A small Preston County seed-keeping operation is preserving vegetable varieties and the stories and recipes that go with them.
If you think of seed-saving, you might think of your great-aunt’s watermelons or your grandpa’s favorite tomatoes and the seeds they saved each year and shared with others. Saving seeds preserves community traditions. When you also collect the stories and recipes associated with the seeds—that, says Preston County farmer Mehmet Öztan, is seed-keeping.
A native of Ankara, Turkey, Öztan knows the value of seed-keeping from deep personal experience. When he moved to Michigan in 2006 to earn his Ph.D. in engineering, he missed his boyhood cuisine. But he couldn’t find the right vegetables to even try making his favorite dishes. So when he and wife, Amy Thompson, bought a house in Florida in 2010, he asked his cousin to send seeds for a certain eggplant.
The Halep Karasi eggplants Öztan grew and the traditional grilled eggplant salad he was finally able to make reconnected him to his roots. What was a relief became curiosity, he says, then a bit of an obsession, and his attention migrated from engineering to the vegetable crops, stories, and recipes of his home.
Öztan and Thompson followed academic interests to West Virginia University in 2018. They bought six acres in Reedsville, a half-hour east of Morgantown, where they could nurture their seed-production operation, Two Seeds in a Pod.
Over humanity’s long agricultural history, farmers saved seeds from the plants that grew best in their climates and soils, and their communities’ crops and cuisines evolved together. The seeds we inherited carry the rich genetic legacy of the growers who came before us.
Those “open-pollinated” crops could be grown and saved by anyone. But modern agriculture favors “hybrid” crops that might be more uniform or disease resistant, but have to be bought from seed companies each year. It’s a preference that erodes our genetic wealth. By the 1980s, Öztan writes on his WVU website, 95% of the seed varieties that were offered in U.S. catalogs as recently as the early 1900s were lost—and today, a few multinational biotech companies control more than 60% of the world’s seed market.
Two Seeds in a Pod is part of a movement that promotes open-pollinated seeds and the traditions around them. Öztan is the primary grower, a complement to his part-time service assistant professorship at WVU. Thompson, a professor of applied linguistics and department chair, fits tasks like packaging seeds and tying rows of tomato plants between her academic responsibilities.
All in the family
Starting with that first eggplant, Öztan came to regard his seed collection as members of his family. As Hurricane Irma approached Florida in 2017, for example, moving his seeds to a secure building and telling a cousin where they could be found were important preparatory steps. How big is that family? Öztan estimates that, in their 2019 first growing season in Reedsville, the couple grew 300 to 400 varieties. Perhaps 90 percent are seeds of Turkey. A small share are from Appalachia—for example, from Italian families that came to north central West Virginia a century ago and have grown and saved their seeds for generations.
Because different seeds have different needs, propagating so many varieties is part green thumb, part organizational skill. For about one-quarter of the seeds, Öztan contracts with a network of growers—four or five in West Virginia this year and a similar number out-of-state. “It’s a comforting feeling to send the seeds to someone I know,” he says, “so I know they will do their best to grow and select good-quality seeds from those crops.” Only a portion of Two Seeds’ genetic wealth is on offer in any given year. If you’re interested in growing something new, browse the catalog at twoseedsinapod.com. To learn about seed sovereignty and related topics, look for Öztan’s Seedy Talks at seedkeepers.faculty.wvu.edu.