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Cover Story: From Heirloom to Ultracross: A Journey of Collard Diversity

By Chris Smith


As early as 1992, Dr. Mark Farnham, a USDA research geneticist specializing in Brassicas, noticed a severe lack of genetic diversity in collards (Brassica oleracea subsp. viridis). In the early 2000s, he connected with cultural geographers Dr. Ed Davis and Dr. John Morgan, authors of the incredible book Collards: A Southern Tradition From Seed to Table. With funding from the USDA, Farnham, Davis, and Morgan teamed up to travel across the southeastern United States in search of collard diversity. They collected 78 samples from backyard seed savers, traveling over 12,000 miles across 12 states. It’s important to note that none of these collards were in seed catalogs or had documented histories, and further, many of the seed keepers were elderly and reported that they had no one to inherit the seeds once they died. These seeds were freely, even gratefully shared, as is the way with most seed savers. 


Ultracross Collards. Image Source, Chris Smith, the Utopian Seed Project
Ultracross Collards. Image Source, Chris Smith, the Utopian Seed Project
Pigeon Pea Pod & Flower. Source, Truelove Seeds
Pigeon Pea Pod & Flower. Source, Truelove Seeds

It is easy to imagine a scenario where, if these collard seeds were not collected and stored by the USDA, they would no longer exist today. Given that these varieties lacked documented histories, we probably wouldn’t even know that they had ever existed. For this, we should give great thanks to the efforts of Morgan and Davis and acknowledge that many varieties (collards and otherwise) are surely already lost. 


While it is undoubtedly true that we are in real danger of losing many seed varieties, the work of preserving biodiversity is not linear or simple. Crop Trust states, "Only by safeguarding crop diversity in perpetuity and making it available for use by researchers, plant breeders, and farmers can we adapt agriculture to the climate crisis, reduce environmental degradation, improve livelihoods, and feed everyone adequately." 


For me, statements like these trigger immediate questions such as: Who safeguards this diversity? Who decides who to make it available to? And who decides what it means to feed everyone adequately? Institutional seed preservation efforts tend to separate the seeds from the communities that steward those seeds, placing a high value on the genetics (seeds) without considering the importance to both the people and the seeds of continued community seed keeping. 


As we can see with this collard example, seed preservation work is currently necessary. However, while the seeds are technically saved, when the community seed keepers die, those seeds will still be lost to those communities. The separation of seeds from people and land is a core problem. Seeds sitting in a seed bank and not being freely exchanged and grown within a community won't be able to live and adapt to the needs of the community and a rapidly changing environment. So, while the collard collection trip demonstrates how institutional seed preservation can play an essential role in agrobiodiversity conservation, a much greater effort and emphasis needs to be placed on community seed keeping if seeds (and therefore food) are to remain in relation with people. 


Ira Wallace has been called the “Godmother of Southern Seeds'' by The New York Times. She is a seed keeper and educator who lives at Acorn Community, an egalitarian intentional community in central Virginia that manages an heirloom-focused seed company called Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. In 2016, Wallace chanced upon a collard variety trial in Charleston, South Carolina, that Dr. Mark Farnham was running. The trial included around 60 of the varieties collected by Morgan and Davis. Wallace was astounded by the diversity on display and vowed to return these varieties to the communities and people who cared about collards. This was the beginning of an idea that developed into The Heirloom Collard Project, heirloomcollards.org.  The Heirloom Collard Project is working to regenerate and reintroduce collard diversity into local food systems through a diverse network of community-based seed stewards. The aim is to develop relationships—including traditions around growing, cooking, and eating collards--with these varieties beyond the standard seed catalog transactions so that they can re-exist in communities without the threat of extinction. 



Ira Wallace. Source heirloomcollards.org
Ira Wallace. Source heirloomcollards.org

The varieties that the Heirloom Collard Project works with are described as heirlooms because they are old enough to meet the definition, having been grown and saved in place for many generations. However, the seeds didn’t come with descriptions and most of them didn’t have names before being collected by Morgan and Davis. They were just collards. Occasionally they would carry a name for a sub-type or color of the collards as is the case with a variety like the yellow cabbage collards. The original collard seed stewards were invited to name the collard seeds, and most of the varieties are now named for the people or places they came from. 


Brassicas can cross-pollinate over a long distance and there are many crop types within the species Brassica oleracea, so the potential for inter-variety cross-pollination is quite high. When we have grown out some of these varieties, there is an observable, large variability of genetics within these 'heirloom' collard varieties, suggesting that seed saving for strict varietal purity was not a significant concern for the community seed keepers. 


This style of fluid, community-level seed-keeping is arguably what keeps agrobiodiversity alive and strong while also supporting the food resilience of a community. This is how seeds were traditionally kept, with many peasant and Indigenous communities maintaining landrace populations rather than distinct, uniform, and stable varieties. Joseph Lofthouse, a renowned author and practitioner of modern landrace gardening, has described a landrace as locally adapted, genetically variable, and promiscuously pollinating, meaning it cross-breeds with the other varieties present. Some crops are more prone to promiscuous pollination than others, but regardless of the level of promiscuity, most modern cultivars and heirlooms are not genetically variable. If a variety starts off with limited genetic variance, then the adaptive capacity of that variety will also be limited. Regional adaptation is widely referenced as an inherent advantage of seed saving. Still, since most people save seeds from genetically limited heirlooms, the full advantages of seed saving still need to be realized. The genetically diverse Heirloom Collard Project varieties support more rapid regional adaptation because of the inherent variability that exists with each variety. We have seen evidence of this through our informal farmer network, where one farmer seed saver, Sandra Osterkatz, grew a variety named Tabitha Dykes. She noticed some plants with more purple coloration and her CSA customers liked those plants. After two years of selecting and saving the purple plants, she now has an extremely purple Tabitha Dykes seed line distinct from the original population.


In 2020, The Utopian Seed Project, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring and promoting regional agrobiodiversity in Western NC, grew 21 varieties of heirloom collards. As expected, there was significant diversity within the varieties as well as between the varieties. The collards were allowed to grow into the winter season, during which we experienced a sudden low of 8°F. In observing the collards after that low-temperature swing, some plants perished and others thrived. Plants of the same variety performed differently, suggesting a strong genetic preference for cold tolerance. The cold snap caused about 30-40% plant loss, but the surviving population, which included plants from all varieties, continued to grow into the spring when they flowered and produced a seed crop. The plants that produced seeds were simply the plants that had survived extreme winter weather, which led to a diverse population of environmentally selected collards, which we called Ultracross Collards. 


The concept of diverse seed populations is ancient. The more recent model of hyper-uniform varieties, created in a centralized system and sold through seed companies, is a new concept. The Ultracross concept stands on the shoulders of traditional landrace culture and diverse seed populations that still exist today, and more and more seed companies are offering mixed genetic seeds for purchase. These types of seeds embrace radical genetic diversity in a way that starkly contrasts the institutional seed-saving practices that have become prominent in the past few decades. By embracing radical genetic diversity, the Ultracross concept creates climate-resilient varieties with high adaptive capacity and potential for rapid regional adaptation. The broad genetic base of the population can be highly responsive to a wide range of stressors, creating opportunities for natural environmental selection in response to erratic weather and emergent pests and pathogens. The Ultracross concept also operates on another level because it can be understood as an invitation to begin your own seed story. Growing catalog heirlooms compared to growing diverse seed mixes could be seen as the difference between reading a history book (where everything has already happened) and reading a sci-fi novel (where anything could and can happen). Or, to follow the analogy to a niche sub-genre, in an episode of The Seed Growers Podcast, Rowen White, an Indigenous seed keeper, described growing these diverse populations as 'choose your own adventure.'


If we are to encourage a mass mobilization of new seed-people relationships, it is vital to shift the way we see seeds from static to active, from histories to futures, from preservation to adaptive, and from antique to alive. A regional Ultracross-style breeding ecosystem that places the seed selection decisions back into the community can subvert the power imbalance of top-down, centralized breeding strategies.  The inherent genetic diversity of the Ultracross means that the seeds can be rapidly infused into food and farming communities, with all the associated benefits of regional adaptation and climate resilience noted above. This kind of empowered, forward-thinking seed-keeping demands a relationship with the seed and appeals to our natural tendencies of curiosity and exploration. On a very visceral level, people simply get excited about Ultracross seeds and are willing to explore and engage with the plants actively. The additional benefit is that many of the technical barriers to seed saving are removed (perceived complexity, lack of knowledge, strict requirements, minimum isolation distances, and population sizes). Strict adherence to varietal purity can be more or less abandoned, allowing hybrid vigor and heirloom values to be combined without issues of proprietary ownership or heirloom inbreeding. Our aim with the Ultracross is to encourage open-minded inspiration and community empowerment. Folks are already taking the Ultracross Collards in various directions, including selecting for cold tolerance, sweetness, glazed, purple, perennial (high vernalization), low vernalization (annual?), and pest and disease tolerance.


It is crucial to maintain the open-book, never ending story concept of relational seed keeping. Ultracross Collards are still a nascent project, but they have been spread quickly, and the concept has gained traction.  They are helping seed savers to understand the freedom that can be involved in seed keeping, liberating community seed keepers from the narrow vision of heirloom preservation. The concept of what 'Ultracross Collards' actually are has become fragmented, diverse, and adapted to different regions and tastes, so much so that attempting to pin down a definition or description is futile. In this way, the seeds have found their people and the people have re-found their seeds.


Seed Companies Embracing Diversity

  • Common Wealth Seed Growers is a plant breeding-focused seed collective that regularly releases varieties that are 'in progress', offering up the genetics of F3, F4, F5, etc. breeding lines.

  • Fruition Seeds uses a model they describe as Versions to describe “dynamic iterations of diversity we are growing and adapting with over the years.”

  • Native Seed S.E.A.R.C.H. sells heirloom and landrace seeds and has varieties described as ‘beautiful and diverse.’

  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a traditional heirloom seed company, published a blog post on the advantages of promiscuous pollination in seed saving, questioning the strict variety isolation model. They now sell TUSP’s Collard Ultracross.

  • The Experimental Farm Network sells many seeds described as breeders mixes and landraces. In 2023, their seed store listed 152 products under the category, Landraces and Breeding Stock.

  • Two Seed in a Pod sells many Turkish varieties from a tradition of domesticated regional landraces, and the diversity is reflected in the varieties sold.

  • Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance has a seed company (Ujamaa Seeds) and they are a vital partner in the development and distribution of the Ultracross model - we are working with them to create a Sorghum and Southern Pea Ultracross to support their community.

  • Wild Garden Seeds sells many of the early lines of Frank Morton’s breeding projects and diverse mixes of multiple breeding populations, allowing people to grow and select their own varieties.

  • Fedco offers a number of mixes including the PB&J Nebula Dry Bean Gene Pool as well as varieties described as Grexes (a term that shows up in this context of diverse mixes, but technically describes interspecies crosses of known parentage).


Chris is the Executive Director of The Utopian Seed Project and 

author of “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration”

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