Crop improvement has been practiced for millennia.

For centuries, farmers paid close attention to plants they were raising and saved seed from the healthiest, most productive plants. Following the pioneering investigations of Gregor Mendel, the science of genetics contributed substantially to understanding and procedures used to improve crops.

Application of cross-breeding to produce superior hybrid seed is a practice less than 100 years old. Most recently, application of molecular genetics has further increased the rate at which new traits may be introduced in the selection process.

Accelerating progress in plant breeding led to a recognition that there was great value in maintaining and preserving the genetic available in plant species. By focusing on a limited number of traits and selecting superior plants, thee was a risk of discarding genetic information that might prove to be essential to an alternative objective.

To ensure the preservation of genetic resources, scientists have refined procedures to collect and preserve seeds of a multitude of species. One such “seed bank” is the United States Department of Agriculture's Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit located at the University of Georgia Griffin Campus. Their mission is “to conserve plant genetic resources for users today and for future generations.”

Another regional effort dedicated to conserving genetic variation is centered at the University of North Georgia. Beginning in 2006, UNG’s "Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories" project has collected, grown and shared seeds to preserve the area’s heritage as part of the Appalachian Studies Center in UNG’s College of Education.

“The Upland Mountain South is home to some of the highest levels of agrobiodiversity in North America,” said Karrie Ann Fadroski, the project founder and UNG senior lecturer in biology. “Here, many gardeners continue to maintain their folk crop varieties that have been passed down through their family and community.”

"Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories" is an annual demonstration garden for heirloom seeds and a related oral history collection. Following the collection of heirloom seeds from the mountain region biology professors, students and community volunteers started an annual demonstration garden at the historic Vickery House, the center’s headquarters.

Biology professor Karrie Ann Fadroski maintains the center’s seed bank and oversees the garden. Rosann Kent oversees the story collection. The organic garden is designed to minimize water loss, replenish our seed bank and share seeds with our neighbors. Cultural history is also preserved by interviewing seed donors about gardening traditions and foodways of Southern Appalachia. Such memories are as important as the genetic diversity of the seeds

Becky Griffin, community and school garden coordinator for UGA Cooperative Extension, has partnered with UNG to host a secondary site for heirloom seeds from the mountain region at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Mountain Research and Education Center in Blairsville. Expanding to a second location is critical to ensure there are plenty of seeds available as a backup. Seeds for cultivars like "Mr. Lovell’s Wintergreens," "Aunt Cora’s Sunburst Tomatoes" and "Lillian Marshall's Bean" that have been passed down for generations will now be stored in refrigeration at UGA's Mountain Research and Education Center

“Some of these seeds that have been collected might be the only ones that are left,” said Griffin, an active seed saver and part of the Seed Savers Exchange and Community Seed Network nonprofits. “Seed saving and sharing can be an important way for many cultures to preserve their heritage. What makes people feel like they’re at home is what’s in their garden.”

Blairsville's Georgia Mountain Research and Education Center is an hour north of UNG’s main campus in Dahlonega. It’s been a center of agricultural research since the 1930s and is a fixture of the mountain community.

“We have a long history in preserving our mountain heritage with native plants and promoting their use in the landscape through social programs,” said center Superintendent Ray Covington. “It is our pleasure to continue this tradition by providing a secondary site to save and preserve historic Appalachian seeds.”

The Georgia Mountain Research and Education Center lies in the uppermost part of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 415-acre center was originally leased and later purchased by the University System Board of Regents. Established in 1930 in Union County, the station assisted farmers in the isolated mountain region, giving them information applicable to the area with its distinct soil and climatic conditions.

More information about saving and storing seeds can be found in UGA Extension Bulletin 1486, “Variety Selection and Seed Saving for Organic Growers.”

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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