Anthropology faculty member James Veteto works to save heirloom seeds

When warm weather returns to the mountains each spring, the thoughts of many Western North Carolina residents turn to planting seeds to find out what their green thumbs can produce. But James Veteto thinks about seeds and their innate potential all year long.

The Western Carolina University assistant professor of anthropology’s work is focused on helping save heirloom seeds – seeds that have a history with a family, community or individual that goes back 50 or more years. In recognition of his efforts, Veteto was recognized in a recent issue of Southern Living magazine as one of “50 People Who are Changing the South in 2015.” The magazine called him an “inspiration to a young generation of farmers to take interest in cultivating heritage seeds that are at risk of becoming extinct.”

Veteto’s work with heirloom seeds is based at the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies, a 30-acre institute in Yancey County where research takes place that focuses on traditional and agro-ecological Southeastern farming techniques. Southern Seed Legacy, one of the main sustainability projects at AIMS, is led by Veteto to promote the use of heirloom seeds in farming activities and encourage seed trade between local farmers and gardeners.

The project collects and distributes seeds to share with local farmers on a subscription basis. “We have a program called ‘Pass Along Southern Seeds,’” Veteto said. “The idea is that (participants) will grow out a third of the seeds for themselves, give out a third to their neighbors, and send a third back to us. So that keeps the seeds circulating when they may not otherwise be.”

Southern Seed Legacy also sends out a newsletter and organizes “seeds swap” events to encourage farmers and gardeners to get together and share seeds. The events often include barbecue and old-time music, and Veteto said plans are to hold a seed swap at WCU in the fall.

Veteto earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Georgia. He was not raised on a farm, with the last farmers in his family being in his grandparents’ generation, but he rapidly got involved in environmentalism during his college years. “That soon enough led me to the conclusion that the more I grew my own food, sustainably, the better my ecological footprint was going to be,” he said. “I started growing out some heirloom varieties, which I was really intrigued by, because they are not only seeds. There was interesting cultural history behind them.”

Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated – that is, pollinated by themselves, insects or wind instead of professionally bred by plant breeders, Veteto said. One main threat to the seeds comes through the passing of the older generation of farmers, preventing the genetic, biological and cultural heritage from being maintained in a current national landscape in which less than 2 percent of the population are farmers, he said.

“If you narrow the genetic basis you rely on, you get situations like the famous Irish potato famine,” Veteto said. “There were two varieties that were being grown in Ireland in the early- to mid-19th century. Neither was resistant to the fungal disease late blight, so they were totally wiped out. In the Andes, where potatoes are originally from, you have late blight there, too, but they have between 6,000 and 10,000 varieties. You have never heard of an Andean potato blight because they have varieties that are resistant.”

WCU's James Veteto is working to help save heirloom seeds.

WCU’s James Veteto is working to help save heirloom seeds.

Veteto said he believes that, from a cultural standpoint, it is important to save local foodways heritage. For example, some Cherokee foods, such as Cherokee bean bread, only can be cooked with specific corn and bean varieties to achieve the traditional taste. “It is usually made with Cherokee white corn flour and Cherokee butterbeans or it doesn’t taste right,” he said.

The publicity in Southern Living has directed more public attention toward the Southern Seed Legacy project, with more people “liking” its Facebook page and sending Veteto invitations to speak at various events. “I have talked to a lot of academics, activists and sustainable food people. Just getting the attention on the project is a good thing,” he said. Plans for the remainder of 2015 are to connect with more students and local residents and to boost the seed swap program. Veteto also is looking into the possibility of partnering with someone to start an heirloom seed company to help finance the project, which currently operates on donations.

Veteto said his work as a WCU anthropology faculty member provides an avenue for getting the word out to students and recruiting interns. “Whatever (the students) end up doing in the future, I hope they can incorporate a little bit of what they have learned working with me to create a better, sustainable, environmentally healthy and socially just world,” he said.

Anyone interested in becoming involved in Southern Seed Legacy can contact Veteto at jrveteto@wcu.edu.

Information compiled by Gautier Villette.