22 people, orgs working to preserve Appalachia’s biodiversity


Danielle Nierenberg
The region of Appalachia, which stretches through a dozen states in the eastern U.S., is home to unique agricultural products and food cultures. Food Tank recently joined The Crop Trust in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky to meet the people working hard to preserve the region’s agricultural diversity.

Ken works at the microgreens house at Green Edge Gardens in Amesville, Ohio. Photo courtesy of LM Salazar and The Crop Trust”We do traditional food, but not normal traditional,” West Virginia chef Marion Ohlinger tells Food Tank, about the food he serves at his restaurant, Hill & Hollow. “Not losing what we have, but building other things into it.”
The Crop Trust’s #CropsInColor campaign is highlighting the complexities, triumphs, and surprises of crop diversity. Phase II of the campaign, which runs from 2018 to 2021, focuses on 10 crops that are staples of our kitchens, markets, and restaurants—and symbolize the importance of crop diversity in action. #CropsInColor is sponsored by Corteva, with additional funding from the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. Food Tank is the campaign’s media partner.
This week, Food Tank is highlighting 22 farmers, chefs, seed savers, and food leaders who are keeping Appalachian crops, cuisines, and culture alive for generations to come: Albemarle CiderWorks, North Garden, Virginia; Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies, Southern Seed Legacy Project, Burnsville, North Carolina; Craig LeHoullier, Raleigh, North Carolina; Green Edge Gardens, Amesville, Ohio; Hill & Hollow Restaurant, Morgantown, West Virginia; Hoff & Pepper, Chattanooga, Tennessee; Horne Creek Farm’s Southern Heritage Apple Orchard, Pinnacle, North Carolina; Ira Wallace and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia; John Coykendall, Knoxville, Tennessee; LoganBerry Heritage Farm, Cleveland, Georgia; Oak Spring Garden Foundation Biocultural Conservation Farm, Upperville, Virginia; Shagbark Seed & Mill, Athens, Ohio; Sow True Seed, Asheville, North Carolina; Sunflower Sundries, Mount Olivet, Kentucky; Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Livingston, Kentucky; The Shack, Staunton, Virginia; The Utopian Seed Project, Asheville, North Carolina; The Wild Ramp, Huntington, West Virginia; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia; University of North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, Dahlonega, Georgia; West Virginia State University, Institute, West Virginia; and West Virginia University’s Cider Apple Orchard, Morgantown, West Virginia.
Co-Author: Emily Payne
This fall, Food Tank and The Crop Trust travelled throughout Appalachia to highlight and celebrate its unique food cultures and agricultural diversity. As part of a multi-year, multi-country #CropsInColor campaign, we focused on the role of apples, beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, and chilli peppers in the region.
“We have something special here,” Chef Ian Boden of Staunton, Virginia, tells Food Tank. “Everyone is always there for each other.” In Appalachia, inclusion is embedded in the culture, according to Boden. You show your love through your stomach, and no one is left unfed.
Here are 22 farmers, producers, academics, nonprofit leaders, seed savers, and chefs we visited who are preserving the biodiverse crops, cuisines, and culture of the Appalachian region through their work.
1. Albemarle CiderWorks, North Garden, Virginia
Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle CiderWorks is owned and operated by siblings Charlotte, Chuck, Bill, and Todd Shelton. Starting as a speciality apple orchard, the family began grafting and selling their farm’s fruit trees in hopes of popularizing heirloom and distinctive apple varieties. With more than 200 varieties now growing on the farm, Chuck turned his cidermaking hobby into Albemarle CiderWorks in 2009. Now, the Sheltons strive to honour and explore the culinary and cultural heritage in Virginia by bringing back the tradition of fine artisanal cider that began in the 1700s. They host orchard planning and planting, pruning, grafting, and fermenting workshops onsite and host thousands for an annual Apple Harvest Festival.
2. Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies, Southern Seed Legacy Project, Burnsville, North Carolina
Through research, education, and application, the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies (AIMS) models sustainable human ecosystems that combine traditional knowledge from mountain cultures with appropriate technologies. The AIMS Southern Seed Legacy Project focuses on reversing the erosion of plant genetic diversity and cultural knowledge in the American South, supporting local seed saving exchanges and maintaining their own seed collection as a backup for endangered crop varieties. AIMS teaches that it’s not enough to save the seeds—they must be grown, harvested, and passed on.
3. Craig LeHoullier, Raleigh, North Carolina
After growing up in Rhode Island, earning his PhD in chemistry at Dartmouth College, and working a 25-year career in pharmaceuticals, Craig LeHoullier is now known to many as the “NC Tomatoman.” He co-leads the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, which has created more than 90 compact tomato varieties intended for gardeners with limited space to grow. He has named and popularized many well-known heirloom tomatoes in the region, like the Cherokee Purple. LeHoullier is the author of Epic Tomatoes (2015) and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (2016), and he lectures at gardening events across the country in addition to sharing his expertise through webinars, podcasts, and online courses.
4. Green Edge Gardens, Amesville, Ohio
One of Becky and Kip Rondy’s main goals at Green Edge Gardens is to provide year-round agricultural employment in their community. Their 120-acre certified organic farm uses 10 custom-built high tunnel-type greenhouses, which are intensively managed using unheated systems and Kip’s own design innovations, to sell seasonally appropriate crops year-round to their local community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, and local and regional wholesale accounts. Also home to a microgreen house and mushroom incubation room, Green Edge focuses on diversity for resilience and profitability in their operation.
5. Hill & Hollow Restaurant, Morgantown, West Virginia
At Hill & Hollow Restaurant, Chef Marion Ohlinger, a 12th-generation West Virginian, works with local farmers to incorporate native Appalachian crops into his dishes while paying homage to other cuisines. After working as a chef for 30 years, visiting more than 40 countries, 5 continents, and all 50 states before returning to his home state in 2003, Ohlinger is seen as an authority on farm-to-table dining in West Virginia. He strives to popularize traditional Appalachian foods within the region, without the involvement of major publicity or celebrity chefs. “We want to show a more modern version of Appalachia before corporate gets a hold of it,” Ohlinger tells Food Tank.
6. Hoff & Pepper, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Hoff & Pepper uses high-quality, fresh, and local ingredients to make simple, handmade batches of hot sauce in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Now offering hot sauces in 200 stores across the United States, Hoff & Pepper has grown 300 percent year over year since launching in 2015. Co-Founders Aaron and Michelle Hoffman credit their sauce’s award-winning flavour and popularity to sourcing their red jalapeños and habaneros from a small family farm, L&D Swafford (most Louisiana-style hot sauces use cayenne and tabasco peppers for their base). L&D Swafford is family-owned and operated and grows heirloom produce varieties, mostly mountain-grown.
7. Horne Creek Farm’s Southern Heritage Apple Orchard, Pinnacle, North Carolina
Through community programs like an annual corn chucking frolic, the Horne Creek Living Historical Farm—operated by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources—seeks to connect eaters to a rural past by depicting farm life in the northwest Piedmont, North Carolina, area circa 1900. Their Southern Heritage Apple Orchard, established in 1997, is home to more than 400 apple varieties that were grown in the South prior to 1929. And in 2018, Horne Creek launched an orchard program for schools to educate children about food production.
8. Ira Wallace and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia
Ira Wallace is a writer, seed saver, educator, and worker/owner of the cooperatively owned Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), one of the most well-known and respected sources of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds in the U.S. “A good seed with a good story cannot be beat,” Wallace tells Food Tank. Her work at SESE has helped to introduce many forgotten heirloom varieties back to the region, like the Big Rainbow tomato. Wallace is also Co-Founder of the annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, author of Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast (2013), board member of the Organic Seed Alliance, and advocate for democratizing the seed supply.
9. John Coykendall, Knoxville, Tennessee
As seed collector and Master Gardener at Blackberry Farm, a luxury farm-to-table resort in Tennessee, John Coykendall has been working to preserve seeds, stories, and small farming culture for more than four decades. His passion for seed saving was inspired by finding a copy of a 1913 seed catalogue at 16 years old, leading to a 31-year quest to locate the Tennessee Sweet Potato pumpkin. Now, Coykendall finds and saves rare varieties of crops that once grew in the region, handing them back to the communities they came from. Since 1973, he has travelled to Louisiana each year to record the oral histories and growing techniques, recipes, and stories of local farmers and gardeners, compiling more than 80 carefully illustrated journals.
10. LoganBerry Heritage Farm, Cleveland, Georgia
A 60-acre organically raised, pastured, soy-free, hormone and chemical-free, grass-fed beef farm, LoganBerry Heritage Farm is also a certified Pollinator Sanctuary specializing in preserving Appalachian Heritage Farmland. The farm was established in the early 1800s and is now run by Sharon Turner Mauney, a fifth-generation family farmer who takes a holistic approach to management and production. Mauney and her team focus on environment, ecosystems, and natural resources as well as history, social responsibilities, economic viability, and quality of life for farmers. They save seeds primarily from their Southern Appalachian heritage that have been handed down for generations.
11. Oak Spring Garden Foundation Biocultural Conservation Farm, Upperville, Virginia
“There are about 420,000 species of plants in the world, and they all deserve our attention,” Sir Peter Crane tells Food Tank, “especially the plants that people rely on for food.” A renowned botanical researcher and evolutionary plant scientist, Crane is President of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (OSGF), which works to inspire and facilitate scholarship and public dialogue on the history and future of plants. OSGF recently launched a Biocultural Conservation Farm to cultivate heirloom vegetables and fruits and conserve them as living plants and/or seed. Located on 700 acres of land in the foothills of Appalachia, the Foundation also hosts visiting scholars, writers, artists, and interns from programs like the New York Botanical Garden.
12. Shagbark Seed & Mill, Athens, Ohio
Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger believe local staple seed crop systems are key to food and farm security. After founding the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative to build a field-to-table model for regional scale, they co-founded Shagbark Seed & Mill in 2010, offering Ohio-grown, certified organic dry beans and freshly milled grains. Milling to order every week for products like spelt pasta, tortilla chips, and cornbread crackers, they also work with local food banks, pantries, and school and community food access programs to help ensure good, healthy food is available to all.
13. Sow True Seed, Asheville, North Carolina
The Sow True Seed collection consists of more than 500 varieties of vegetable, herb, and flower seeds including heirloom, organic, and small-farmer grown varieties. Created by food activist Carol Koury in 2008, Sow True Seed aims to preserve shared botanical heritage and support independent, regional agricultural initiatives that foster sustainable economies and food sovereignty. The organization also works with partners like Bee City USA to raise awareness about the importance of pollinators. They support school gardens through their Seed Money Fundraising Program and work with youth groups to offer educational programs, as well.
14. Sunflower Sundries, Mount Olivet, Kentucky
“[Corn] is a crop that makes people survive, and it’s a survivor itself,” Jennifer Gleason tells Food Tank. “I could sit here for hours and talk about corn.” At her diversified organic farm Sunflower Sundries, Gleason and business partner Janet Blevins hand-mill Hickory King corn crop to produce heirloom cornmeal, grits, hominy, and chips. Growing a wide variety of crops like rhubarb, asparagus, gooseberries, okra, garlic, horseradish, and herbs, the business strives to promote seasonal eating and a strong local economy with high-quality, hand-made finished products. They also use regenerative farming methods like cover crops, crop rotation, habitat biodiversity, composting, seed saving, low tillage, and mulching to build soil health.
15. Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Livingston, Kentucky
The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, run by father-and-son team Bill and Michael Best, educates people on collecting, saving, and growing heirloom seeds. Seeing that the number of economically viable farms in southern Appalachia is decreasing, the Center aims to demonstrate that there are viable off-farm jobs for farmers to diversify. The Center also trains young people in collecting and developing heirloom varieties and helps make Appalachian counties more self-sufficient by working with farmers’ markets to offer heirloom varieties. Having saved seeds from several hundred heirloom varieties himself, Bill has travelled throughout the region documenting the history of particular seed varieties—many of which are published in his most recent book, Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving.
16. The Shack, Staunton, Virginia
“I don’t want to shove anything down anyone’s throat but food,” Chef Ian Boden tells Food Tank. And his restaurant The Shack reflects this: a no-frills, community-first establishment inspired by Boden’s wife’s grandmother, Tizzy, who cooked Appalachian and Southern dishes for her family from her own shack. Boden’s dishes—like pork schmaltz and pickled vegetables grown 10 minutes down the road—draw parallels between the cuisine and cultural values of his Eastern European Jewish heritage and mountain roots. Boden’s Shack Sauces, using sorghum from Muddy Pond in Monterey, Tennessee, and southern chilli mash, has attracted media attention across the U.S.
17. The Utopian Seed Project, Asheville, North Carolina
A newly created nonprofit organization, The Utopian Seed Project trials crops and varieties in the Southeast to support diversity in food and farming. The organizers’ vision is to create a network of growers, gardeners, farmers, foodies, and chefs to help educate on and celebrate crop diversity. Executive Director Chris Smith is an expert okra enthusiast—he’s grown about 125 varieties of okra in total, wrote The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration (2019), a book on the history, resiliency, productivity, and culinary diversity of okra, and feels that okra is important for food security in a changing climate.
18. The Wild Ramp, Huntington, West Virginia
This year-round nonprofit farmers’ market offers a variety of prepared foods made in-house with local ingredients, a rentable commercial kitchen, educational programs for producers and consumers, and community events like a Farm-to-Table Dinner series. There has been a “slow and steady embrace of diverse produce” in the Huntington, West Virginia, area according to Market Manager Kelsey Abad. “The farmers who survive are the farmers who diversify—not just in growing, but in selling,” Abad tells Food Tank. With a Mobile Market serving communities throughout the city and Snap Stretch program to make buying local food more accessible, Wild Ramp aims to create a self-sustaining market for food grown within Appalachia.
At the 13th Annual Heritage Harvest Festival hosted at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sampled dozens of heirloom tomato varieties. | Photo courtesy of LM Salazar and The Crop Trust
19. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia
Thomas Jefferson was a devoted gardener, experimenting with 99 species of vegetables and 330 varieties over 60 years. He was also one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes. Now, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants works to promote a greater appreciation for the origin and evolution of garden plants by collecting, preserving, and distributing native varieties in the region. Food Tank attended the 13th Annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Jefferson’s Monticello, an event that both celebrated Jefferson’s agricultural legacy and the contributions to American cuisine made by his enslaved workers. To fulfil the organization’s commitment to agricultural stewardship, Alice Waters recently helped to make the café at Monticello into a true farm-to-table restaurant.
20. University of North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, Dahlonega, Georgia
Within what’s known as The Military College of Georgia, the University of North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center produces Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories, an annual demonstration garden for heirloom seeds and oral history collection. The garden is built to minimize water loss and replenish seed banks. Through interviews with seed donors about their traditions and the foodways of Southern Appalachia, the Center also seeks to preserve memories and cultural traditions. The Center’s Director and Lecturer in the College of Education, Roseann Kent, has been recognized for her work within the community to provide food-insecure children with packaged meals in collaboration with 4-H.
21. West Virginia State University, Institute, West Virginia
Plant breeder and Associate Research Professor Dr. Barbara Liedl became the first full-time research scientist at West Virginia State University (WVSU) in 2003. Now, her lab is developing insect and disease-resistant tomato varieties for greenhouse and high tunnel production. Her latest challenge is breeding Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) resistance into three well-known heirloom tomatoes: Cherokee Purple, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, and Brandywine. Liedl talked with Food Tank and The Crop Trust about the importance of flavour and how easy it is to lose it in breeding, the role of wild tomatoes, and the loss of diversity. “What we have in our seed banks is it. Some of the natural habitats where wild tomatoes used to grow have now been paved over and put up a parking lot,” Liedl explains.
22. West Virginia University’s Cider Apple Orchard, Morgantown, West Virginia
“Cider apples and making cider is a new and clearly developing market, and an alternative crop that growers can switch to,” West Virginia University (WVU) Assistant Professor of Horticulture Michael Gutensohn tells Food Tank. The WVU Appalachian Apple Initiative seed-orchard is home to 43 cider apple varieties, and most of them have been grown in West Virginia since the 1700s. Together, Gutensohn and Extension Specialist Mirjana Bulatovic-Danilovich are growing cider apples in the state’s five microclimates, evaluating what’s best suited for mass distribution and growing in West Virginia, specifically, from the environmental standpoint as well as cropping potential, fruit quality, and disease susceptibility. “Washington might have significantly more apples, but they don’t have the climate,” Gutensohn says. “We have a better-quality apple.”
The Crop Trust #CropsInColor campaign sheds light on the complexities, triumphs, and surprises of crop diversity in action. In Phase II (2018–2021), #CropsInColor takes a look at 10 crops, exploring how each in its own way has become a staple in our kitchens, markets, and favourite restaurants, no matter where we live. The campaign highlights the important role that crop diversity plays in our daily lives and the need to safeguard this precious, global common good.
The Crop Trust #CropsInColor campaign is sponsored by Corteva with additional funding provided by the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. Food Tank is the media partner.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)