A Radical Seed-Breeding Project Could Help Southern Farmers Adapt to Climate Change | Seed Breeding May Help Southern Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

A Radical Seed-Breeding Project Could Help Southern Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

The Utopian Seed Project is growing dozens of types of okra in one North Carolina field, creating genetic collisions that build new, resilient varieties. The group is working to adapt more food crops to the changing climate.

Zoe Adjonyoh, author of Zoe's Ghana Kitchen, stands in the field during a 2021 visit to see the okra variety trial. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Zoe Adjonyoh, author of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, stands in the field during a 2021 visit to see the okra variety trial. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

At first glance, Chris Smith’s modest farm plot outside Asheville, North Carolina, has nothing in common with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the powerful particle collider located on the border of France and Switzerland.

On a chilly, overcast morning in early March, as Smith’s farm assistant, Leeza Regensburger, wrestles with an antiquated weed whacker, the most elaborate technology visible on his half-acre field is a sheet of black plastic weed barrier.

Yet there’s something conceptually similar between superconducting quadrupole electromagnets and the work going on here. Just as the LHC bashes together particles in the hope of strange and exciting results, Smith and his nonprofit Utopian Seed Project (USP) are making genetic collisions that result in new diversity for crop plants.

“The whole reason we’re exploring diversity is to have climate-resilient food systems, which really translates to food security in a climate-uncertain future.”

The USP farm is a living laboratory for agricultural diversity. Through its crop research and other efforts, the nonprofit seeks to promote “a resilient, delicious, and equitable food and farming system” across the South.

The most recent experiment to emerge from the farm is Ultracross Okra. In 2021, Smith planted 100 different types of the mucilaginous vegetable in the same plot, everything from Clemson Spineless, the most popular okra in the United States, to rare heirloom cultivars such as Mr. Bill’s Big. As those plants grew out their showy, hibiscus-like flowers, swarms of pollinators darted between them to cross everything with everything else, an okra supercollider at work.

Smith saved the resulting seeds and distributed them to growers across the country [including the author] last year through the Experimental Farm Network and Ujamaa Seeds. And when those seeds came up in garden plots across the U.S., the plants were a kaleidoscope of okra expression: stems from short to towering, leaves from smooth to spiny, pods from stubby thumbs of pale green to long fingers of deep crimson.

Okra varieties grown during one Okra Ultracross planting season. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Okra varieties grown during one Okra Ultracross planting season. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Smith is now developing similar plans for other crops with cultural importance to the South, such as sorghum and cowpeas. The idea of these ultracrosses, Smith explains, is to shuffle the genetic deck of existing varieties, creating combinations of traits that haven’t been seen before. Working from those new foundations, farmers and gardeners might develop plants that are better adapted, both to their geographic regions and to the changing climate.

“The whole reason we’re exploring diversity is to have climate-resilient food systems, which really translates to food security in a climate-uncertain future,” Smith says. “The method of the ultracross creates the diverse populations that can be rapidly adapted to climate change, but the goal is to use those populations to feed a whole bunch of people.”

A Utopian Vision for Climate-Resilient Agriculture

Smith isn’t formally trained as a plant breeder or crop scientist; his education is in accounting and creative writing. And by his own admission, he wasn’t particularly interested in growing plants as a child. Although his family had a substantial home plot in his native United Kingdom, he says his most vivid gardening memory is getting soaked by an unwieldy watering can while tending to his mother’s hanging baskets.

After moving to the U.S. a decade ago, Smith took up gardening again as a response to his concerns about his new home’s food system. (“Simple things, like what the hell is high-fructose corn syrup and why is it in everything?” he jokes.) He also landed a marketing gig with Asheville-based gardening company Sow True Seed, which gave him a deep familiarity with growing heirloom varieties and saving seeds.

Over time, however, Smith began to question whether those skills were enough amid the impending challenges of climate change. Seed saving could preserve the best heirloom varieties developed in the past, but those plants wouldn’t necessarily have the characteristics needed to thrive in the future. Heirlooms are also heavily inbred; while that keeps varieties looking and behaving similarly from generation to generation, it limits their genetic potential to adapt under new circumstances.

In late 2018, with the backing of Sow True Seed, Smith established the USP  as a way to work specifically on climate-resilient crops. He stepped into the executive director role full-time in 2020, supported by a diverse mix of family foundations, research grants, and Patreon supporters.

Chris Smith (with Jordan Collins in the background) in late July 2021 during that year's Okra Ultracross. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)Chris Smith amid the okra crops in late August 2021. The plants are all grown up and producing flowers and pods. Some flowers are bagged to prevent cross pollination. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Left: Chris Smith (with Jordan Collins in the background) in late July 2021; right: Chris Smith amid the same okra crops in late August 2021. The plants are fully grown and producing flowers and pods. Some flowers are bagged to prevent cross-pollination. (Photos courtesy of Chris Smith)

Part of the USP’s mission involves creating enthusiasm about the diversity that already exists in the regional crops of the South, such as sweet potatoes and collard greens. While Southern farmers and gardeners historically grew dozens of cultivars of each crop, each adapted for different regional conditions or culinary preferences, many fell out of production as agriculture became more standardized and industrialized. Without people to grow those plants or save their seeds, a heritage of cultural and genetic variety risks being lost.

The nonprofit spreads the word about these cultivars through its “Crop Stories” project, which takes deep dives into specific crops through magazine, podcast, and video content. It also hosts events such as the “Trial to Table” series, where local chefs craft bites using unique varieties. One event held during the pandemic saw Ashleigh Shanti, who later competed on Bravo’s Top Chef, present a Zoom cooking demonstration with “Tabitha Dykes,” a collard cultivar known for its sweetness.

Other projects explore the potential of crops that aren’t yet widely grown in the U.S. Smith is especially intrigued by what he calls “temperate tropicals”—plants like the tuber-forming African potato mint and bambara groundnut, a bean that grows seeds underground like a peanut. Both are native to West Africa but might perform well in the South as conditions grow hotter and drier.

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In many cases, Smith says, that exploration is as simple as planting a few varieties of a new crop and observing how they perform. If a plant shows promise, more rigorous work follows: Last year, the USP received a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to conduct scientific trials on taro, a root crop that is a staple in places like Hawaii and the Philippines.

Modern agriculture, Smith argues, tends to assume that the environment can be modified to match the needs of a crop through inputs like irrigation or fertilizer. Those assumptions might not hold in a system that regularly experiences climate disruptions like extreme heat or drought.

“I think we’re going to have to drop back on the crops that can really tough it out in these challenging environments,” he says.

Okra, Remixed

In addition to celebrating existing Southern varieties and assessing tropical crops for the region, the third prong of the USP’s work is developing new diversity for Southern staples. That’s where the okra ultracross comes in.

Okra varieties grown during one Okra Ultracross planting season. (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

Okra varieties grown during one Okra Ultracross planting season. (Photos courtesy of Chris Smith)

Smith acknowledges that the concept isn’t entirely new: Crop scientists use the terms “composite cross” or “evolutionary plant breeding” for similar recombinations of many different distinct varieties at the same time. (The ultracross name, he says, was coined by Washington-based farmer Melony Edwards during a 2020 trial of diverse collard greens.)

Yet those  traditional crop science approaches, Smith suggests, are  typically designed to meet a specific goal.  The end result, he says, is “a variety that meets the distinct, uniform, stable criteria of modern agriculture so that we can then give it a name and sell it, or maybe patent it and sell it.”

In contrast, Smith’s goal is to generate and maintain diversity as an end in and of itself. While he plans to weed out particularly tall plants, which can be challenging for farmers to harvest, he otherwise wants to grow generation after generation of okra from the initial ultracross, letting the genetics of the original 100 parents intermix indefinitely.

“We can use the same strategies that our ancestors used to develop varieties. They didn’t genetically modify things. They observed and they crossed things.”

Future farmers could then return to the ultracross offspring as a base for breeding whatever varieties changing circumstances call for. “By actively maintaining that diversity, you basically have a dynamic population that can react to environmental pressures over time,” Smith explains.

In the present day, the freedom that the ultracross offers can be unfamiliar territory. Many of the hundreds of people who have received okra seed packets ask what they’re supposed to be selecting for, Smith says.

His go-to response is, “Whatever you want.” By offering growers a rich source of diversity, Smith explains, he’s encouraging them to think of crops as mutable, and of themselves as participants in change.

Creating the Future Story

Bonnetta Adeeb is no stranger to the stories of heirloom plants. She co-directs the Maryland-based Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, a BIPOC-led group of farmers, growers, and gardeners that cultivates and distributes heirloom seeds.

The Ujamaa Seeds online store lists well over 200 seed varieties that are “culturally meaningful.” Its collection includes everything from the California Blackeye African pea, brought to the U.S. as part of the transatlantic slave trade, to the yaupon holly, a caffeinated shrub used by Indigenous Americans to brew a ritual “black drink.”

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The Ujamaa store also offers Ultracross Okra. Though the ultracross only came into existence two years ago, it still offers connection to the past: Like the African pea, okra arrived in the country via enslaved people, and it has been a key part of Southern gardens for centuries.

Bonnetta Adeeb of Ujamaa Seeds in the field. (Photo courtesy of Bonnetta Adeeb)

Bonnetta Adeeb of Ujamaa Seeds in the field. (Photo courtesy of Bonnetta Adeeb)

Adeeb has played an integral role in promoting the ultracross, helping place the okra in demonstration plots from Berea College in Kentucky to Princeton University. To see a riot of diversity erupting from a single packet of seed, she says, can reawaken the skills that people used to create heirloom cultivars in the first place.

“We can use the same strategies that our ancestors used to develop varieties. They didn’t genetically modify things. They observed and they crossed things,” she says. “The ultracross is a way individuals and communities can learn seed breeding using traditional practices: observing various characteristics in the plant, keeping notes, and making decisions that suit their needs.”

And on a broader scale, Adeeb hopes the ultracross can help people embrace the value of diversity. She compares the mix of okra to the human family, which also spread to the world from Africa.

“In that pool of genes lies the future,” she says of both okra and mankind. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to adapt to all the things that Mother Nature throws at us because of our misbehavior. She’s thinking about drop-kicking us the way she did the dinosaurs, but maybe we can make amends and show her that we really do respect her.”

Daniel Walton is a freelance journalist based in Western North Carolina covering the environment, sustainability, and political news. His work has appeared in national and regional publications including Sierra, The Guardian, and Ambrook Research. Read more >

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  1. Jan Cubbage
    Want to try growing the most flavorable squash ever? Try Crespo squash! This variety is football shaped, with a bright yellow squash with a soft , orange very sweet interior. I live inMarion County , FL. The variety appears to be heat tolerant, large leaves, climbing vine. I have one now growing up a sunflower stalk. A huge myth is that SQUASH WANT TO GROW IN THE SUN. WRONG! NATIVE AMERICANS IN OUR REGION GREW SQUASH AND PUMPKINS UNDER TREES. I have done the same with success. The shade from the trees keeps plants from experiencing heat stress. Now there is a response to above average temps. Farmers should be growing veggies in their peach orchards!

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