Reap What We Sow

by Elizabeth Rose

The Acadiana Seed Bank is helping preserve a vital aspect of South Louisiana heritage.

The Acadiana Seed Bank is helping preserve a vital aspect of South Louisiana heritage. By Elizabeth Rose

November 2012

Louis Michot

When Cajun culture comes to mind, music, language and - perhaps most vividly - food also come to mind.

Louis Michot, who has conquered all three, was traveling through Lydia when he stopped at a home that was selling homegrown vegetable seedlings for 25 cents. The woman selling them said the seeds were heirlooms and had been in her family for multiple generations. For Michot, that was enough to spark an interest in learning about the importance of heirloom seeds - and was the inspiration for the Acadiana Seed Bank.

"It's a very important piece of South Louisiana culture that hasn't gotten the same attention as, you know, music, language or cooking," says Michot. "It's a simple operation. We saw a need for something that wasn't there."

Michot says ASB's primary goal is to retrieve samples of local, preferably heirloom, seeds to preserve for future generations. Michot has done all of the collecting, which began with a collection of seeds from Opelousas and has grown to include more than 50 varieties of mostly vegetables and some herbs. As of now, it is a small operation with a total of 15 people involved, including Michot, the ASB board, seed growers and a seed tech. Michot says seed diversity has diminished worldwide, and when communities rely too much on one variety of a plant, it is "inviting disaster."

"Diversity is nature's way of staying prolific," says Michot. "Plants evolve with the ecosystem - they're more disease- and drought-resistant, better able to deal with environmental factors and need less input."

After beginning the collection three years ago, ASB was able to begin growing this year, starting with three varieties in order to multiply the seeds. The seeds sleep in a freezer to stay dormant, and then they are dehydrated, weighed and split into four portions. The first portion is saved for the long-term, the second is sent to the Chicago Botanical Gardens for backup, the third is saved for the short-term and the fourth is dispersed immediately to seed growers. This year, it was longhorn okra, purple striped pole beans - les haricots barré violet - and Mamou, used in one of the most common home remedies in Acadiana. The red, hard seeds are brewed into tea in odd numbers to alleviate cold and cough symptoms; the root is used to make syrup with peppermint and sugar and has the same active ingredient as Robitussin.

Whitney Broussard, Ph.D., a research scientist with UL Lafayette's Institute for Coastal Ecology and Engineering, is on the ASB board and studied with Michot in college. "We've always connected through our passion for growing food as a means to care for the land," Broussard says. "When Louis came to me with this idea of preserving seeds as a means to not only preserve our agricultural heritage but also our cultural heritage, I was immediately on board."

Broussard's work centers around compiling the information Michot gathers from interviews and seeds and organizing it into Le Recolte, the second half of the ASB's mission. Le Recolte will be a compilation of seed DNA along with farming techniques that prove most effective for each plant variety researchers and everyday gardeners will be able to access. Eventually, Michot says ASB wants to produce enough seeds so everyday gardeners can grow these heirloom varieties at home.

"Really, the most important deadline for us is to get this information and these seeds from those old Cajun farmers who are passing away every day," says Broussard. "We need to do this now because every day that goes by, another farmer passes with the information on how to work the land, to preserve seed, what types and varieties of plants to grow. There are hundreds of tomatoes, [but] which one is best for your particular region? There are many different ways to process okra. What is the right way for the dish you're going to prepare? There are many ways to plow the land, [but] how should you turn over the soil for your particular crop for your particular region? That is gained solely through experience."

"We want to take local food and make it even more local with local seeds," says Michot. The ASB, which Michot says is basically a freezer, now has varieties of parsley, peppers, okra, pumpkins, beans and medicinals. Though the process is slow, Michot is determined to keep the unique Louisiana varieties blooming. The younger generations don't see the need as much as older generations. Nobody will have the rich resources. We're trying to get as many of these resources as we can."

"We're not only preserving seed, but we're preserving culture," says Broussard. "One of the things that's important is that you cannot replace DNA. You can't create it out of nothing. Since the beginning of time, seed has been one of the most valuable commodities on the planet because it's irreplaceable. Every region, every farm can potentially have a unique combination of DNA that makes that plant variety particularly well adapted to that specific region. That's why these seeds are so important, and that's why heirlooms that have evolved or been bred in a particular region are so important."