Through The Heirloom Collard Project, local farmers are helping to revive rare and nearly forgotten varieties of sacred leafy greens. Grower Melony Edwards recently wrote about the initiative's surprise success here in the Northwest.
Norah Hummel, Seed Bank Manager at Seed Savers Exchange, explains that the project began in 2016 as a collaboration between the Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. It was inspired by the work of Edward H. Davis and John T. Morgan, professors at Emory and Henry College (detailed in Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table).
The two professors connected with Ira Wallace of SESE about the unique discovery of collards from their southern collecting trip. Ira, incredibly excited about the findings, asked SSE to request about 60 collard varieties from the USDA, where the collection was donated. This led to the Heirloom Collard Project.
Their main goal: To share these varieties with farmers, gardeners, seed companies and chefs in order to celebrate the products' cultural heritage. "To do this," Hummel says, "we first need to regenerate these varieties and bulk up the inventory. This year we are working with 15 growers around the country to generate these rare varieties to further facilitate sharing them with our community."
Hummel adds that they're still in the visioning stages of this project and discussing how best to connect with the collard-loving community. "These seed stories connect us to our collective garden heritage," she says.
"By sharing these seeds and their stories, we are celebrating the seed stewards both living and [those] who have passed on. Celebrating this legacy is so important to connect us to the food we grow and eat and provides a deeper meaning to the seeds growing in our gardens."
"Every seed has a story, and it is a beautiful thing to creatively share that story and celebrate those seed stewards," she continues. "Collards have such a rich historical and culinary history and have been a symbol of African American foodways. I think it is so important to honor that history and work with a diverse community."
The project took a brief hiatus from 2018 to 2020; Hummel rediscovered it during the pandemic. "I got super excited about collaborating with other organizations and sharing these special varieties," she comments. "In Spring 2020, SSE contacted Ira Wallace at SESE, Chris Smith at Utopian Seed Project and Melissa DeSa at Working Food about possibly reviving the project."
Everyone was excited to dive back in. They decided to organize a national collard trial with 18 heirloom varieties they had already regenerated. "We reached out to our networks and received a lot of enthusiasm from growers around the country," Hummel says. "250 people wanted to participate!"
Hummel helped coordinate this trial (with partner SeedLinked). She also managed offsite seed grow-outs from the collection and was responsible for packing and shipping out all the seeds to participants.
"I feel so invested in this project," she explains, "because all these seeds have special stewardship histories that trace back to real people and their seed stories. These stories give us a glimpse into the past and that rich history. Growing these varieties in my own garden and at SSE honors these seed stewards and their dedication to growing, saving and sharing these unique varieties."
During the trial last year, they worked with four trial sites in the PNW — Ebony by Natur (in Enumclaw, Washington), Mudbone Grown (Corbett, Oregon), Oregon State University (Aurora, Oregon) and Organic Seed Alliance (Chimacum, Washington). They aren't doing a trial in 2021.
"I think collards are a widely diverse and adaptable crop and can be grown in a wide range of climates," Hummel says. "The majority of the varieties performed well at these sites.
The most rewarding part of this project, she says, has been connecting with growers around the country who are excited about growing collards and learning their histories. "It was so fun to hear from people that participated in the trial and be inspired by the speakers during Collard Week that want to further their own understanding of seed saving and seed keeping," she says. "There is a growing community of people who are excited to celebrate this crop by cooking, seed keeping and storytelling."
The most surprising discovery? Looking at some of the trial data and learning that the heirloom varieties were preferred to the industry standard, tried-and-true varieties.
To help support the cause, Hummel encourages readers to: "Grow collards this fall! There are many heirloom varieties available from SSE and SESE as well as The Exchange." Interested readers can also follow project progress on social media.
"This is a multi-year project," Hummel says, "and there will be lots of opportunities to participate. We are still doing a lot of dreaming and planning."