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Preserving heirloom seeds of West Virginia and Appalachia
Mehmet Oztan, Service Assistant Professor


Domestication of wild seeds marked the beginning of agriculture. Agriculture formed societies, and societies co-evolved with seeds and agriculture. Farmers selected seeds based on their societies’ traditions, cultural identities and cuisines. Crops transformed, and their colors, sizes, shapes and flavors were personalized by their growers through this transformation. Seeds and their stories were preserved and passed down to younger generations, and they became family and community heirlooms.

In the 20th century, agroindustry’s unsustainable methods, monoculture and global seed industry caused an erosion in diversity of heirloom seeds. By 1980s, 95% of the seed varieties that were offered by the U.S. seed market in early 1900s, were lost. Today, only a few multi-national biotech companies control more than 60% of the world’s seed market and the majority of the vegetable seed market. 40% of the world’s genetically-modified crops are grown in the U.S. from the seeds engineered and patented by multi-national seed companies. More than 90% of the corn and soy planted in the United States is genetically modified and patented.

As of 2018, 98% of West Virginia’s farms remains family-owned; however, number of farms dropped from over 100,000 in 1930s to slightly more than 20,000 in 2017, and only a small fraction of these farms produces vegetable crops. This dramatic change is alarming in terms of continuing farm traditions and preserving heirloom seed varieties of West Virginia and the Appalachia Region. 

Heirloom seeds always have a story associated with their keepers, and they oftentimes give insights about the traditions, cultural identities, and cuisines of the communities from which they originated. They also are our food sources. In West Virginia, 20% of the population is suffering from hunger. Seeds are critical food sources, and in a changing climate, preserving regionally adapted seed varieties is very important for the State’s food security. It is now more vital than ever to preserve our regional seeds, document them and keep them in the hands of people, not only for the sake of protecting biodiversity but also to address the need for every individual's fair and equitable access to food sources.

This website is dedicated to projects related to the preservation of heirloom seeds and the people who steward those seeds.