Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Meeting Gardeners

These days, the most interesting people I meet, I find in gardening forums. But then, I don't get around much anymore... But last spring was different - two days a week I manned the helm at the Heirloom Seed Shop in Norfork, Arkansas.

It's not an ordinary seed shop. It's very small, one 12' x 16' room. Even so, it's in such a small town that you can't miss it. But what's really unusual is that all the proceeds go directly to the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas. It serves the purpose of feeding the hungry, of whom there are many, but the real thought behind it is enabling them to feed themselves. "Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." With heirloom seeds, one need only make a low initial investment, from which may come generations worth of food. Just save your seeds!

In fact, it was in 2002, if memory serves me, that my father and I wandered into Gene Boyd's office to talk rabbits, and came out with a few packs of heirloom seeds. It was the first time I'd heard the term [heirloom seeds], although I was already aware of the serious global loss of genetic diversity of crop seeds. I learned that from good old Dr. Kinser at the UCA science department. But I digress...

As I understand it, the Heirloom Seed Shop was Gene's brainchild. He had just started the program, and was still selling seeds out of the office closet. Well, I was hooked. I have grown heirloom vegetables ever since. At some point, Gene and a volunteer carpenter built the little shop from green wood. It turned out really nice, I wish I had been a part of that.

Gene's wife Sharon ended up working the little shop. As my garden grew, I became a regular, stopping in to buy seeds a few times each year. Once as I was apologizing for such a small purchase (one or two packs,) Sharon laughed and divulged that I was their best customer. This alarmed me - surely I wasn't the only one planting this meager amount of seed? I wished that I had the time to volunteer and help educate the public about heirlooms, or at least do my part to feed the hungry. I was hungry, once, and it was miserable.

As fate would have it, I lost the ability to do the only work I know how, so I found myself with the time to volunteer. I had big plans, but needed volunteers to carry most of them out. Volunteers are in short supply in this day and age, and luck isn't always on our side... But I did accomplish a few things, like the small Three Sisters display garden. Also, I grew dozens of tomato and pepper seedlings to sell.

Coming full circle, I met a few really interesting people selling those seeds.

One was a gregarious fellow named John, who is a market grower. He stops by the Food Bank on Farmers Market days to donate any unsold produce. Sometimes he just stops in to talk or buy seeds. His business selling heirloom veggies at the farmers market is booming, and he now has customers paying in advance!

One was an extremely talented tattoo artist I had been trying to track down for 11 years, Wild Child. What a strange way to finally meet. It turns out she had set up shop in the town I was born in. Small world.

Two were a couple of gringos from Mexico, Rosanna and Kelley, who enlightened me on various and sundry subjects.

One was a generous Master Gardener, Barbara, who donated plants for us to sell, and beautiful wildflowers to put in our flowerbed. She had the idea that someone from the Heirloom Seed Shop should give a talk to the Baxter County Master Gardeners about heirloom vegetables. I passed this up the line, and it was passed back to me. Gulp. Public Speaking terrifies me. But I'm scheduled for an upcoming meeting. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a speaker at the June festival at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds last summer, so I broke through my fear and did it. It was an hour-long talk, and after I got warmed up, I could have talked forever. Now I have the experience and confidence to educate and entertain this somewhat intimidating crowd of experts. As an aside, I'm looking for a wide array of Hubbard squash varieties to gift to Barbara, if anyone can assist with a few seeds.

Somewhere in there, I met a dynamic duo from the local newspaper, reporter JoAnne Bratton and photographer Kevin Pieper. They did a story on the Heirloom Seed Shop, and it was a great opportunity for me to help educate the public. They both did a great job! Kevin even drove out to my house to take photos of the heirloom plants in my garden.

While I was disappointed in the low local interest in heirloom seeds, I believe I made a difference. Many of the folks who did stop in said they read about it in the Baxter Bulletin. Hopefully next year will be even better. There's talk of expanding.

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