Putting Culture Back in to Agriculture

Kevin WelchKevin WelchThe Center for Cherokee Plants is playing an important role on the Qualla Boundary, helping Cherokee growers save old-time varieties of Cherokee heirloom vegetables from extinction and enabling members of the Eastern Band – especially the young ones – to connect with their roots and know how to grow, preserve and prepare healthy foods.

 Since ancient times, Cherokee families have developed vegetable varieties suited to the mountain environment, but Cherokee traditional crops and farming knowledge are in danger of being lost as fewer and fewer people engage in agriculture.  Master gardener Kevin Welch of the Big Cove community noticed that when he returned to the, Qualla Boundary after being away for 18 years.  And those who still were growers were not sharing seeds, which was atypical. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to; it was just that seeds for some traditional varieties had become very scarce.

Five years ago, Welch decided the EBCI needed a seed exchange for tribal members, a fact borne out by a feasibility study funded by Cherokee Preservation Foundation.  He founded and serves as coordinator for the Center for Cherokee Plants, a partnership between the EBCI Cooperative Extension Program and the Tribe that encompasses a seed bank and seed exchange program, as well as a nursery.  The Center is located near the sacred Kituwah Mound on two acres of land donated by the Tribe; it is housed in a building that once served as a dairy.

Funders include the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Cherokee Choices Healthy Roots Project funded by the Center for Disease Control.

Last year, the Center increased local seed stock for a number of vegetables, including the Cherokee Tan pumpkin.  At some point during the past 170 years, the Cherokee Tan pumpkin disappeared from Eastern Cherokee gardens.  Welch went to a gathering in Tushkahoma, Oklahoma, of farmers and gardeners from other tribes and learned about the pumpkin, which was carried to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  He and the other growers took advantage of the gathering “to trade seeds like a bunch of pirates trading money,” and Welch returned home with Cherokee Tan pumpkin seeds. 

He shared seeds with other EBCI gardeners and grew 150 pumpkins that he shared with community members through their community clubs.  His only request was that 10% of the seeds be given to the Center so it could help increase the production of the pumpkin in future years.  He’s done the same thing with Cherokee Speckled Butter Beans, Junaluska apples, wild potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and bloodroot. 

Welch’s seed sharing extends well beyond the Qualla Boundary.  The Center’s old-time vegetable seeds have found their way into First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden, the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution and the USDA’s National Arbor Day Event, to name just a few.

In addition to saving and sharing plants, the Center helps save and share the traditional knowledge that goes with the plants.  A Memory Bank of oral histories told by Cherokee growers helps maintain the Cherokee culture.  “Without a story behind a seed, a seed is just a seed,” said Welch. 

It is Welch who coined the Center’s slogan:  Putting Culture Back in to Agriculture.