Making the 2015 Seed Swap
One Special Event
April 8, 2015 | By Joyce Pinson
The phone call was cryptic. I thought it was an elaborate prank by a competing big city journalist whose feathers I rankled a few weeks back. The voice on the other side had an unidentifiable accent, not Yankee, not Southern, sort of Midwestern twang with hints of California surfer dude. I, along with Cathy Rehmeyer,
Scrappy Barnes, Irvin Coleman, Cathy Friend, Nell Hunt, Suzanne Stumbo and visiting writer Vicky Tewes of Slow Food Cincinnati were stuffing hundreds of seed packets into goody bags for the third annual Appalachian Seed Swap. It was down to the final hours before the event. The stress level was high. There was no time for hijinks.
“I am checking in at the Hampton right now” the voice said. “You all have hit the national news. I had to be here.” I sighed, wondering just how far the joke would go. Then there was a series of rapid fire questions; exactly the kind of queries that a seasoned reporter would spew. I asked repeatedly “Who is this?” All the time my mind plotting revenge.
Finally the voice answered my question. “It is Joseph Simcox.”
“Yeah, right,” was my reply. The voice questioned on. I remained polite, but impatient. My mind was searching for a way to zing this joker back. I mouthed to Cathy, “He says he is Joseph Simcox.” The statement captured her fancy for a moment, then she went back measuring out a cup full of heirloom bean seeds. She was not biting either.
The voice sensed my disbelief. “No, really,” the voice said emphatically. “It is Joseph Simcox. I brought some of my seed collection to trade for the seed swap.”
Reality set in. This was no prank. Internationally-known world food plant ecologist, ethnobotanist, culinary botanist, and food security advocate known as “The Botanical Explorer,” had found his way to Pikeville, Kentucky. I gave him the event particulars and hung up the phone. I sat very still, quietly letting it soak in.
Around me, the group was frantically shoving seeds in bags, many from Baker Creek Seeds where a selection of Joseph’s “discoveries” are retailed. I am never silent. The group took notice.
“Who was that? You sure talked a long time,” was a gentle dig from Vicky Tewes. I knew she needed me to get back to the task at hand.
“Y’all, that was Joseph Simcox,” I replied in as nonchalant a response as I could deadpan. What I really wanted was to do cartwheels across the conference room. The frantic activity of filling information packs stopped. I heard someone gasp. All movement halted. We stood in collective awe. Morning could not come soon enough.
When “The Botanical Explorer” rolled up at Pike Central High School we were star struck. He loaded a cart and confidently strolled across the cafeteria taking his place among the vendors. Let me be frank. Joseph stood out like a sore thumb. He is tall, his hair is spikey and wild. He wears a signature floral shirt—the kind my grandma would call “loud.” But the moment he opened his mouth, I could just tell this was a man with a heart for food heritage and for people seeking to reclaim it. Perhaps Irvin Coleman said it best, “Joseph Simcox is the kind of guy who can go up and down the ladder with his outgoing and friendly personality.”
Waving his long arms around the room which was rapidly filling up, Simcox said to me. “Do you understand this is the future? Do you understand that places like Appalachia are where the real action is?”
I tell you my heart skipped a beat. I smiled. “Brother, you are preaching to the choir.”
At his Explorer table, of mysterious offerings. Colorful corn from Peru, Hawaiian lima beans, Kutaisi Princess Beans, Speckled Armenian beans, and all kinds of wonders from the four corners of the world were on display; many shared with the event’s organizers and participants.
“What is this?” someone would ask as Joseph shoved a seed packet and business card in their hand. “Grow it out. Take a picture of it and e-mail me. Then I will tell you,” he laughed, his studious, steely eyes studying the crowd that topped 300. Across the room, Appalachian heirloom seed patriarch Bill Best parceled out greasy beans and shared stories of his quest to “preserve taste” which is explained in his latest book. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture passed out literature on the “Appalachian Proud” branding program. Sidney Ratliff, formerly of Elkhorn City, was peddling beans and plants from Mozybeau Farms.
Simcox was impressed. He gave high praise to the Pike County Extension Service that sponsored the event. He wondered out loud why more Extension offices did not offer seed swaps. “Every community should have them,” Simcox said emphatically. I shook my head in wonder as I watched participants interact with “The Botanical Explorer.” Yes, he is different. Yes, his vision is a little over the top of my big red hat comprehension. But, that does not matter.
At the end of the day, what mattered was that Joe Simcox, an internationally known and respected authority on heirloom seeds, came to the Eastern Kentucky coalfields and told our people that their agricultural heritage was important. He lifted us up.
Even folks in the choir like Cathy Rehmeyer, Neil Hunt, Charlie Pinson, Irvin Coleman and Suzanne Stumbo, walked with a little more spring in our steps. When the event concluded, Simcox disappeared as quickly and unexpectedly as he appeared. He was off on another adventure.
Next year, Joseph Simcox the extraordinary world traveler, collector of rare seeds, and troubadour of food security and culinary heritage will be back. I hope those of you that were blessed enough to get some of the seeds he shared can live up to your promise to grow them out, pass them on, and return a packet or two to “The Botanical Explorer” so he can continue to share what he calls “seeds of the future.”
Y’all, the seeds of change are being sown. Get out in the garden and grow vegetables. Your belly will thank you; and your kids will too.
Learn more about Joseph Simcox at explorewithjoseph.com.