Serving Up West Virginia History, Not All of It Sweet

Serving Up West Virginia History, Not All of It Sweet

In the bright open kitchen at Lost Creek Farm, jars of seeds line one wall, each labeled in capital letters, a tapestry of state lineage. Coal Camp beans are brown and smooth, like river pebbles. Bloody Butcher corn is burgundy, kernels crammed against the glass. Bernice Morrison’s Old-Time Lima Beans are big and white, with a spray of ebony.

When the tomatoes came in at the end of the summer, Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson sorted them into bowls, each labeled with the names of the seed savers who shared them. Next spring, they will plant those seeds, and next fall, they will share the vegetables at dinners, telling about the Italian immigrants who stewarded the plants for generations.

“They’re living monuments, those seeds,” Mr. Costello said. “They’re like dialects of a language.”

Four big companies — Bayer, which owns Monsanto; Corteva, which owns DuPont and Dow Chemical; ChemChina; and BASF — control more than 60 percent of the global market for seeds.

“As much as our food system is broken, our seed system is also broken,” said Mehmet Oztan, who co-owns a small seed company in West Virginia and started a seed preservation library. “The protection of these seeds basically means the protection of present food sources and future food sources.”

Farmers who buy the corporate seeds are prohibited by patent law from replanting them. Even if they did, they would have an unreliable crop, as hybrid seeds are usually good for only one growth cycle.

“You can’t save a hybrid seed,” said Lou Maiuri, 91, a local seed saver. “It’s kind of like trying to breed a mule.” His centuries-old Fat Horse beans were served in a main course. He got them from a friend’s aunt in 1960s.

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