Even his dog.
John Coykendall seeks heirloom seeds to preserve from many different sources: childhood friends and seed-saving pen pals, visitors to the Walland, Tenn. Blackberry Farm luxury hotel and restaurant where he works as master gardener, and gardeners from his travels to Austria and Hungary and Romania.
But this time the colorful mix of dried heirloom beans came to him in a paper sack. In his dog’s mouth.
“We were at the farm I own in Bybee, Tenn., about 200 acres near Newport, and I was planting potatoes one March. I looked up and here comes my dog Socks with that bag, trotting down the farm road. It had all different color of cornfield beans—a neighbor probably left them out to plant. Socks never did say where she found them.”
Coykendall planted the beans—of course he did—and still has a large enough supply of Socks Beans to assure their continuation as a bean variety 17 years later.
But that is a mere footnote in his seed-saving career. He has preserved or “grown out” some 500 varieties of heirlooms, the seeds from old-time and open-pollinated varieties that are able to regenerate from their own seeds with each new planting. His focus is Appalachian-region beans, which account for 275 of his saved seed varieties.
He is part of a circle of 13,000 international members of the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a group celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. He’s one of the group’s—and the nation’s—most prolific seed savers, yet he’s much more than that in the seed-saving community, says SSE Executive Director John Torgrimson.
“He has often gone in search of the rare varieties that a small group might be saving or sharing—he’s a great proponent of making sure those varieties are not lost,” Torgrimson says. “He understands these varieties were important to someone—or a family, or a clan—as part of their heritage. He has a tremendous reservoir of knowledge, and he’ll share it willingly with anyone. That’s what makes John special. How to save seeds, why to save seeds—he understands it all.”
And though he may look like an ordinary East Tennessee country fellow in his overalls and work boots, Coykendall and his seed-saving peers may have the preservation of the world’s food supply in their dirt-stained, gardening hands.
Their home-dried bean pods and envelopes mailed to fellow gardeners with, say, Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry seeds inside are counterbalancing the precarious situation created with industrial farming in the past century. As of 2013, about half of American cropland was covered by genetically-modified crops, says the SSE. No matter whether feelings about their safety are borne out, the reality is that those seeds are all patented and cannot be saved or grown the following year.
Even the remaining farmland is becoming more and more generic; in the past century or so, 75 percent of edible plants worldwide have gone by the wayside—and the U.S. has lost more than 95 percent, giving it just 5 percent of the options it once had for plant foods, according to SSE. Just five cereals make up 60 percent of our caloric intake, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. This makes the American food system, in a word, fragile—somewhat akin to how the Irish potato famine came about, relying on one variety of potato for sustenance and losing it almost entirely to a new fungus.
SSE, the largest non-government seed preserver in the U.S., maintains a collection of more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable and herb seeds, with three vaults that the group describes as “sort of a museum for varieties that haven’t changed with their environment.” But the efforts of seed-saving home gardeners are even more critical. They grow in isolation gardens and select seeds from the strongest plants and most desirable produce—saving those that have best adapted to changing conditions.
“These seeds have the collective power to withstand unforeseen pestilence and plant disease, climate change, and limited habitat,” says Torgrimson.
Coykendall is doing his part—most of the heirlooms he’s preserved are Appalachian by origin or adaptation, the majority beans and cowpeas. It’s almost as if he can’t help himself; he’s drawn to the heirlooms and can always find room for one more in a corner at Blackberry or isolated in its own acre at his farm.
The Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin was the first to draw his interest, his first heirloom obsession.
He saw it in 1959. That March he came across a seed catalog in the untouched detritus of the long-abandoned Ebenezer Railroad Station in West Knoxville. The William Henry Maule 1913 seed company caught his eye, then held him spellbound for the next 56 years. He was fascinated by the world of heirloom crops it described, along with illustrations, and vowed to grow as many as he could, little realizing the search for those varieties would consume another 30 years.
The sweet potato pumpkin was like a first-edition Superman comic, or Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. “I’d looked for it for years and nobody knew anything about it,” he says. The variety is known for its bell shape, runners that grow up to 20 feet, cream color with green stripes—and for its massive productivity of fruits that can be baked or fried.
He joined Seed Savers Exchange in 1990, and found four fellow members offering just that seed. From there, the race was on. He remembers pretty much every variety he’s ever grown. The Socks Beans are one of the very few without meticulous records of their origins, usually noted in strong, spare handwriting in moleskin notebooks Coykendall carries everywhere.
One example is Mississippi Brown Cotton, pre-1860, grown by slaves and brought to the Virginia-based Southern Exposure seed catalog by Coykendall via a plantation near Natchez, Miss. The 90 varieties he offers to other seed savers/home gardeners through the SSE yearbook have evocative names, like the Cream and Calico Cowpea or the Civil War Lima Bean, “white, maroon-black, and two-toned maroon white brought home to Kentucky by veterans returning from the war.”
Sometimes his notes get personal, like the October pea he describes as having round off-white seed with a tan hilum. “It is said this pea will not bear until October. I have grown it for two years and it starts bearing in August.”
This was a big deal for him starting many years before Monsanto created a furor over the potential hazards of GMOs.
“I don’t in any way condemn it wholesale,” he says. “Just when it tries to replace everything else. To put it in an artistic sense, imagine going to the Riijksmuseum in Amsterdam and they’ve thrown away the Rembrandts and the Masters because they got the new artists’ latest modern things.”
He frets about genetic pollution: “A lot of our original corns, for example, have been contaminated with genetically-modified corns in South America,” he says. “Because of cross pollination, they now have GMO genes in them. That’s happening all over, but it’s particularly worrisome in Mexico and South America, because that’s corn’s genetic homeland. It’s their ‘center of origin.’
“Once a variety is genetically polluted, it’s just in there. You can’t ever go back.”
Coykendall, though, tries to stay one step ahead, and did long before heirloom veggies became the darlings of farmers’ market shoppers and farm-to-table chefs. He bought his first farm in 1978, and the adjoining one in 1985. “At that time, I grew what I liked and I saved it because I knew if I was going to have it I had to be the caretaker of it.”
He remembers hybrids cutting a swathe through home gardens and farms. “The latest hybrids touted producing more, and farmers and gardeners found that very attractive,” he recalls. “They would put in the new stuff and didn’t bother saving the seed from the older varieties. They didn’t realize the value of what they had.”
He’s an avid foodie, but when pressed to name a wonderful bean variety, or a couple, he can’t think of a favorite.
“It’s kind of like having grandchildren, you wouldn’t want to rate one above the other,” he says with a smile. But he favors the “old-time” varieties, because they’ll keep past when the pods mature and still be tender. “Plus they have that nice shell bean in them, and you can cook the pods and the shellies all in one big mess.”
As for other beans, other vegetables, he doesn’t judge, or tries not to. Blue lake green beans try his patience, though.
“I heard a woman recommend them as ‘the’ heirloom variety to grow,” he says, his voice dripping with the disdain usually reserved for bore worms and rats that harvest rare cowpeas at his Tennessee farm. “Blue Lake 274! They’re gonna be tough; they introduced the tough trait when they wanted them to be easier to harvest and to have a long shelf life. Blue lake beans, why, I wouldn’t have them on my place—or on my plate, either.”
Nowadays, the specter of Svalbard looms. First opened in 2008, 600 miles from the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault plunges 500 feet into an icy mountain in the Norwegian Arctic. It houses almost three-quarters of a million seed samples, with the idea that its climate and design will allow it to survive climate change, nuclear war, an asteroid strike. It’s fascinating, but it’s not what John Coykendall’s work is about. “Not global,” he says.
Rather, he reveres the heirloom’s adaptability to growing conditions in a micro-climate such as Tennessee or Appalachia.
Who knows what trial might be thrown at the food supply in coming growing seasons, which varietal might be able to resist a disease or pestilence? It may just be one that Coykendall has “grown out,” one of those beans he discovered in Hungary or Louisiana and grew long enough to assure its survival.
He’s careful to note that this is a borrowed quote, and he’s not sure where it came from. “Any one bean, any one vegetable. It would be like if you had keys to 1,000 rooms, which one could you afford to throw away?”
And it’s not just calories, or sustenance, he’s working to preserve.
“We have so many unique things here, so much diversity. Some of these stocks I save, if we lost them, we’d lose that history, and heritage, and the culinary values.”
Coykendall turns 72 on April 17, but he still works full time as a master gardener at Blackberry Farm, part of a team of aptly named artisans of the FarmStead who keep Forbes Travel Guide four-star-rated restaurant chefs swimming in heirloom and regional produce, meats, eggs, and cheese.
He says he just doesn’t identify with being 72, and would like to go on working forever. He’s at ease there, in an outbuilding called simply the “Garden Shed,” near the acreage with its sandy loam. “A few million years ago, this would have been beach-front property,” he says.
Here, he and head gardener Jeff Ross, among others, tend to all manner of produce: radish sprouts, Red Russian kale, potato onions, garlic scapes, and more on a March afternoon. Later in the year, they’ll average 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. “Gosh, that’s just my favorite time of year,” says Coykendall.
Most days, he wears overalls, purchased with blue-checked shirts from the Newport Dry Goods store near his own farm. “They have a lot of that stuff. It looks like the 1930s. I love the place,” he says.
Coykendall uses a good sharp hoe in early spring, constantly treading the rows in Blackberry Farm’s gardens to clip off the top of young weeds before they get larger and become a real problem. He whittles, shells bean, and strings short lengths of beans to make “leather britches” that can dry by the fire, which imparts a smoky flavor when they’re eaten in late winter, Appalachian style.
He sits in a giant white rocker when he takes his ease at the garden shed at Blackberry, and jokes, “I can’t sit long, or I’ll snore.”
His business info is in a small box labeled “Johnny’s callin’ cards,” and while he owns a cell phone, well, “I used it one time and threw it in a drawer,” he says. He has Facebook, but only signs on once a month or so, max, with a friend’s help. No email.
But this picture does not point back to the expected origins. He tells guests to Blackberry that it certainly would make it more romantic if he could say he was born in a shack on the hillside and was plowing with a mule by the time he was 10 years old. But that’s not how it was, not at all. He is, in fact, a city boy. He attended Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fl., then went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for grad school in graphic arts, etching, and lithography, and lived in Holland and Austria for two years after that. He lived and worked as an artist and printmaking instructor in Boston for 12 years, before returning to his boyhood home in Knoxville in the mid-’80s.
This was in Sequoyah Hills, where his family first lived in 1949, into a house his grandfather built in 1927. He is an alumnus of West High School and of Second Presbyterian Church’s Boy Scout Troop 6. His father was a founding member in 1915.
“We had no farming whatsoever in the family,” he says. “Dad was a banker. Believe it or not he started in the Depression years, with Morris Plan Bank.”
Grandfather Samuel Decker Coykendall owned Regal Manufacturing Company on State Street. “It would have been the equivalent of Levi Strauss, manufacturing blue jean overalls, and jumper coats—the blue denim with lining inside.”
His mother’s father, John Jennings Jr., did have a 700-acre farm in upper Knox County on the Grainger County line, but he didn’t work it. “He was in Congress in Washington all the time, 1939 to 1951.”
Still, somehow, farming came to Coykendall, much like those Socks Beans.
Like in 1961, when he earned his spending money working the farm for Ambrose Holford, then head of the University of Tennessee music department. Holford took Coykendall as “extra baggage” when the UT singers went to Vienna for a couple weeks. He stayed in the little village of Seeham, and met people who are still his friends today. After his undergrad years at Ringling, he went to Europe again, first visiting his family’s home city in Holland and then taking his second visit to Austria. Since then, Austria and nearby Hungary have been “a huge part of my life,” he says.
It’s no coincidence that among the hand-turned wood bowls of dried seed in the Blackberry Farm garden shed are Austrian winter peas for a cover crop and mottled black and maroon scarlet runner beans, or that he grows all manner of Hungarian peppers for the chefs.
His parents were supportive, especially of the art career, he says. “My dad’s attitude was, ‘Do anything but be a banker like I was.”
He may be from an old family—two old families, both arriving in America in the 1600s—and have inherited his house and a bit more when his parents died, but for the rest he’s “old-time self-made” Coykendall says. He still works full time at Blackberry, and works his own farm, too: tills his own soil, reaps what he sows, works to pay for his travels.
“What’s that old saying? ‘I made my money the old-fashioned way, I inherited it?’” he jokes. “That’s not me.”
Dollars and cents, worldly possessions, that’s not how Coykendall defines riches in any case.
He revels in the theme garden he grew at Blackberry in 2013, for the 100-year anniversary of the Maule catalog he discovered all those years ago.
“I sourced 127 different varieties from the catalog, and grew 45 of them,” he says proudly.
Just as quickly, he’s off to show a visitor what’s done with the turnips going to seed in a bevy of yellow flowers across from the shed. One cuts the tender little side stems—bolts—with their closed seeds on the tops, and pops them in the mouth fresh or maybe steams them or adds them to a salad. At just the right point, they are wonderfully sweet.
“These,” says Coykendall, “We prize them very much.”
Try This at Home!
While John Coykendall has 90 different varieties of seed listed for sale in the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange yearbook for 2015, he encourages any home gardener to start saving seeds on whatever scale possible. The start, of course, is growing an heirloom variety worthy of saving seeds from, keeping in mind that beans and peas are the easiest to save, and tomatoes the most complicated.
Unlike commercial seed packets, most of the tiny batch seeds you can purchase from listed members at SSE (seedsavers.org), or from other reputable heirloom seed sources like his buddy Bill Best at the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea, Ky. (heirlooms.org), involve enough seed for a home gardener to “grow out” enough seeds for a reasonable crop the second year, says Coykendall. “You may grow only enough to save the first season, or a little more.”
Once you’ve grown something worth the trouble, here is a synopsis of how to save seeds drawn from Coykendall and other gardening staff as part of the cookbook The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm by Sam Beall:
“For cowpeas, English peas, beans, and okra, simply allow a few of each pod to dry on the vine. Collect the dried pods in the fall and release the seeds from the pods. Store the seeds in a tightly sealed, dry jar away from light until next season.
“For ‘wet’ seeds from eggplants, peppers, squash, pumpkin, watermelon, and cucumber, cut or squeeze open a ripe fruit and remove the seeds. Place them in a fine sieve and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Spread the rinsed seeds out on waxed paper and place in a cool area away from direct sunlight to dry completely, about 1 week. Store the seeds in a paper envelope placed inside a tightly sealed jar.
“Heirloom tomato seeds must first be fermented to remove their gelatinous membrane. Once the seeds have been removed from the fruits, place them in a bowl and let stand at room temperature for three to four days. Rinse them thoroughly in a fine sieve to remove all the goo, and then follow the directions for drying and storing wet seeds.”
See Also: Cooking Corn on a Hoe
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