Words by Sandi Ozterkatz
I signed up for the Collard Project in the summer of 2020 with no particular goal except to advance southern seed breeding. I had recently abandoned academia after a decade of empirical research training and it was neat to have something tangible to apply my skills to. I had been part of a powerful discussion on building a just and sustainable Southeastern seed system at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Ag Conference the previous fall, and after meeting Ira, Chris, and Melissa at the conference I knew I wanted to be part of any projects they were organizing.
I was given 3 varieties of collard seed and planted about 2 dozen seedlings of each (Image 1). I knew nothing about them and had no clue what to expect. Late in the season, as the weather here in the NC piedmont (zone 7b) cooled, I noticed that the Tabitha Dykes collards had a striking range of color (Image 2) and some of the plants had deep purple leaves (Image 3). Saving seed hadn’t been part of the Collard Trial data collection process, but I flagged the 6 plants with the best purple coloring, ensured that all other nearby brassicas were not allowed to flower, and I grew them to seed. It was a wet spring and the quantity of seed was small, but in July I processed and saved it to plant the next year (Images 4 and 5).
In 2021 I grew out the next generation of my own saved super-purple seed, limited as it was. The diversity was even more stark, and in that second round I was able to save a larger amount of high quality seed from the 2nd selection based on color. During this time I started to hear from other folks involved in the trials that chefs were really loving the mild spiciness and flavor of the Tabitha Dykes, and my CSA members loved them, so I wrote the Seed Savers Exchange and asked for a large enough batch of seed to add some fresh genetic diversity to what I had saved.
Last year I was able to share seed from both my own and the SSE stock with Jamie Swofford at Old North Farm, and my 2023 Tabitha Dykes collards will be planted out for a 3rd round of selection this summer. I hope to continue offering the purple selection to other interested growers. The work wouldn’t have happened without gathering spaces focused on southern seed breeding, without creative minds trying citizen trials and breeding programs, and without seed houses with a mission to protect genetic diversity and heirloom seed across the country. I love that so many people are growing and saving seed for traits they love, let’s keep it going!