Plants with (more than one) story to tell
Written onJune 01 , 2012
My plan was to write an interesting story about a few vegetables that have a Vermont heritage—that is, they were grown in Vermont over many years or were thought to have first been developed commercially by Vermont farmers or breeders. I was thinking of Gilfeather® turnips, Green Mountain potatoes, Chester beans, and Roy’s Calais Flint corn, as examples. I also wanted to include an interesting sweet corn thought to have been grown by the Abenaki in the Connecticut River Valley hundreds of years ago and recently “returned” to a Koasek Abenaki band after being saved for generations by non-Indians. I wanted to tell these tales because I believe the tenaciousness of farmers and seed-savers who kept these varieties alive all these years says something important: These seeds were saved because they are good vegetables, well adapted to our climate, and resilient to the vagaries of cold, wet springs, unexpected summer droughts, or early fall frosts. They were also saved because of their unique qualities—such as the sweet, mild taste of the Gilfeather even when it grows as big as a well-fed woodchuck.
Little did I realize, however, how murky these waters would be. It turns out that there is ardent debate about whether the Gilfeather is a turnip or a rutabaga; Chester beans may have come from New York; Roy’s Calais Flint may be from the Iroquois even though it is listed as Abenaki on the “Slow Food Ark of Taste”; and as for the sweet Abenaki corn, the history of native people’s use of sweet corn (as opposed to field or flour corn) is hard to come by. As far as I know, no one disputes the origin of the Green Mountain potato: It was developed in Vermont in 1878 and was named in 1885 by one O.H. Alexander of Charlotte.
Of course, potatoes did not really “originate” in Vermont, or anywhere else in New England—they were first domesticated by the Inca in the Andean highlands of what is now Peru. Corn was first domesticated some 9,000 years ago by indigenous farmers in Mexico, and the earliest archeological evidence for the common bean comes again from the Peruvian Andes and dates to 8,000 years ago. As for turnips, according to Rebecca Rupp’s How Carrots Won the Trojan War (you’ll have to read the book to find out), they may have come from the eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps Afghanistan or Pakistan; the rutabaga, on the other hand, may be from Sweden. We owe our enjoyment of all of these food crops to the skill and inventiveness of farmers who have grown and saved these seeds, always selecting for adaptation to the local climate and passing them on, generation after generation, for millennia.
The Gilfeather “turnip” was either brought to Wardsboro, Vermont, from Europe, or developed through hybridization or selection by one John Gilfeather of Irish heritage, described by those who knew him as a tall, skinny, soft-spoken gentleman who was very particular about his turnips. My favorite line in Theresa Maggio’s film, The Gilfeather Turnip: Rooted in Wardsboro, comes when Theresa, off camera, calls out a question to old-timer Wales Read: “Why would John Gilfeather concentrate a lot of his precious time on a turnip?” Wales leans on his hoe, in the classic “thinking farmer” pose, considers a bit, and then replies, “Because he probably wanted to make a better turnip.” To me this epitomizes the value of “heirloom” vegetables—they testify to the ingenuity of farmers since the very first one (probably a woman) noticed that a good wild plant produced seeds and it might make sense to save them, plant and nourish them, and pay attention to the results.
While learning and passing on the stories of heirloom seeds is mostly a fascinating and inspiring adventure, there is also sadness in it—not only for the seeds that have been lost along the way, but for the fear, anxiety, greed, and bad blood that has accompanied this history. These days, with the advent of patenting, genetic modification, and lawsuits filed against farmers who plant seeds patented by someone else, it is not surprising that seed stories are not so readily shared, and that there is anxiety about seeds getting into the wrong hands. But even in John Gilfeather’s time (he was born in 1865) farmers sometimes kept their seed secrets close to their chests. Gilfeather is said to have cut off the tops and bottoms of his turnips before he brought them down to Brattleboro and Northampton to sell so no one could grow them out for more seed. Later, in the early 1980s, Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt of Dummerston trade-marked the name Gilfeather with the state of Vermont (hence the little ® you often find next to the name) to make sure no big seed company “from away” got hold of the seed and didn’t respect its Vermont roots. These days, although the trademark still exists, you can readily obtain Gilfeather seeds (from Fedco Seeds, for example, which pays a fee to re-sell them), and don’t tell anyone I told you: If you store plants with roots attached you can replant them the next year and grow out the seeds for your own use.
The Gilfeather is a big, light-fleshed, sweet-tasting vegetable that can be eaten raw, made into soups and stews, roasted, or sliced up for slaw. The Friends of the Wardsboro Public Library, who every year sponsor the Gilfeather Turnip festival, have put out a cookbook filled with Gilfeather recipes. It seems like everyone in Wardsboro is sure their famous vegetable is a turnip (Brassica Rapa) but most folks outside of town believe it’s a rutabaga (Brassica Napobrassica) because of its long growing season and large size. Mary Lou Schmidt, one of the trademarkers, says, “It’s neither; it’s in a class by itself. Some say it may have a sweet German turnip” in its parentage, while others point to a white rutabaga called “Sweet German” that could be an ancestor. Will Bonsall, who directs the Scatterseed Project in Industry, Maine, where he saves and grows out hundreds of unusual varieties, believes the Gilfeather is definitely a rutabaga, due to its “rough skin, slight neck, (true turnips have a hollow crown, no necks) and the bluish-green foliage color” that comes from the wild kale in the rutabaga’s parentage. I’ll just go with the comment of another Wardsboro resident in Theresa Maggio’s film: “I like ‘em anyway I get ‘em.”
“It’s a good bean,” was the only information Gale Flagg of Maine had when she acquired some black-flecked seed from an old farmer she visited in Chester in the mid-1970s. He was growing these extremely tall pole beans in a garden near a barn she was looking at, and he gave her some. She, in turn, gave some to Will Bonsall. I met Will at a seed-saving conference in Brattleboro in 2004, where he passed some on to me, and I have been growing these “Chester” beans ever since. They grow 10 feet or more, are very productive, and have a robust flavor that some describe as “lima-like,” although Will is certain this is not a lima. He says the bean, which is beautifully mottled with black or dark brown swirls, reminded one plant breeder he showed it to of the “Vermont Horticultural Lima,” although that used to be white. But William Woys Weaver, of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods in Pennsylvania, says that what we now call the Chester bean is identical to what the Cornplanter Senecas grew in the New York and Pennsylvania region in the 1800s and called the Skunk bean. If any reader recalls growing this bean here in Vermont in the past, please let me know so we can fill in some gaps in its story.
Vermont has a long history of commercializing good potato varieties. For example, a Chilean variety called Garnet Chili (known to be resistant to Late Blight, the fungal disease that caused the Irish potato famine and that devastated our own potato and tomato crops two years ago) was the parent to a variety called Early Rose, developed by Albert Bresee of Hubbardton, Vermont, which became extremely popular, and in turn was a parent to the wildly successful Russet Burbank. According to Harold L. Bailey, in Vermont’s Potato Story (1955), more than 80 commercial varieties became standard in Vermont between 1860 and 1890, all originating from the selection work of Vermont farmers and plant breeders. The Green Mountain, still popular here, produces high yields of white-fleshed tubers that have great flavor, store well, and are resistant to several potato diseases.
Vermont also has a much longer history of corn cultivation. Radiocarbon dating of corn kernels found at an archeological site in Springfield puts the first widespread corn agriculture at about AD 1120 in the Connecticut River Valley. Indigenous farmers grew corn in the river intervales and oxbows continuously until their lives and settlements were disrupted by the French and Indian War and the arrival of settlers in the 1700s. However, some good relationships may have existed between the indigenous Abenaki and settlers; in 1973 Newbury sheep farmers Sarah and Charles Calley received an unusual sweet corn from Carroll Greene, a New Hampshire descendent of the earliest white settlers of Newbury. Carroll told the Calleys that Abenaki farmers had befriended his ancestors in the 1760s and had given him some kernels from a short plant that produces a 3-to 4-inch ear, which he always called “Indian Corn.” It was passed down for generations, and Carroll, who was elderly at the time, asked them to keep the seed for the future. The Calleys describe Carroll as “a character and a half…old-style, self-reliant, cantankerous at times, persistent, a little stubborn.” In short, all the characteristics that make a good seed saver.
The Calleys in turn grew out the seed in a corner of their garden for another 35 years. In 2006, they “returned” the corn to the Koasek Abenaki of the Koas (based in the Newbury, Vermont and Haverhill, New Hampshire areas). According to Chief Nancy Millette, there is oral history suggesting that this “rare strain of corn was grown and harvested and eaten, and ground down to make into soups and flour … it’s a short stalk, one ear on a stalk, it’s an early corn, very sweet.” The Calleys say they can plant this corn in late April up on their mountain above Newbury and that it is ripe in July. In 2009, this corn was given to a different Abenaki band, as well, and both groups are successfully growing it out. At this time they prefer to keep it in Abenaki hands, although Chief Millette says some was sent down to Haiti following the earthquake, in the hopes that this early resilient variety would help the Haitians develop a good variety for their own climate.
Their cautiousness around allowing these seeds to be grown by others is understandable, given the long history of Abenaki oppression in this state. For hundreds of years the Abenaki had to live underground, and their language all but went extinct, as did this corn. Sweet corn is a mutation of the starchier field or flint corn, and some sources suggest that it was the white settlers who first began the widespread use of sweet corn for fresh eating. Whether or not this particular strain was used by the Abenaki as sweet corn 300 years ago may be less important than its use and enjoyment now. But there is fear that in the wrong hands this corn, now considered sacred, could be sold and marketed by large seed companies, trading on Abenaki cultural history and not benefitting the Abenaki at all.
Another corn thought by many to be Abenaki is Roy’s Calais Flint corn, commercialized by Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott. It was grown by Roy Fair in Calais and given to Stearns in the mid-1990s. Tom wrote in High Mowing’s 2001 seed catalog that it was “the most exciting heirloom [he’d] ever been handed.” The corn was grown by Roy Fair’s grandparents and used for johnnycakes, cornmeal, or hominy. Doug Guy, who grew up next door to the Fairs, told me he remembers seeing “great garlands of this red and yellow corn” hanging from the attic rafters, where Roy would dry it in the fall. Doug says this corn’s claim to fame was its cold-hardiness in a valley that never got even 90 frost-free days, and no other corn could mature in time. It produces some ears that are completely yellow and some completely red, but none that are mixed. Doug recalls that when he was growing up, about one-fifth of the ears were red, and that at husking bees “if you got a red ear you got to kiss your girlfriend… that’s part of why the red ears were kept in that strain.”
Somewhere along the way the story emerged that Abenaki gave this corn to Roy Fair’s grandparents, but according to Doug, Roy’s parents, who came from western New York in the 1920s, always called it “Iroquois 8-row” and he thinks it is more likely the corn was Iroquois than Abenaki. Nonetheless, it’s now listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste (a compendium of notable crop varieties in danger of extinction if not appreciated and protected) as an Abenaki (Sokoki) corn. Whatever the real story is, all agree that this is a good corn—coldhardy, high in protein, reliable, productive and tasty. Doug calls it “lazy,” in that if you grow it in a region that’s not so cold and give it more time, it will quickly adapt and begin to require a longer growing season. Savvy seed-savers know that to achieve plants that are most resilient you need to grow them in the most difficult environments and select for those plants that do well at the margins.
For me, the detective work that goes into learning the history of these varieties is part of their allure, as is discovering the passion and pride of the people who have maintained and passed on these seeds. Protecting seeds for the future is critical not only because of the genetic diversity they embody (and with that, perhaps, resistance to the next devastating blight), but because they represent an intimacy between people and the land that is as endangered as the plants themselves.
Tatiania thanks Sylvia Davatz, Will Bonsall, Gale Flagg, Anne Miller, Doug Guy, Theresa Maggio, CR Lawn, Tanya Stefanec, Peggy Fullerton, Sarah and Charles Calley, Nancy Millette, William Woys Weaver, Ben Watson, Dave Skinas, and Ginger Nickerson for their contributions to this (ongoing) story.