The Heirloom Collard Project

By Tor Janson, SSE Curator

The collard patch has been a common element of the fall and winter landscape in parts of the U.S. South since before the Civil War. The collard, Brassica oleracea, var. acephala, is grown in the region for its greens, produced by cooking the leaves ofthe plant. Sometimes called a headless cabbage, the collard has advantages over cabbage in the South in that it is better able to endure hot summers, while at the same time it is able to grow and thrive in winter at least as well as cabbage. The production and consumption of collards have been so closely associated with the South that one writer went so far as to state that collard greens “probably more than any other food, delineate the boundaries of the Mason-Dixon line” (Albright 1989, 649). The association of collards with southern culture is reflected in regional novels, poetry, song lyrics, and local festival themes.

Edward Davis and John Morgan, “Collards in North Carolina.” Southeastern Geographer, Volume 45, Number 1, May 2005, pp. 67-82

Project Overview

Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange wanted to initiate a collaborative, South-region focused seed-saving initiative with SSE. As it happened, I had recently been reading the work of Ed Davis and John Morgan, a pair of geographers who had worked from circa 2003-2007 to document Southern collard seed saving traditions. Among their main findings: they expected the entire tradition to become extinct within 10-20 years (as of circa 2007). The collard stewards they located were elderly and universally stated that their children and grandchildren were not going to carry on the seed-saving tradition or their unique varieties. 

The project is an initiative to sustain Southern food traditions by inspiring the next generation of heirloom collard seed stewards. Or more bluntly, prevent the extinction of heirloom collards by creating a new generation of collard seed savers.

I secured 60 heirloom collard accessions from USDA, deposited there by Davis, Morgan, and John Farnham as part of their heirloom collard research. These accessions will form the backbone of our seed saving efforts–we are now working to document their traits and get them regenerated so we can share seeds with new heirloom stewards. In the year ahead we expect to start hosting seed-saving workshops in the South to recruit and train new stewards. We also plan to work with Ed Davis to re-contact original stewards, recruit them as seed-saving mentors, and improve our documentation of their lives, their heirloom collards, and their seed-saving traditions.

We plan to partner with a diverse set of groups, including Southern Foodways Alliance, Slow Foods USA, seed companies, master gardeners, heritage sites and organizations, and the community of Southern chefs/restaurants to promote and celebrate heirloom collards and the people who preserve them.

Public Outreach and Education Needs

  1. Provide resources to train novice collard seed savers
  2. Recruit novice collard seed savers, with an emphasis on the states where the collard tradition is strongest: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. 
  3. Connect novice collard seed savers with mentors
  4. Regularly communicate project updates and educational content to project partners and participants
  5. Recruit and coordinate allied organizations and community leaders (via SSE’s CSRP program)
  6. Coordinate workshops and speaking events, and advertisement thereof, with project partners
  7. Assist novice growers with questions and issues, connect them with appropriate mentors, and develop a system to sustain this type of mentorship support without SSE staff’s direct involvement
  8. Develop and enact a plan to build a self-sustaining community of collard seed stewards who develop the capacity to carry on the project themselves by 2020.