Beneath the clatter of the elevated subway in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York is a garden full of vegetables you won’t find on local grocery stores shelves, including a healthy plot of tall callaloo.
Callaloo is an important part of Caribbean cuisine. The green, leafy plant, also called amaranth, is often steamed with onion, tomatoes, and garlic. Easy to grow and full of iron, it’s difficult to find in the United States, even in East New York, where there’s a large Caribbean population.
Marlene Wilks’ solution is to grow her own. She first brought callaloo seeds in the early 1990s from Jamaica, where she grew up and where her mother is a farmer, because growing the plant was the only way she could get it. She calls it “the perfect green.” It’s a prolific plant that will grow anywhere there is sun, and it quickly grows back after it’s been cut. “It’s one marvelous plant,” she says.
The community garden where Wilks grows her callaloo is part of East New York Farms! (ENYF), a food justice community project that emphasizes produce that’s important to the community, says project director David Vigil. “We really try to focus on specialty crops: things that would be hard to find locally and organic elsewhere in New York.”
Now the organization is helping more people grow their own callaloo through a new company called Truelove Seeds.
As most of the country’s seeds are now sold by a handful of large agribusinesses, access to varietal seeds has become limited. The challenge of finding produce that is central to culturally important dishes is particularly detrimental for immigrants, adventurous eaters, members of various diasporas, and anyone interested in biodiversity and their own culinary heritage.
Roots in Food Justice & Cultural Heritage
After spending 15 years working in agriculture and food justice, Owen Taylor saw an opportunity to help farmers make some extra money while “deepen[ing] their food justice work through seed keeping and seed sovereignty,” he says. He started Truelove Seeds in 2016, based in Newtown Square, Pennsylanvia, and the company’s first catalog debuted this year with a large selection of difficult-to-find vegetables, herbs, and flowers from 17 partner farms in the Northeast, South, and on the West Coast.
The company, named after Taylor’s great-great grandmother Letitia Truelove, focuses on seeds with stories that are dear to the farmers who grow them. He asks them to choose seeds that reflect their cultural identities as a way of helping to promote cultural food preservation. For his own seeds, the focus is on his Italian and Irish heritage, like the Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco (Tongue of Fire Beans), an heirloom Italian bush bean, the Violetta Lunga eggplant, and skirret, a root vegetable that was popular in Tudor England and also grown by Irish Catholic monks.
ENYF was one of the first farms Taylor contacted, says Vigil. Taylor and the organization already had a relationship going back over a decade, when Taylor helped ENYF with farm tasks like setting up their beehives. “He knows that the gardeners are growing crops that are culturally important and really hard to find outside of this neighborhood and outside of the Caribbean,” says Vigil.
Fewer people are saving seeds, which means that many older varieties that aren’t valuable to the big seed companies are being lost. Not only does that shift result in fewer choices for farmers and gardeners, but it also puts food systems at risk from lack of diversity.
“It’s kind of a resistance to this consolidation and takeover of the seed industry and a way of building resilience,” says Taylor. “The more varieties available, the better chance we have as our climate is changing.”
Bear Bottom Farm in Central Virginia is offering seeds that reflect farmer Mason Harkrader’s Syrian and Southwest Virginia ancestry. These include Bronze Syrian Lettuce, Syrian Red Bush Beans, White Velvet Okra, and Turkey Craw Beans. There’s also François Syrian Molokhia, a variety of a green used in staple dishes throughout the Middle East, says Harkrader, whose Syrian grandfather grew his own molokhia (the k is silent) once he’d settled in Virginia in the 1960s. The seeds Bear Bottom offers through Truelove are from that lineage, including White Velvet Okra, which has a long history in Southern cuisine.
Seeds for the catalog’s Turkey Craw Bean are grown in partnership with Chelsea Askew, a farmer in Burkeville, Virginia, who comes from a long line of Appalachian farmers. She focuses on storage crops and varietals that do well in her zone and don’t need too much care. “A lot of my emphasis is on … growing the things that are adapting well to the crazy shifts in weather and things that have been selected for this area for quite some time,” Askew says.
For instance, the Thompson’s Prolific White Dent Corn she offers comes down from her great grandfather, “Pop,” who grew it for grinding into grits, animal feed, and moonshine (at least before he got married and found religion). Askew’s Sugar Drip sweet sorghum came from another farm in the area, which grew it to make molasses. “My family used to make molasses as well, so that was an important thing for me to pursue and learn more about,” she says.
Sugar was expensive and difficult to get, and molasses was the go-to sweetener in the region, says Askew. Plus, sorghum is a multi-purpose crop—the stalk is used for molasses; the leaves are used for animal feed; and the cane is crushed for livestock bedding. The plant does well in heat and is very drought tolerant, but harvesting and cooking it takes a lot of labor, so communities would traditionally do that work together. “It’s super important for self-sufficiency, general resiliency, and also community—which is crucial for resiliency as well,” says Askew.
In Brattleboro, Vermont, farmer Jonah Mossberg’s Milkweed Farms offers many varietals that have long histories in New England. His Truelove seeds include five types of peppers, tomatoes, beans, corn, and okra.
His Roy’s Calais Abenaki Flint Corn was originally cultivated by the local Abenaki people, and was later grown by farmers in Calais, Vermont. Seeds for the Buena Mulata Cayenne Pepper sold out this year—they can be traced back to African-American artist Horace Pippin’s seed trove.
Mossberg’s collaboration with Truelove is his first foray into seed selling. There’s been a learning curve, he says, from knowing the right time to gather seeds to how to process and store them. For example, preparing tomato seeds involves picking the best fruit from the best plants when they’re ripe, and squeezing the seeds into a bucket, then fermenting them and stirring twice a day for four days to a week. Then the seeds need to be cleaned properly, dried in the right environment, and stored.
But the extra work brings wonderful benefits, says Mossberg. “Growing things for seed is so cool because you really get to see a whole different part of the plant’s lifecycle,” he says. “It’s just really special.”
Truelove pays the farmers 50 percent of the retail price of each seed packet. For some, seed selling has been a welcome source of extra revenue.
A Lucrative Market for Seed Savers
David Vigil of ENYF says he was pleasantly surprised by the money his Truelove seeds have brought in. His callaloo is the catalog’s third-best seller. “It’s really satisfying to know that people really want this,” he says.
Chelsea Askew had been working on seeds through another company, but switched to Truelove when Taylor approached her. Her main goal is to cover her gardening costs. “I was surprised to be making quite a bit more money with Owen than I was before. When I get a check I’m like, ‘Wow, this is great.’”
Mossberg says his seed selling has yet to be profitable, but his focus is more on maintaining tradition. “I think it’s important to keep the stories going and keep the seeds alive so it’s not really about the money for me, it’s about supporting the work,” he says.
Taylor’s plans for Truelove include offering new seeds and possibly increasing the number of farmers involved.
“We talk about the importance of people having control and a voice in the way that they eat and produce food,” he says. “A huge part of that is being able to eat the food that feels like home to us. That’s our cultural food, our soul food.”