, an Eastern Band member, and his wife Nancy are locals who have benefited from Welch’s seed exchange. Their three-generations farm is a mile higher in elevation from the valley below, and they seek out plants with a shorter growing season—plants like Harold’s mother and father grew.

“We grow seventeen types of heirloom tomatoes like Cherokee purple, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Mortgage Lister and Violet Jasper, which is small and very beautiful,” says Nancy. “Our pole beans are all string-less—October bean, Lazy Housewife, greasy bean and Cherokee butter bean. We collect our seeds or get them from the extension. We also have the older varieties of apples on our farm, like Moonglow and Liberty. We keep patches of sochan [a relative of the green-headed coneflower] and ramps too.”

Along with hundreds of other gardeners, the Longs have become part of the ever-expanding circle of heirloom plant growers, and their farm a testing ground for these ancient seeds.

In a recent interview, Welch spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network about the program’s promising future.

What are you doing now?

We have a project calledDa gwa le l(i) A wi sv nvusing an enclosed trailer we call the garden wagon. We converted it into a space for holding educational courses. We can set it up at any venue and be ready to teach in about 15 minutes. In remote places where it’s hard to get people to a community center, we can bring it right to them.

We also have a garden kit giveaway program coordinated by Sarah McClellan, project director and educator of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Cooperative Extension, and funded for the past 10 years by Chief Michell Hicks’ discretionary fund. In addition to organizing the volunteers and selecting locations, McClellan determines all the plants and seeds we give away.

Volunteer Kevin Welch unloads Garden Wagon plants. (National Institute of Food and Agriculture)

Volunteer Kevin Welch unloads Garden Wagon plants. (National Institute of Food and Agriculture)

How are the seeds kept?

We collect them and dry them and put them in the freezer to kill off any pests. Then we sort and clean them and store them in bulk. It’s actually very low-tech. We hold seed saving workshops to teach the basics. Sharing them and planting them is the best way to keep a viable seed bank.

How are they shared

We provide the seeds to enrolled members only. We don’t sell seeds. Sometimes I bring seeds along with me when I give talks, but then I’m mostly talking about the practical applications, local foods and agricultural education.

All tribes have some aspect of agriculture—from aquaculture to agriculture to ranching. A lot of tribes, when they try to modernize, tend to get away from their traditional agricultural heritage.

Who are some of the people outside the immediate community you have you given seeds to?

We gave seeds to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. for their garden and also on the Earth Day event to the [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] “People’s Garden” when I came and spoke about gardening. Several years ago, we donated seeds for a rare Cherokee flour corn; Cherokee Speckled butter beans; “Candy Roaster”, a variety of winter squash; and a mix of October beans, to Michelle Obama’s White House garden.

And to start their seed program in the Western Cherokee Nation, we have given 24 varieties to Pat Gwin [director] and Mark Dunham [natural resources specialist] with the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources.

How many different varieties do you have now?

We have many varieties but we only grow out a few each year. We rotate them to build up a stock. My job is to plant, care for them and harvest them. We have quite a few folks that support our program and bring in heirloom seed that has been grown in their family for a long time. We grow varieties of tomatoes, the Cherokee Tan pumpkin, corn, beans, peppers, Jerusalem artichokes and gourds, as well as non-traditional varieties like vetch and wild potatoes from the Americas.

How do you process the seeds you receive?

When we get them, they are catalogued with a story about their heritage. Then they are dated and labeled. Afterwards, we grow them out to see if they are a stable variety, and we’ll take as many seeds as we can. We give away the seeds for free, because the idea is to get as many people growing it as possible, so the variety doesn’t die out.

What about the stories the families tell about their seeds?

That’s an integral part of its being an heirloom and being around so long. If no one liked it, then they would have not grown it anymore. I tell people that without the story of why it’s important to anyone—a seed is just a seed. This is called “memory banking”—the process of gaining the story behind the plant or behind any social construct. The same application is done for the seeds and the plants, like who grew them, why they grew them and why they liked them.

Are they more disease resistant? 

Most open-pollinated varieties evolved because they have traits for a certain area. It really goes to soil conditions, environment, pH levels, climate—even the topography of where they come from. Basically they are grown because theyarepest and disease resistant. Sometimes people do what they call “high grading,” selecting the ones they like until they become the dominant trait.

Have you found traditional and natural ways to combat pests and disease? 

Most of it is really basic. You can plant companion plants like beans that are a good nitrogen fixer for corn [and] squash, because its broad leaves shade out other plants for a natural weeding effect, and certain types of flowers that attract desirable insects. In winter, we collect praying mantis chrysalises that we place in the garden in springtime, where they’ll hatch out and eat the aphids. Also important is to select the right slope and drainage to prevent mildew from overly damp soils.

What are the challenges to growing these seeds? 

The only challenge is crossbreeding and the application of pesticides and fertilizers, which we do not use here; also the elk that roam free here, or even the neighbors’ critters!

Do you have fruit seeds too? 

Yes, we have Junaluska apples and Nickajacks—both documented as over 100 years old; Buff apples that are a variety documented to have been grown for at least 150 years; and the heritage White Indian peach, very small and sweet, that the elders really enjoy; also ground cherries and persimmons.

Do you teach people how to prepare the fruits and vegetables?

Most families still know how to cook these foods. It’s generally passed down from mother to daughter, though there are several cookbooks out by enrolled members. The Big Cove Community Club recently held a workshop about traditional cooking. And if you ask at the elementary school, the kids all know whatsochanand ramps are and how they like to eat bear and deer meat.

What are your plans for the future? 

Hopefully we will continue to enhance and develop our programming to reach a broader audience. We want to focus on growing more varieties and developing a program customized to different groups. One of the things we’re trying to do is to re-educate the youth so that they’ll have a set of life skills. In this way they will be able to grow their own foods and pass that knowledge along. Our emphasis will be on education and youth gardening because the children are the ones that will carry on the traditions to future generations.

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