Utopian Seed Project

Utopian Seed Project

Reflecting on a Year of Crop Trials

By Belle Crawford

As the growing season draws to an end, The Utopian Seed Project (TUSP) has a lot to look back on from its first official year as a non-profit that trials crop varieties in support of agricultural biodiversity. Chris Smith, a Sow True Seed employee turned executive director of The Utopian Seed Project, in recounting several of the organization’s harvests, sounds a little like The 12 Days of Christmas: “50 varieties of okra, 43 American groundnut cultivars, 40 varieties of cowpea, 30 heritage beans, ten sweet potato varieties, nine ancient corn varieties and a couple of roselles.” The trials have largely been conducted at Franny’s Farm in Leicester, but TUSP board members Yanna Fishman and Jamie Swofford have trial plots in Rutherford County and Cleveland County, respectively. “We have a local focus, but a larger regional scope,” says Smith.

TUSP has three focus areas. First, it aims to explore the massive varietal potential of traditional southern crops like okra, cowpeas, sweet potatoes and corn. Smith’s recently published The Whole Okra details the cultivation of more than 125 varieties of okra, with more waiting trial.

Second, TUSP experiments with growing native food crops that have remained on the margins of most commercial farms: the American groundnut and the Paw Paw are two examples of crops with relatively unexploited potential. “The potato-like tuber of the American groundnut is traditionally wild foraged,” says Smith. “TUSP is growing a large number of improved American groundnut cultivars with higher yields, larger tuber size and quick production.”

TUSP’s third focus area is tropical perennials grown as temperate annuals. Most people know of the sweet potato and its relatively easy cultivation in WNC, but few are growing or eating Bolivian sunroot, Achira, Taro, Arrowroot, Chayote and other tropical crops that can, with a few extra steps, be cultivated in our region. “The climate is warming,” says Smith. “Even if we cease harmful emissions today, we will still experience a significant lag effect of past emissions. So, learning how to grow crops that will thrive in a warmer climate will help us adjust to a more resilient future.”

The harvest season was a chance for TUSP to really show off its trials. It hosted a tri-city, 48-variety okra taste test for regional chefs in Asheville, Charlotte and Durham. The results are still being collated and compared, but one variety, a Tennessee heirloom called Aunt Hettie’s Red, ranked in the top four varieties in all three tastings. TUSP will be working with Slow Food Asheville for its 2020 Heritage Food Project, which will most likely focus on Aunt Hettie’s Red as its spotlight variety. TUSP also organized the 6th annual WNC Garlic Festival, which aligns with its mission of celebrating diversity in food and farming. As a final hurrah of the season, TUSP—along with chef Steve Goff of Asheville’s AUX Bar, The Chef’s Farmer owner Jamie Swofford and Keia Mastrianni of Milk Glass Pies—organized a Trial to Table Farm Feast to share its most recent harvest and explore the culinary possibilities of its trials.

“As we go forward, TUSP hopes to build a network of collaborating chefs and farmers who are willing to participate in a community-driven search for a more resilient and delicious food system,” says Smith.

To learn more about The Utopian Seed Project and donate to its research, visit

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