This article was originally published on November 12, 2021, in Folklife Magazine.
“You say ‘radish’ to a person who speaks English, and they have one picture in their mind,” Ken McLeod says. “But I can think of about sixty different varieties of radish, and most of them don’t look like each other.”
McLeod, an avid community gardener in Northern Virginia, describes what he thinks of when he hears radish: “anything from white to green to yellow to red, long icicle shapes to small globe shapes. I find it humorous when you go into a grocery store with an idea that there’s one type of radish. It’s a biodiversity thing.”
The definition of biodiversity is exactly what it sounds like: the variety of living things occupying a certain area at a certain time. Over the past century or so, there has been a seventy-five percent decline in agricultural biodiversity, meaning many varieties of edible plants are no longer available today. This is mainly due to the rise of commercialized agriculture. But there’s more at stake than the look of rare or bizarre radishes. When we fail to prioritize biodiversity, we risk erasing cultural diversity as well. Along with beneficial pieces of an ecosystem, facets of cultural identity are lost when we can’t find the ingredients we’re used to.
The radishes McLeod mentions all share similar traits, but they’re not interchangeable by taste and texture. This may seem like finicky culinary nuance to some, but in many ways, what we eat is who we are, and this starts with what we grow. If demand falls, plants used in regional dishes can actually go extinct, so people need to do the work and eat local, just as growers need to pay attention to what they’re planting and why traditional foods matter. Luckily many are, including eco-activist Winona LaDuke.
LaDuke has taken on many roles, and it shows. When I called her for our scheduled interview, she answered, “I’m just pulling into the farm! I’ll call you back in ten minutes—gotta go!” She eventually returned my call from the relative calm of her home office, where she carries out her many roles: environmentalist, economist, writer, and part of the slow-food movement.
A member of the Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) Tribe, LaDuke is best known for her work on Tribal land claims, environmental justice, and sustainable development—and her vice presidential runs alongside Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000. On her farm in Northern Minnesota on the White Earth Reservation, she grows industrial hemp, tobacco, and heritage vegetables. We talked mainly of heirloom plants, and how her practices differ from those of commercial agriculture.
LaDuke sustains traditional methods and crops, specifically Bear Island Flint corn, a variety used by Native American cooks to make hominy and other traditional foods. This year’s crop was slightly behind. “The corn is not as robust as the rest of the fields. So, I sent a couple of my nephews out there. They went out and they sing, and then we’re putting our fish fertilizer on it. We’re doing our ceremonies to try and bring it good luck.”
Losing a particular variety can mean losing the dishes, ceremonies, and other cultural practices that go along with them. In her 2012 TED Talk, Seeds of Our Ancestors, Seeds of Life, LaDuke weighed the stakes of letting culturally significant plants slip through the cracks. “I don’t know how to quantify the cultural grief associated with loss of your most ancient varieties. I don’t know what that price tag is. But I know that it is significant.” She also laid out the strengths of these ancient plant species that are not bred to be exactly alike. The Ojibwe Tribe has grown wild rice for hundreds of years, and the stalks of the plants vary in height, their grains fanning out at varying angles. This is on purpose, she said. “When a wind comes through and blows off some of the rice, it won’t catch on others.”
As we spoke about her farming practices, she explained how the performance of these crops differs from modern hybrids. “I just try to stick to open-pollinated varieties because their genetics are stronger. Hybrids are bred to all be the same, and the same is not what you want. You want biodiversity in your plant.”
Open-pollinated plants, when isolated from other varieties in their same species, will produce offspring that have consistently similar traits but are not identical. These plants adapt from generation to generation, allowing them to pass on helpful attributes and be less likely to get wiped out by a single disease or disaster. Farmers can select which plants to breed based on their methods and geography, which results in varieties that thrive in specific areas and under many conditions.
Hybrid plants are less able to adapt in this way because experts crossbreed them anew each season. Every decision is made for them by human hands. Seed from a hybrid can be saved for the next year’s planting, but the resulting plants won’t necessarily have the same desirable traits as their parents. Even then, some hybrids are sterile, and others produce no seeds at all. Growers often purchase new hybrids every season, rather than saving the parent seed. This isn’t to say that hybrids aren’t worth planting. They’ve helped us scale up the world’s food production to better sustain a growing population, specializing crops to weather droughts, floods, and temperature fluctuations. New varieties are constantly being developed with climate change in mind.
LaDuke takes a different approach here. During our interview, she insisted, “If you want to do climate change-related food, it’s not just about saving these seeds—it’s that these seeds are going to help us adapt our food system. They can’t adapt the current system fast enough because it’s too big. I’m really interested in rebuilding local systems because I know they’re more resilient. I think they’re adaptable too.”
The business model of industrial agriculture doesn't prioritize interesting or culturally significant varieties; its focus lies in turning a profit. But culture is worth preserving alongside biodiversity and food security. They are equally important and inextricably linked. LaDuke and others feel we can achieve all three if we adapt our food system.
In fact, LaDuke is already doing this work: farming as an occupation and prioritizing biodiversity and cultural preservation, all while ensuring her surrounding community is well fed. She is one of many working toward solutions for Indigenous people who struggle with food security. Last spring, her farms provided grow boxes of vegetable seedlings to fill gardens on reservations. By using the heritage plants grown by her ancestors, she seeks to safeguard or in some cases restore both the cultures and the ecosystems that help these plants thrive.
“Seeds are not just seeds,” she said. “They’re like ancestors. They have a history. Seeds have stories.”
Each seed contains thousands of years of adaptation and careful selection, along with heavy cultural significance. LaDuke is uninterested in selling the seeds. Most of them she didn’t buy. They were given to her or traded for, and she would rather see them grown than have their access restricted by commercial copyrights. She is involved in a corn restoration project that aims to cultivate old indigenous varieties like Bear Island Flint and Pawnee Eagle Corn. She sees this effort as a form of redemption, re-establishing the relationship with her ancestors and the land itself.
In some cases, seeds come from an immediate ancestor, as evidenced by Barbara Arnold, a member of the Williamsburg Community Growers community garden in Northern Virginia. For decades, her family has grown a variety of tomato named after her uncle. Now a part of her family’s story, the tomato’s popularity is central to her local community of growers, who share recipes, seeds, and gardening tips with one another.
The tomato variety stems from Italy, where Arnold’s Uncle Joe spent time after serving in the army in World War II. “He brought back a tomato, a package of tomato seeds, something like that,” Arnold said. Joe gave some of the seeds to Arnold’s father, an avid gardener. “He started growing it and really liked it. So, every year he would save a bunch of seeds.” The distinctive tomato attracted the attention of neighbors, who began asking for them.
In response, Arnold’s father grew more seedlings, until eventually he was producing two to three hundred plants in his greenhouse yearly. “Over the winter, he would have all the neighbors bring him their half-gallon milk cartons, and then he would transplant them,” she recalled.
“He gave me ten seeds, and I germinated them and planted them. They were nice tomatoes! They’re kind of a cross between a paste tomato and an eating tomato, so they can be used for anything. I saved the seeds, and it just went on from there.”
Arnold described “Uncle Joe” tomatoes as “dense and meaty, like a sauce tomato, but bigger. It’s got a really good taste, and it’s not watery, so it’s kind of the best of all worlds.” She’s never found a comparable tomato and imagines the variety is no longer grown outside communities she’s shared seeds with. Uncle Joe tomatoes are very popular though, and the seedlings always sell out during garden fundraisers. They’ve gained such a following that people often ask for them by name. Sometimes she is unable to meet demand.
Fellow community gardener Ken McLeod works as a site interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg and fell into gardening as part of his job. “I’m not actually in the garden department, but I was very enthusiastic, and my supervisor wanted to start a garden. I teach the different varieties of plants that grew in the eighteenth century, but also what’s African, what’s European, what’s indigenous. I save those seeds because we’ve got a shoestring budget out there. You can’t really buy these things as seedlings anyway.”
When asked where he finds these rare heritage plants, McLeod had a similar answer to LaDuke. “Gardeners and farmers always seem to have a seed exchange. I don’t know what it is. Every time I mention I’m a gardener to someone and they’re a gardener too, the first thing they say is, ‘Do you want to trade seeds?’ There’s always an opportunity—this variety, that variety, disease-resistant, heat-tolerant, moisture-tolerant, pH-tolerant.”
Interest in gardening—both as a hobby and a food source—has increased since the pandemic began. Food shortages forced many of us to consider where our food comes from. LaDuke’s farm was just one of many who saw demand for seeds skyrocket. She quadrupled production to keep up. “People were home then and acknowledged that food systems need to be rebuilt.”
This reaction gives LaDuke hope for the future of agriculture, but there were always promising signs. “While there’s been this big move toward globalization, there’s been an equal move toward re-localization,” she said, describing it as a growing movement.
McLeod agrees. He spoke about getting to know a place through its food: “I can’t get good grits, barbecue, or sweet tea outside of the South, or good crabs except on the coast of Maryland, or good espresso outside of Italy. That’s where this can be saved—regional gardeners planting local varieties. Regionalisms persist, and, hopefully, you find that niche and save those seeds and those varieties and foods.” Traditional foods allow us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to participate in culture and carry diverse histories. They connect families in uniquely personal ways.
Barbara Arnold plans to keep saving her seeds and hopes to pass them on to the next generation. She imagines a future where her tomato seeds move far beyond the Virginia region, where the family context will be lost. “The packets will still have a label on it that says, ‘Uncle Joe’, and they’ll be like, ‘who’s Uncle Joe?’”
Gabrielle Puglisi is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate student at the University of Maryland.