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Berea farmer advocates for heirloom seeds to help mountain farming

Berea farmer believes heirloom seeds can help make mountain farms sustainable.

Bill Best, a farmer and former Berea College professor has written a new book, "Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving," that explores the rich history of saving seeds from old varieties of beans, tomatoes and other vegetables that might
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Bill Best, a farmer and former Berea College professor has written a new book, "Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving," that explores the rich history of saving seeds from old varieties of beans, tomatoes and other vegetables that might

Three freezers in Bill Best’s barn are filled with plastic zip-lock bags containing heirloom bean seeds.

“We’ve probably got 700 to 800 varieties in here,” said Best, who has collected heirloom seeds for decades in Kentucky and Appalachia.

A professor emeritus at Berea College, he was on the faculty for 40 years, teaching literature, mythology, aquatic art and swimming at all levels, in addition to being an administrator.

He doesn’t have a degree in agriculture, but he has farmed all his life. He is an advocate of locally grown food and is known among seed savers across the country for his work in saving heirloom vegetables, particularly beans and tomatoes.

His most recent book is “Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving,” written with Dobree Adams and published in April by the University Press of Kentucky.

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Bill Best showed off his new book, “Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Easting and Saving,” at his farm on Pilot Knob Cemetery Road near Berea. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

“I got a call this morning from a woman in New York, trying to find a greasy bean that her family raised in Floyd County decades ago,” he said. “I get calls like this all the time.”

Best is director of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, a nonprofit organization that he and his son, Michael, set up to educate people in appropriate ways to collect, save and grow heirloom seeds. The market for heirloom fruits and vegetables is increasing, he said. He is convinced that heirlooms can be the basis for making mountain farms sustainable.

As part of its mission to collect and distribute heirloom seeds, the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center will hold its 16th annual heirloom seed swap Oct. 7 at Best’s farm, 1033 Pilot Knob Cemetery Road, near Berea. The event begins at 9 a.m. and goes until “everybody goes home,” he said. Last year’s event attracted people from 15 states, including California.

In addition to beans, Best has grown heirloom tomatoes since he bought his 47-acre farm in 1973, he same year he started selling at the Lexington farmers market. “I’ve grown heirlooms ever since and never looked back,” he said. He has saved seed from several hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

He was the youngest charter member of the Lexington market in 1973, and today, at 81, he is the oldest. He also sells at the Berea farmers market.

The main function of his farm is to grow heirlooms and increase the stockpile of seeds, said Silas Montgomery, an intern with the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, and a recent graduate of Oberlin College.

“A lot of people will give seed to Bill because they know he will save them, and by doing that, he’s saving the integrity of the craft of seed-saving,” Montgomery said.

This past summer, Best and Montgomery grew 60 varieties of beans and 20 varieties of tomatoes. Best walks down the rows of beans that grow on trellises, talking about each one like a parent, knowing the name of each variety and its origins.

He sells some of his heirloom beans at the farmers market. “He sells some for eating, but probably 90 center of what he raised this year will be kept for seed, to swap and sell,” Montgomery said.

A selection of tomato and bean seeds are sold on the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center’s website. Seed Savers Exchange also sells some of Best’s seeds, returning 4 percent of the proceeds to the center.

In “Kentucky Heirloom,” Best explores the history of saving seed in Kentucky and Appalachia, which dates back 3,500 years. As recently as the 1950s, when most Kentucky familieslived on farms, saving seeds was a valuable skill passed down from grandparents to parents to their children. People raised their own food and saved seeds to plant for the next year’s crop, Best said. Whatever they grew, they wanted it to be tasty and high quality.

The seed business began to change in the 20th century as multi-national companies bought out small seed companies and bred varieties best suited for mechanical harvest, long-distance transportation and long shelf life.

“Tomatoes are grown under cover to have a perfect shape, picked green and gassed with ethanol to turn the skin red,” Montgomery said.

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Bill Best held one of the heirloom tomatoes he sells at farmers markets, at his farm on Pilot Knob Cemetery Road near Berea. Best, a farmer and former Berea College professor has written a new book, “Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving,” that explores the rich history of saving seeds from old varieties of beans, tomatoes and other vegetable varieties that might otherwise be lost. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

So what you’re really eating is a green tomato with a 35-day shelf life in the grocery store, Best said. Flavor ceased to be important.

In recent years, that has begun to change as farmers, home gardeners and chefs have joined in a movement to conserve heirlooms both for their taste and for the world’s rich food heritage.

In his book, Best shares dozens of stories from longtime seed savers who talk about where a particular variety originated and who first began saving that seed. Like a detective, Best traveled throughout Eastern Kentucky to track the history of various beans and tomatoes.

“I try to document the stories the best I can,” he said.

Take the Conover butter beans, saved by Joe Richards in Pulaski County. Richards comes from generations of gardeners dating to the Civil War.

His great-grandfather, William Henry Conover, was a Union soldier whose unit was stationed near New Orleans when the war ended. The troops had to walk back to Kentucky. Conover decided to bring some beans home with him, and whenever he passed a garden, he picked a few butter beans. By the time he made it to Adair County, he had quite a collection of butter beans in a variety of colors.

Conover’s descendants have grown the beans ever since. Few heirlooms can be traced as far back and as directly as Joe Richards’ butter beans. Richards says that as far as he knows, no attempt was ever made to separate the beans into varieties. They’re all called Conover butter beans.

Best includes practical tips in his book on how to properly collect, ferment and dry tomato seed, and how to pick and dry heirloom beans.

He shares some of his favorite varieties, including Pink Tip greasy beans, unusual for the pink tip that develops on the end of the pod as the bean matures. Greasy beans got their name because the hulls are shiny, as if they’ve been polished.

Beverly Fortune is a former reporter for the Herald-Leader. Contact her at beverlyfortune123@gmail.com.

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