After a few months and a busy holiday season, I’ve finally begun to process the experiences of my momentous trip to Oxford, Mississippi, for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. I left the event full of delicious food and copious amounts of knowledge. More specifically, Elizabeth Engelhardt’s talk, “Tales from the South’s Forgotten Locavores,” filled my hungry mind with questions on how I can contribute to the preservation of heirloom fruits, vegetables, and plants.
Beginning in the 1930s, garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence spent her life chronicling the ‘The Market Bulletins’. These newsletters maintained a correspondence and created an open dialogue for “Farm Ladies” who were avid gardeners of the rural South. Lawrence’s posthumously published compilation of these letters, Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins, serves as an archive of heritage plants.
In this regional newsletter, the women shared gardening tips, advertised local seeds for sale, answered questions, and bartered vegetables in exchanges such as “50 bushels Crowder peas for weaning size pigs or dried apples for yearling calf.” The newsletter contributions may have been simple, but they have monumentally altered our Southern food culture. You see, the exchange of seeds by this group of women (and some men) – helped preserve local food and plant varieties that might not have survived otherwise.
Out of this open marketplace grew friendships that spanned distances, time periods, and generations. The bulletins created a network and community based on a common love for the land and its bounty. One avid gardener wrote in as “Kind Flower Lover.” Another reader even suggested sending seeds and tubers of easy-growing vegetables to help starving people.
To name a few of the mostly local and old-timey vegetables- “Little White Lady or rice cowpeas…Whippoorwill cowpeas, White Sugar crowders…Old-fashioned freezeproof Winter turnip seed, Old-time Dooley yams and Goldrush sweet potatoes, Cow Horn okra…Indian corn…little Old-timey red tomato seeds…long green pickling cucumbers…Indian peaches…Pocahontas strawberries…Old-time Gooseneck Sorghum seed…” These vegetables are important artifacts of our food history, and should never be lost.
So I ask myself, “How can we protect the heritage seeds and local foods that have always existed for us? What can we do to make them available for our children’s children?”
I say we follow in the footsteps of the “Farm Ladies” of the South and connect with one another across our Southern landscape. It is crucial to take the time to cultivate our gardens, share our seeds (and knowledge), and support our local Farmer’s Markets and slow-food movements. By doing so, we continue to keep alive the food heritage that our forefathers and mothers so rightfully created as their way of life.
There are also bulletins available for Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. We recommend visiting your state’s Department of Agriculture website to inquire about the availability of a market bulletin and to find out more about seed exchanges.