Gardening

making connections: ancestral seeds, with truelove’s owen taylor

AS REGULAR READERS and listeners know, I’ve had a longtime interest in the organic seed movement, especially farm-based companies that grow at least some of the seed they sell and are proud to tell you where they source the rest. I like to know where my seed comes from. Lately I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a number of new to me companies, including Truelove Seeds of Philadelphia, whose website promises culturally important, open-pollinated seeds to people longing for their taste of home. Today’s guest is Owen Taylor, one of its co-founders.

With Christopher Bolden-Newsome, Owen Taylor started Truelove Seeds, which offers a diversity of vegetable, flower and herb seed from more than 50 small-scale urban and rural farmers committed to community food sovereignty, cultural preservation, and sustainable agriculture, and who each share in the sales price of every seed packet sold. (Above, Efo Shoko or Lagos spinach, a kind of Celosia.)

Plus: I’m giving away a couple of Truelove Seeds gift cards to two lucky listeners. Comment in the box near the bottom of the page to enter.

Read along as you listen to the January 24, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

seeds that offer a taste of home, with owen taylor

 

 

Margaret Roach: Hi Owen, and thanks for making time today between packing seed orders madly over there, I bet, huh [laughter].

Owen Taylor: It’s my pleasure. Yes. I was printing labels up to the moment I got on this call.

Margaret: I bet. Well good. It’s great to close my eyes and think about all the beautiful organic seed going out to the happy people all around the country right now. So that’s good.

I should say we were introduced by Nate Kleinman of Experimental Farm Network as part of a recent story I did on organic seed companies for “The New York Times” that you were also part of, and we’ll give a link to that. So that’s the housekeeping.

So I want to hear a little bit about Truelove, and the background, and the mission and so forth to get started.

Owen: Great. Well, we started Truelove Seeds in 2017, and launched our first online catalog at the end of that year. I have been growing food since I was a kid, in a small garden in northeastern Connecticut, where I grew up. But for the last 15 years—I’m 40 now—I’ve been working in… I guess now it’s closer to 20 years that I’ve been working in the food-justice movement, environmental-justice movement in San Francisco and then New York and then Philadelphia. And so this really springs out of that work.

For four years, when I first moved to Philadelphia, I happened to get a part-time job with Dr. William Woys Weaver and the Roughwood Seed Collection. I helped him manage his 4,000-plus varieties of heirloom seeds. That’s actually where I first met Nate Kleinman. I put out a call for volunteers, and he came to help out.

Margaret: Oh.

Owen: Yeah. And so we kind of got our starts at the same time, partially thanks to Roughwood Seed Collection. And so while I was working there, Dr. Weaver, his focus on seed stories and documenting the histories of food really… And also the work with caring for these plants that I’d never met before, and certainly didn’t know from seed to seed—it really captured my attention and I fell in love with seed keeping.

And so that’s when I decided to come back to the food justice movement, work with the farmers that I’ve known for so long, and people who I think are doing amazing community work through food and farming, and kind of recruit them as seed producers and seed keepers for our seed catalog. So that’s how it all came together.

Margaret: And that’s something that’s distinctive, interesting about Truelove, is that who grows your seeds, your network of growers. You’ve told me when we’ve spoken before, are the people for whom they’re the ancestral seeds. So tell us a little bit about that.

Owen: Right. I mean, part of working at Roughwood, we had seeds from all over the world, from all different peoples. They were sitting, living in our collection, and I really loved being able to share them back to their original keepers.

It started of me thinking, what if the producers of these seeds are the people for whom they’re most important, and these seeds going home to the people who love them. And so that was the impetus for what we’re doing.

And so we’re always looking for farms that are culturally rooted to work with, or helping small farms reconnect with cultures lost through assimilation, or traveling across the world to this land. So Truelove Seeds is a lot about maintaining connection, but also rebuilding connection through seed keeping.

Margaret: Right. When we spoke for the “New York Times” story, you mentioned to me, for example, pigeon peas or gandules that are grown for you by East New York Farms in Brooklyn. That’s a legume that’s a popular Caribbean ingredient and elsewhere. So that would be one example, for instance, of what you were just speaking about—of the people who love and cherish these crops growing and producing them for you and sharing in the profits from the sale of each seed packet. Yes?

Owen: Yes, exactly. When I first moved to New York from San Francisco in 2005, I started working with East New York Farms, doing trainings there and collaborating with their growers. And I heard from the beginning that they had a focus on Afro-Caribbean crops, and were even considering starting up their own neighborhood seedbank because there’s hundreds, literally hundreds, of community gardens there. A lot of them are run by Jamaicans, Trinidadians—people from the Caribbean.

And so I thought they would be a perfect collaborator. This project between us might be a way to push them forwards on their seed-keeping goals within the community. And so they decided to focus on callaloo, leaf amaranth, on bitter melon, on long beans, or bodi, depending on where you’re from. And then gandules, or pigeon peas.

And the pigeon peas were bred… You know, most people who try to grow pigeon peas up here in North America, in northern North America, will not have success. But luckily there was a plant breeder in Georgia, named Dr. Sharad Phatak, who bred them away from their daylength sensitivity. So now they’ll flower regardless of the day length, and make fruit regardless of the day length. So we’re able because of this connection to East New York, who had gotten them from Cornell, who had gotten them from Dr. Sharad Phatak, now we have these gandules that people in various diasporas… They’re beloved by people from parts of Africa, from the Caribbean to South Asia. And so we’re able to provide these seeds now that will actually make fruit for people who love this vegetable.

Margaret: It’s pretty amazing really when you think about that, that the seeds, too, have adapted to a new home. Right? To a different home.

Owen: And again, thanks to someone, an Indian man who wanted them to be available here on a different continent.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. You have an African Diaspora Collection of seeds, a whole selection of seeds, that people can browse through on the website. Sorghum and sesame and other things. Maybe we could talk about that.

Owen: Sure. Well, in the very beginning of Truelove, we collaborated with many farms, especially locally, and most of them were African diasporic farms, Black people in Philadelphia growing their traditional foods, including my partner, who’s the co-founder of Truelove Seeds, who’s a Black farmer from Mississippi. He continues growing his traditional Mississippi legumes, especially like the crowder peas, the field peas. But also turnips and mustards and things like that.

And so he really helped me to visualize what an African Diaspora Collection could look like. He runs the farm at Bartram’s Garden, Sankofa Community Farm. They have an African Diaspora Garden there, and so he was already curating this collection of plants from both West Africa, where the majority of Black people in the United States come from, as well as from the American South. And so he kind of helped me think about how to create a collection like this.

But then through our work over the last five years, we have people on staff who also have a focus on the African diaspora, including my coworker, Amirah Mitchell, who’s about to launch her own African diasporic seed farm north of the city. She, as well as other coworkers of mine, have been adding to that collection, in addition to all the different Black farmers we work with around the country.

So it just happens to be that we have a particular focus on working with Black farmers. We work with farmers from all over the world, including different parts of Asia and the Americas and Europe. But because we work with a bunch of Black farmers, our African Diaspora Collection has been growing.

Margaret: Yeah. I mean, there’s some gorgeous okra and just really interesting things. And climbing gourds. So definitely good for a browse on a winter day [laughter].

Owen: Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s been very popular with West Africans, because we carry like the bitter eggplant from West Africa and different greens, like Efo Shoko [top of page] and Efo Gbure from Nigeria and Ghana. And now we’re working with a Nigerian farmer, Halima Salazar in Mississippi. And we have partners also from Nigeria, who send us seeds to add to the collection. But then it’s also popular with African Americans because of the amount of African American heirlooms we have in there that may not have been found in West Africa, but have become important over the last 400 years here.

Margaret: Yes. So you mentioned the word “eggplant,” and you have what may qualify as the craziest eggplant I’ve ever seen in the catalog [laughter]. Not necessarily in that collection, but I think it may be something newish. I think it’s the dark pea eggplant. It looks like a little berry or fruit borne along the stem. I don’t know what to say like, not like grapes, but more in that direction than eggplants. And hilarious. It’s a tiny little thing. Beautiful green. Now what is that [below]?

Owen: Yeah, it’s actually called ka. I mean, at least from the people who I learned about it from. We work closely with the Karen refugee community from Burma or Myanmar. They have come here after spending time in the Thai refugee camp, sometimes a decade or two, because of the conflict in Burma. And they are amazing to work with, because they grew up as subsistence farmers and have still the memory of their traditional foods. And they’re seeking them out with amazing focus.

So they’re finding these varieties, including this tiny eggplant, which is actually an American species, a Central American species, of eggplant. Most people are familiar with… The eggplant most of us who are probably listening eat are the eggplants that are Asian or Italian. Their origin is Asia. Some people say maybe Africa.

But this one is totally different. It’s Solanum torvum. It’s from Central America but extremely popular in Southeast Asia, and that’s how we know about it. It’s very bitter. That’s what ka means, bitter. So they created an English name to describe it, but it’s really just called bitter. And it’s used both as a food, and I’ve learned to love it. It’s very bitter, but also as a medicine to help with fever and malaria. So it’s considered both.

Margaret: Oh, so medicinal also.

Owen: Yeah. And we actually grew one from Seed Savers Exchange this year of the same species, and it was the tallest plant on our farm. It was probably 12 feet tall.

Margaret: Oh, my goodness.

Owen: And covered in these little berries, eggplant berries. But the ones that they grow at Novick Community Farm, where the Karen refugees work in South Philadelphia, are shorter. Taller than your average eggplant, but a lot shorter than the one we grew.

Margaret: Well, I’ll show a picture of it in the transcript of this show, again, at awaytogarden dot com because it’s fantastic looking. I mean, you would never guess it was an eggplant, so it’s kind of hilarious.

And you have like a winter spinach, ‘Haldenstein’ winter spinach. What’s that?

Owen: Yes. Well, this one came from Dr. Weaver’s collection at Roughwood, and I forget where—I think he got it from Arche Noah, or Noah’s Ark, in Austria, but I’m not positive. It’s a spinach that is very cold-hardy. It comes from a mountain village in Switzerland, where it’s been grown for generations. And it’s a cool spinach also in that it has these pointy seeds. They’re different from the seeds most people are familiar with their spinach.

But yeah, it does very well over the winter. So we actually have it in the ground now at our farm, under plastic row cover, for it to go ahead and size up in the spring and then make seeds for next year’s catalog in the summer.

It’s delicious. It’s kind of like a nutty flavor. It looks a lot like your average spinach, except for those pointy seeds. It just does really well in cold weather.

Margaret: You’re talking about cold and so forth, and one of your collections I think really speaks to the fact that, especially at this time of year, you know, we’re in the winter, we’re hungry thinking thoughts of spring and summer and planting the garden and so forth. And we forget when we’re shopping, a lot of us—even experienced gardeners—forget to shop for the things for later on, too, to have an extended harvest into the cooler months. And you have a whole collection that really focuses on cool-weather, season-extending sort of crops that can be done, whether it’s with protection, like high tunnels or low tunnels or row cover or whatever. So let’s just talk about some of those, because there’s some great ones in there.

Owen: Sure. Yeah. My favorite is the ‘Landis’ winter lettuce [above], which is a very hardy lettuce. It’s kind of a butterhead type, crispy and delicious. You know, part of the reason we have this whole collection is we collaborate with Tobacco Road Farm in northeastern Connecticut, just a town over from where I grew up. They’re friends of my mom and her husband, and I’ve worked there for a couple seasons.

They breed winter varieties, because they sell all year round, and they’re in a particular cold place. And so they, for example, bred a couple different types of Dutch arugula to be selected for their climate over the winter. It had already been selected, I think, for Maryland winters, and then they selected further for Connecticut winters.

They also bred together several different varieties from the same species as mizuna, like tatsoi and maruba, together and then selected for cold tolerance. So they might let 75 percent of it die from the cold. And the next year it’s only 50 percent. And the next year it’s only 25%. So they’ve selected this winter-hardy mizuna, landrace they call it.

So we put those in the collection for other people that like to have produce when nobody else does [laughter]. And so you can plant them in November, perhaps, depending on your climate, and let them size up a bit, a few inches tall. And then cover them for the winter and then have a harvest in late February, March when nobody else is harvesting. Or you could plant them in late February or March, and have them pretty early in the season still.

Margaret: And you have flowers. You have herbs. It’s not just vegetables, I mean, not just edibles. You have flowers. I think there’s one that I’ve never seen before, actually a Nigella, I guess, what do they call it? Love in a mist, or something. But the pods that form after the flowers are very dark in color [above], very beautiful. And the flowers aren’t the familiar blue, but they’re white. Is that something new in the catalog?

Owen: It is. We just added it, I think, last week. We’re actually landless at the moment. We have two years at our land thanks to our friend, Linda Clark, who grew this for us. We are renting from a flower farm. And since we’re there every day, we advise her on producing seeds from her cut-flower crops. So this was one that was extremely generous with seed pods, and we decided together that it would be a great offering in the catalog because you can use it, like you said, both as a cut flower and as this ornamental seed pod.

There are nigellas that are used medicinally as well, but this is not one of them. We were just excited about it because it’s so beautiful and unusual looking.

Margaret: I think one of the other ones that caught my attention, I think today I saw it and maybe it’s even sold out already. It’s a giant marigold. I don’t know how to pronounce it. Huacatay.

Owen: It’s Huacatay.

Margaret: Huacatay. It’s like an almost 10-foot-tall marigold [below]. It’s not prominent flowers. I’ve seen pictures of it before—I think Peace Seeds, Alan Kapuler out in Corvallis, Oregon, I see that he worked with it, and I think his kids at Peace Seedlings sell it as well. Is that one you’ve grown before?

Owen: It is. I actually found it growing at Roughwood, when I was working there. It was mislabeled, and I was posting about it online and I was like, “This is not correct.” And so I found it’s Tagetes minuta. So yeah, it’s named for the smallness of its flowers.

Margaret: But it’s no minuta plant, that’s for sure [laughter].

Owen: No. It’s taller than us.

Margaret: Yeah.

Owen: It’s grown especially in Peru and other parts of the Andes for its edible leaf. It’s a culinary herb that’s made into a paste kind of like pesto, I guess, with a totally different flavor. It’s also called black mint or the black mint paste, and it’s used in a lot of the signature Peruvian dishes, including ocopa.

And it’s a really beautiful plant. We actually use it as a cut flower, not for the flower, but for the leaves, for the foliage. We’re able to get it for food, for foliage, and for seed all in the same year.

Margaret: Yeah. That’s a great one.

Owen: An awesome plant. One of our most popular varieties actually.

Margaret: Oh, it is. It’s not just me.

Owen: No. It’s mostly Peruvians, actually. We’ll get orders for that and for our ‘Aji Amarillo’ pepper and some of the other Andean crops all together.

Margaret: O.K. So I mentioned at the beginning that you kind of promised in some of the catalog language and so forth that people with sort of a cultural connection to certain plants, and looking for “the taste of home” so to speak, and you have a particular interest, I think personally, in some of the familiar Italian flavors, and foods, edibles. Yes?

Owen: Yes. Yes. I grew up with my great grandparents from Southern Italy. And so I’m always trying to make the reconnection, even though they didn’t pass it down through the generations, to the Italian garden and the Italian table. I mean, I remember my great grandfather’s garden, but it’s a blurry memory because I was a young kid and I didn’t know to ask questions at that point.

And so it’s been a journey to connect with other Southern Italians, which could even look like stopping at the local pizzeria called Napoli Pizza and be like, “I’m from that region, too.”

And then I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for plants to grow from this Neopolitan man at this pizza shop. And people have emailed us. I got an email from someone from Southern Connecticut, where my parents are from, saying, “Hey, I love the way you talk about your Italian grandparents. I’m going to send you some seeds.”

Margaret: Oh!

Owen: And so it’s been awesome to reconnect with these plants, but also connect with Italians, and get a little bit more of a sense of myself and my family through these relationships.

It’s the same with Irish crops because I’m also Irish. But it’s been more fruitful with Italians, because the different histories of colonization. A lot of Irish people were growing for English customers, and they were landless.

So in Southern Italy, there’s more of a connection to traditional food ways that’s distinct. But both of them have been a wonderful journey for me in reconnection. So we have an Italian collection, and hopefully through our various growers and coworkers will have an Irish collection in the next couple years as well.

Margaret:San Marzano’ tomato [above], did I see?

Owen: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s considered by most Southern Italians as the best tomato. I know there’s more paste tomatoes out there. But I grow it every year. This year, I put up over 50 quarts of sauce in my basement from harvesting the seeds and then making tomato sauce. So I’ll always grow that one.

Margaret: Yeah. No, it’s a star, for sure. Are there sort of some that we haven’t talked about that you’re excited about that you to kind of shout out to us? Because I mean, obviously you’re over there surrounded by how many kinds of seeds are you listing this year?

Owen: Oh, you know, I haven’t even counted.

Margaret: In the hundreds, is it not?

Owen: I’d say definitely in the hundreds. If you go in our basement, you’re surrounded by seeds.

Margaret: Uh-oh [laughter]. Any favorites or anything that you’re seeing people are excited about, or anything you want to sort of shout out?

Owen: Sure. Yeah. I’m excited for some of our new legumes. We should have our ‘Bambara’ groundnuts [above] back in stock soon, which are subterranean black-eyed pea from different parts of Africa. It’s very popular with Africans in the diaspora. I don’t know that anyone else carries it at this point in America, in North America.

We’ll have some Ecuadorian pinstriped peanuts that my coworker, Julia, who is Ecuadorian-American is really excited to offer. They’ve got red and white stripes on the seeds. We have, again this year, the Cucuzza gourd [below], it’s a Sicilian or Southern Italian gourd that maybe people are familiar with, back in stock. And I’ve just fallen in love with it over the last couple years.

Margaret: Has a lot of personality that does.

Owen: It really does. I guess you need some space for it. It grows really, really long and tall, and climbs, and makes you know, 3-, 4-, 5-foot long fruits that hang. And they’re delicious when they’re picked a little bit younger than that.

Yeah. There’s a lot. It’s hard to pick. We have another Horace Pippin… I don’t know if people are familiar with Horace Pippin, the African American artist from the turn of the last century. We have several of his varieties in the catalog, and we’re adding another one this year called ‘Old Pepper Pot,’ which is a very Philadelphian pepper that one of our growers reintroduced. We’ll be it passing off to my coworker, Amirah, for her African diaspora farm, which is called Sistah Seeds. And we’re just excited to be building the African Diaspora Collection in that way, too.

Margaret: Lots going on over there.

Owen: Yeah.

Margaret: Lots going on. A basement full of seeds.

Owen: That’s how it goes. Yep.

Margaret: I’m so glad you could take time out this morning to talk about it. I know you’re swamped and I really appreciate your making room for us today. So thank you.

Owen: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

Margaret: And as I said, I’m going to have a couple of gift-certificate giveaways. So thank you, Owen:     Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate it.

(All photos from Truelove Seeds.)

more from truelove seeds

 

enter to win the truelove seeds gift cards

I’LL BUY TWO $15 GIFT CARDS for two lucky readers at Truelove Seeds. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Do you have an edible that offers you a “taste of home,” some plant you especially cherish for the traditional connection it represents? Tell us.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick the winners after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 1, 2022. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 24, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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