Student Series: Saving Seeds and Sustainable Agriculture

Another installment in our student series, this time featuring Caroline Coleman's interview of seed-saving pioneer and Appalachian agricultural wonder worker Dr. Bill Best.

Sustainable Agriculture

by Caroline Coleman

The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center (SMAC), located in Berea, Kentucky, diligently works to demonstrate to the people of Appalachia the importance and viability of small-scale farming. Whereas Appalachia used to be a region composed primarily of farmers, today an extremely small percentage of people in the region survive from farming. SMAC firmly believes in the productivity of farm land in Appalachia and the ability for the region to compete with farms across the nation, especially in terms of quality of produce. They focus on heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and seek to achieve sustainability in the region. I interviewed Bill Best, the founder and president of the organization (as well as professor at Berea College) to learn more about the SMAC.

To begin with, I asked about the history behind the organization. Bill Best explained to me his interest in collecting heirloom seeds and selling their products in local farmers’ markets dates back to the seventies. After discussing the idea of forming a non-profit organization with friends and family, Bill found several people who were interested in furthering the goals of sustainable agriculture and providing local organic produce for the region.  In the nineties, Bill received a grant from a local foundation that helped the organization start out, and provided all the facilities and equipment. Bill believes in the importance of local sustainability because of the growing scarcity of fossil fuels and the emerging difficulties to transport food cheaply across the nation and the world. Bill also pointed out the lack of flavor and nutrition in corporate farms’ produce and the unsanitary conditions upon which this produce is created – carrying pathogens and disease. Bill stressed the benefits of buying locally and supporting local small-scale farmers and insists that if farmers’ markets can become more widespread than they are now, it can combat the high rates of obesity and its related diseases found rampant in Appalachia.

In the future, Bill hopes that schools will have gardens where children can learn to grow food and prepare it for nutritious meals. SMAC insists on the importance of teaching “young and old alike” traditional farming techniques so that they do not have to be dependent on the global market and can use the land in ways that will sustain them into future generations. They also emphasize collecting, growing, promoting, and developing markets for a wide variety of heirloom fruits and vegetables.

There are difficulties running the organization though, mostly financial. They cannot afford to hire full-time staff, so Bill and his wife volunteer and provide most of the money to keep the organization afloat. They earn enough money to hire a couple of interns each summer to help with the bulk of the labor. Bill explains that because of the current economic recession, it is harder to obtain funding from foundations and sustainability is looked at on a larger scale by most of these organizations so they do not make time for the SMAC. There is a lot of hard work to be done on the farm and it is year-round, so they could always use extra help. Despite these setbacks, Bill finds that running the organization is personal rewarding. As Bill points out, “It is very rewarding to be able to save plants from extinction, which I have done several times. It is also rewarding to distribute seeds of high quality vegetables to an increasingly interested public, especially as the multinational seed companies are making fewer varieties available and contributing to the extinction of many of our food crop varieties. A few multinational companies now control most of the components of agriculture to the detriment of us all.” Luckily, we have organizations like the SMAC fighting this outcome and making a difference in the battle for sustainability.

The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center is making great bounds in terms of providing a way for Appalachians to have access to the knowledge and goods that will lead them toward a more self-sufficient future. With the increasing unreliability of the global trade of produce, and the negative affects it wreaks on the environment as well as our own health, this organization provides a viable alternative: local heirloom produce, with great variety. Their tenacity and determination are helping get the word out to those in the region of the importance of sustainability and small-scale local farming that utilizes the whole farm with diversified crops. If more people can take notice and apply some of these principles to their own subsistence, much leeway can be made in the move to a more self-sufficient and thriving Appalachia. Sustainability will be the key to survival in the future, as more and more resources are used up, and the SMAC is providing the opportunity to achieve this goal, with the knowledge and seeds to do so.

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.