Appalachia Identified as Most Diverse Foodshed in North America
DENTON, Texas – It’s no secret that the Appalachia region is a center of floral and salamander diversity and is rich in indigenous culture and traditional folk music. Now, thanks to the work of a University of North Texas anthropologist, we have one more reason to cherish the heritage of the Southern mountains.
Based on a $10,000 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) funded study, Appalachia has been identified as the most diverse foodshed in North America, with nearly 1,500 documented folk and indigenous crop varieties of heirloom vegetables and fruits; apple cultivars alone make up nearly a third of the varieties identified. In addition, Appalachia folk crop varieties outnumber Ozark heirloom cultivars by an almost 2:1 ratio.
“The American Mountain South is home to some of the highest agrobiodiversity levels in Canada, the United States and northern Mexico,” said James Veteto, assistant professor and the project’s principal investigator.
Veteto spent 14 months in the field, conducting oral history interviews and socioeconomics surveys with growers and home gardeners throughout the Appalachia region.
“The growers mostly talked about why they grow certain heirloom varieties and their reasons are largely cultural in nature: they are following local recipes, upholding culinary traditions, and maintaining the family heritage.” In fact, many heirloom foods are so embedded in family history that they carry family names.
“Growers of heirloom crops across the Mountain South emphasize cultural themes when expressing why they continue to maintain the seeds of their ancestors,” said Veteto, noting that beans, apples, tomatoes, and corn are the most prominent crops being saved across the region. “Specific culinary uses, locally-defined tastes, food preservation technologies and their resulting foodways, and cultural heritage and memory are the most important reasons why heirloom cultivars are maintained. Utilitarian reasons – market value and high yields – are secondary.”
Veteto said that understanding why agrobiodiversity persists across the Appalachia region is important from a cultural standpoint (geneology can be traced through seeds), a culinary standpoint, and an agroecology standpoint.
“We don’t know what we are doing when we substitute one variety for another,” said Veteto. “Narrowing the diversity of an agroecological system is dangerous.”
But as the younger generation loses interest and modernity pushes its way into the region, Veteto warns that the agrobiodiversity, and the culture that goes with it, will be lost.
“We need to have a social and environmental system that allows for traditional livelihoods to persist, and one of the most important pieces of that is seed preservation,” said Veteto.
With that effort in mind, Veteto, in collaboration with the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) alliance, produced a publication to foster recognition of the Appalachia region and encourage the preservation of heirloom seed varieties.
The publication, “Place-Based Foods of Appalachia: From Rarity to Community Restoration and Market Recovery,” is a first-ever report of the status of 1,412 place-based heirloom foods in central and southern Appalachia. The publication lists varieties of fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, and grains, and records whether they are extinct, endangered, threatened or common. In addition, the publication contains essays on various Appalachia heirloom foods and the folk and Eastern Cherokee cultures that are so deeply tied to them.
Visit here to download a PDF copy of the publication.
“Mountain South seeds, gardens, and gardeners are indeed a milieu of memory and conservation that is living and vibrant—yet threatened—and are worthy of our support and respect as the groundwork for any conservation efforts in the region,” said Veteto.
Read more about the final report, “Seeds of Persistence: The Ethnoecology of Crop Agrobiodiversity Maintenance in the American Mountain South,” on the national SARE database referencing project number GS08-074.
Photo credits: James Veteto
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.