Newswise — WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Wake Forest University recently launched the Make Every Bite Count campaign that calls on colleges and universities to make a commitment to preserving and celebrating agricultural biodiversity in their own regions.
On Wake Forest’s own campus, the landscaping team selected pawpaw and persimmon trees to plant as part of a cultural heritage edible landscaping pilot. The trees are well suited to the campus landscape, decreasing maintenance needs and increasing resilience. To celebrate the plantings, campus dining services featured traditional pawpaw and persimmon desserts at the fall campus heritage dinner.
The campus’ working garden provides faculty and students the opportunity to investigate assumptions and theories about small-scale agricultural production from cultural and scientific perspectives. Heirloom varieties of okra, greens, and garlic are distributed to campus partners by way of meals prepared and delivered by Campus Kitchen volunteers. The campus’ historic formal gardens also hosted a celebratory planting of two new Southern heirloom apple trees, reflecting complementary opportunities for continued campus-community engagement.
Wake Forest University professor of biology Gloria Muday grows an average of 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in the campus working garden. For this plant geneticist, the heirlooms “provide a visually striking example of how genetic variation can have profound effects on fruit shape, color, and taste and how humans can take advantage of this natural variation to select plants with unique flavor and appearance traits.” The tomatoes are used in an outreach program in which undergraduates use heirlooms to teach genetic principles to local middle and high school students.
Several schools in the Southeast have already committed to growing and protecting heirloom varieties and heritage breeds. These commitments yield multiple benefits: in addition to preserving cultural heritage, increases in agrobiodiversity also counter the risks associated with the homogenization of the food supply. According to the United Nations, at the start of this century, 75 percent of the world’s food was generated from only 12 plant and five animal species.
Campus-based farming efforts often complement active and engaged learning goals. At Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C., a new course, “Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture,” was held at the campus farm this year, offering an opportunity for students to gain practical experience in farming, as well as reflect upon assigned readings and journal entries. Students in the course will travel to surrounding farms to learn about additional crops, animals, or value-added products. In its fourth year of production, more than 10,000 pounds of produce including heirloom Jaune Du Doubs carrots and Daymon Morgan’s Kentucky Butcher corn are harvested. Produce is distributed through campus dining services, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a student operated on-site farmers market, and two local grocers and restaurants.
In Durham, N.C., the Duke Campus Farm grows heirloom varieties of cotton including Mississippi Brown, Erlene’s Green, and Red Foliated White, as well as Carolina Black peanuts. The varieties themselves are teaching tools that help establish and problematize students’ sense of place: these particular heirloom varieties of cotton and peanuts trace back to the social and economic roots of slavery in the region. The troubled and sometimes traumatic histories of our bioregion can be important starting points for place-based education. Our history rests on agricultural practices that exploited both humans and ecological systems. An honest examination of our past can help us construct a more equitable and sustainable future.
Schools that choose to grow more heirloom crops and foster programs that support sustainable agriculture also have the ability to help improve regional food systems and influence their greater communities through education and example. This spring, the University of Florida Community Farm will establish a Southern Heritage Garden. Fish and Datil pepper seeds from the Slow Food Ark of Taste will be sourced through collaboration with local seed library Southern Heritage Seed Collective. The Loften High School Farm to School program will play a role in connecting the garden to local community food efforts.
For some, like Stacy Martin of Yellow Wolf Farm in Walkertown, N.C., taste is the key to finding the right foods to grow. Martin, who is committed to heirloom varieties and heritage breeds in her business, says, “I love the history of seeds - where they’ve been and what their story is. I won’t grow anything that doesn’t have a great flavor.” This resonates with Dr. Elizabeth Lipke, a chemical engineering professor at Auburn University who participates in the Auburn Community Garden. She grows purple sweet potatoes to teach her family about the range of appearances and flavor found in heirloom crops.
You can help promote agrobiodiversity, as well as your regional cultural heritage, by choosing to grow, buy, and celebrate indigenous and endangered foods: 1.) Inquire. Ask regional gardeners and farmers about heirloom plants and heritage animals that may have been grown or raised in the past. Generational growers may also practice saving seeds and could have access to seeds that hold significance as part of the regional cultural heritage.2.) Connect. Visit farmers markets, restaurants, botanical gardens, seed banks, universities, or research centers to learn about the range of species that exist. From the ingredients a chef is using, to the rare fruit trees in a greenhouse, you can find out what is already being grown and what has the potential to be produced.3.) Celebrate. Take a memory trip with friends or family who have access to cherished recipes that include heirloom varieties and heritage breeds. Prepare and celebrate dishes that stand the test of time. 4.) Share. Promote heirloom and heritage foods from your area by saving and sharing seeds or providing offspring for sale.For more information, or to join the Make Every Bite Count campaign, visit sustainability.wfu.edu.