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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
Saving seed for the next crop
roger branch

The constant quest for agrarian security includes finding seeds that produce the most desirable and abundant yields of food and fiber. Through most of the countless centuries of human involvement with farming, saving some of the seed from the best producers was part of this survival process.

Contemporary farmers buy seed from providers that specialize in plant products developed through study and experimentation, but this is a new path to success. Some people still save seed for some things, an “in control” holdover from the past.

Until the middle of the 20th century, many South Georgia farmers continued to grow corn from saved seed. It was white corn, relative hard in dentition, just right to be ground into grits or cornmeal at a local mill. Grits and cornbread were indeed the staff of life. They knew of the hybrid yellow corn grown in the Midwest, knew that it produced far more grain than their white corn; knew that hogs and cows would eat it readily. But it did not make good grits and cornbread.

I do not know where my father got his strain of white corn, which he called the "Cooper Corn." In late winter, before planting time and before corn weevils invaded, he selected a batch of the most nearly perfect ears of corn for seed. After removing the misshaped kernels at the end of each cob, he “shelled” the corn by hand to avoid any damage that the hand-turned mechanical sheller might inflict.

In the mid-50s he changed to a yellow corn, a prolific producer called Dixie-18, a hybrid suited to Southern climate and soils. One reason is obvious, higher yield, thus more profit. Another was the availability of white grits and meal at grocery stores as commercial mills emerged to meet the demand. Third was the emergence of a cash economy based on greater profits from farming, the coming of industry to rural regions and greater ease in obtaining credit. So, Mother bought grits and cornmeal at the grocery store and Daddy bought Dixie-18 seed for animals and garden corn seed for people at the feed and seed store.

In earlier times, people saved garden seed, allowing peas, beans, etc., to mature and dry on the stalk before harvesting and storing until next planting time. My family only saved the seed of a vigorous strain of okra that came from great-grandmother Marietta “Mettie” Collins. It was prolific and continued to bear pods until killed by frost. 

Unfortunately, its pods were covered by soft, fuzzy spines that made hands and other unprotected skin itch seriously. Eventually it was abandoned for Clemson spineless, which became standard stock in seed stores.

For many years, my father planted velvet beans, another irritating crop, this one only for animal consumption. These are hard beans the size of large English peas, growing in a tough, velvety shell. That covering is highly irritating to exposed skin, but does not seem to bother the tough tongues of cows, which devour shells, beans and vines. He planted the beans at “lay-by” — which is the final cultivation of a crop — scattering the beans by hand among growing corn plants. 

The beans mostly grew after the corn had matured. Protected by long sleeves and gloves, he gathered some of the dried bean pods for seed before “turning the cows in the field.” On a windy day the next March, he spread them on a sheet and flailed the beans out of the pods, standing up wind and thoroughly covered by clothing, hat and gloves.

Most people who grew sugar cane for syrup saved some for seed. When cane was harvested to make syrup, some was cut down, encased in a bed of dried fronds from the cane and covered with soil. A well-drained location was crucial. Some cut the cane high enough to leave “eyes” on the stubble and plowed mounds of soil atop the stubble, from which new cane would emerge in the spring. 

My father greatly favored “ribbon cane,” marked by alternating stripes of red and yellow/green, because it had much higher content than any other. Although shorter, it yielded more syrup. Until he stopped making syrup, he carefully maintained his ribbon-striped seed cane.

Gourds, hard-skinned and hollow cousins of pumpkins and squash, were valued tools for country folk. When mature and thoroughly dried, they were used as storage vessels, but more often were carved into dippers of various sizes from pint to gallon. Less fragile than glass and cheaper than metal, they were easy to grow and keep. 

If allowed to stay wet for very long, they decayed but otherwise held up well. Seed are safe inside the gourd until it is carved for use. 

Besides, their bitter taste turns off most invaders anyway. Plastic, though harmful to the environment, is versatile and tough in ways beyond the natural constraints of gourds. And no seed saving is necessary.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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