Home Precision Agriculture An Ode to Heirloom Okra

An Ode to Heirloom Okra


Earlier this 12 months, Chris Smith planted greater than 100 forms of okra on the farm he manages simply exterior of Asheville, North Carolina. As the manager director of the Utopian Seed Challenge, a nonprofit that goals to function a regional seed hub, he celebrates the variety of crops resembling collard greens, candy potatoes and southern peas. However his ongoing okra trial, he says, is particularly thrilling.

Creator of the James Beard Award-winning e book The Entire Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, Smith didn’t precisely set out to develop into the “Okra Guy.” “I’m from England, and grew up not knowing what okra was,” he says. However after transferring to North Carolina, the place he and his spouse acquired an okra plant as a marriage present, the British ex-pat started to develop a fascination with the plant and its edible pods. 

Originating in West Africa, okra was introduced by enslaved Africans to the American South, the place they cultivated it for themselves. It’s a staple ingredient in lots of southern dishes, together with gumbo, the flagship dish of New Orleans.

Smith hopes to see the cultivation of okra—a drought-tolerant plant with lovely blooms that resemble hibiscus flowers—attain different components of the nation. “When I planted my first American vegetable garden, I noticed everything was dying from blight or fungus,” says Smith. “Everything apart from okra, that is.”

Chris Smith exhibits off his okra. Photograph by Shelby Vittek.

Smith planted his first okra trial with 76 completely different varieties in 2018 as a part of the analysis for his e book. This 12 months’s trial expands on that, with heirloom okra varieties grown from seed, sourced from the Seed Savers Trade or the USDA’s expansive seed assortment. In a area on Franny’s Farm, a preferred agritourism vacation spot, Smith has a number of rows planted with 100 completely different varieties that produce okra of all colours—inexperienced, crimson, purple and even white. 

As soon as the okra is ripe, Smith picks the pods after which evaluates their form, coloring and taste. Smith additionally notes the scale of the crops’ leaves, of which he believes we must be consuming extra. “Why is there a market for okra but not for leaves?” he says. “We should be trying to popularize these things…and creating more potential for farmers.”

As well as to the massive okra trial, Smith has honed in on one particular selection known as the Whidby White, a pale, stubby okra pod with deep ridges whose seeds had been donated to the Seed Savers Trade within the Nineteen Eighties by Vera Jarrard of Oakwood, Georgia. Little or no was identified in regards to the selection then. In reality, the seeds had been initially recorded as “Whitley White,” however after Smith delved into the historical past of the heirloom seeds, he realized the household’s title was Whidby, not Whitley, therefore the title replace.

Chris Smith is specializing in selection known as the Whidby White. Photograph by Chris Smith.

When Smith began rising the Whidby White okra, he seen the crops had been inconsistent when it got here to their measurement, in addition to the colour and high quality of the pods—doubtless the results of cross-pollination with different varieties. In an effort to receive wholesome, true-to-variety Whidby White okra seeds, Smith launched a group seed choice mission this 12 months. 

Made up of greater than 250 growers throughout the nation, the individuals have been rising out their seeds and evaluating the expertise on the Neighborhood Seed Savers Challenge group on Fb. Members from South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania and past recurrently submit pictures of their crops and the pods towards a colour chart, asking questions and providing suggestions. “I’ve been teaching seed saving for 10 years and people have never been so invested,” says Smith. “They’re all now actively participating in seed selection.”

Kristina Guidroz is a type of lively individuals. She and her household have grown okra for years on their city homestead in Galliano, Louisiana. Earlier this 12 months, she realized in regards to the Utopian Seed Challenge’s distinctive Whidby White okra mission. “We are always interested in unusual and heirloom varieties of plants,” she says. “Okra is a favorite to grow for us and we’re big on seed saving and the idea of bringing back an older variety was an interesting project.”

Guidroz’s Whidby White okra crops just lately bloomed, and she or he now awaits the pods, whose colours she’ll doc and seeds she’ll save to return to Smith, who patiently awaits their arrival. “We’re hunting for the palest pod,” says the okra fanatic. “That’s the mission.”


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