2021 Folklife Apprenticeship Feature: Mehmet Oztan and Lafayette Dexter, Seed Saving and Related Storytelling

The West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program offers up to a $3,000 stipend to West Virginia master traditional artists or tradition bearers working with qualified apprentices on a year-long in-depth apprenticeship in their cultural expression or traditional art form. These apprenticeships aim to facilitate the transmission of techniques and artistry of the forms, as well as their histories and traditions.

Mehmet Oztan is the founder of the Morgantown Seed Preservation Library and owner of the Preston County-based heirloom seed company Two Seeds in a Pod, which focuses on preserving Turkish, West Virginia, and Appalachian heirloom seeds. He has been invited to speak about his work at local and national seed swaps. Lafayette Dexter facilitates a community garden project at New Roots Community Farm in Fayette County and plans to eventually include seed saving in his market garden educational programming.

MEHMET OZTAN – MASTER ARTIST

Born in Ankara, Turkey, Mehmet Öztan, Ph.D., is a Turkish seed keeper, farmer and public scholar who focuses on seed restoration and preservation work on his 6-acre farm located in Reedsville, West Virginia. After transitioning from his engineering career, Öztan gardened, farmed and grew seeds for eight years in Tampa, Florida, and moved to West Virginia in 2018 where he has been working on preservation and documentation of seeds of Turkey as well as the agrobiodiversity of West Virginia and the Appalachian Region.Öztan’s 6-acre seed restoration and preservation farm is located in Reedsville, West Virginia. The farm is an experimental learning and seed selection space and a gateway to exploring more than 50 food crops for their cultural significance, culinary uses, climate adaptability and significance related to food justice and food security. The farm also houses one of the largest independently-managed seed collections in Appalachia.

Morgantown Seed Preservation Library link: https://www.facebook.com/seedsofwestvirginia

Öztan is the co-owner of Two Seeds in a Pod, an Underrepresented Minoritized, family-owned, small seed company that specializes in seeds of Turkey. He holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Michigan State University, and he is currently a Service Assistant Professor in Eberly College of Arts & Sciences at West Virginia University where he works on topics related to advocacy of food and seed diversity, small-scale seed production, and racism and discrimination in seed industry. He has been invited to speak about his work at local, regional and national events.

Öztan also initiated Seedy Talks (https://seedkeepers.faculty.wvu.edu/seedy-talks) in 2019, a speaker series and community engagement event that focuses on topics related to environmental and food justice, seed sovereignty, story-telling, and food and farm traditions of Underrepresented Minoritized Communities.

ART FORM / TRADITION

Seeds don’t only have critical importance for maintaining food diversity and security in a changing climate but they also represent the diversity of humans who steward them. Seed stewardship is a form of art and self-sustenance tradition which is passed down generations, oftentimes through oral histories. These oral histories reflect the stewards’ racial, ethnic and cultural background, social and economic status, ancestral farm traditions as well as those stewards’ relations with land and nature.

I am a seed keeper, and in addition to saving seeds from plants, I keep the cultural and traditional backgrounds of seeds, as well as seed stories, when available, with me. Through my teachings, I pass the knowledge and experiences involved with my seed keeping activities to other growers, farmers and food practitioners. These knowledge and experiences directly speak to my practice of ethical seed stewardship and the ways in which I try to understand the significance of place and context in this practice.

Technical aspects of seed keeping involve planting, growing, harvesting, processing and cleaning seeds and exploring the ways traditional crops are used in their respective kitchens to better connect with these crops.

ARTIST STATEMENT

I am the only seed company owner in the U.S. who I know of was born and raised in a foreign country, and who came to the U.S. in his late 20’s. I am also the only foreigner that I know of who lives in our rural neighborhood in Reedsville, WV. Although I am white, I was born and raised in Turkey. Coming from a very different cultural and religious background into a rural community in West Virginia has been a life-changing yet very rewarding experience for me.

Growing up in a big city in Turkey, I never had access to a garden but I had access to fresh vegetables, grown from traditional seeds, offered in grocery stores. In addition, my father and uncle were a forestry professor/landscape architect and an agriculture professor/landscape architect, respectively. I grew up hearing stories about plants at dinner table and other occasions.

As soon as I arrived in the United States, my search for those fresh vegetables began since I knew that food would be able to connect me to my culture and people. As I was finishing graduate school remotely, I discovered the power of seeds and their potential to connect me to my homeland when I started gardening in our home’s backyard in Tampa, FL. Soon after, I co-founded our seed company with my partner. I now have over a decade of experience in seed keeping and growing open-pollinated seeds in the subtropical climate of Tampa, FL, and humid continental climate of Reedsville, WV. 

I see my seed keeping work as a lifelong journey of connecting with my own people and people of other cultures. I spread the love of seeds through workshops, public field tours and apprenticeships such as this one while I manage and preserve a culturally important and appropriate seed collection of more than one thousand seed varieties.

Mehmet Oztan Photo Credit: Mike Costello, Lost Creek Farms

LAFAYETTE DEXTER – APPRENTICE

Lafayette (Skye) Dexter is currently serving as a food-access AmeriCorps member at New Roots Community Farm – where he has been employed in different capacities since April 2019. He grew up in Fayette County, and leverages his knowledge base of the local communities to perform jobs such as managing a local community garden program, contributing participation with farmers markets in Fayetteville, chairing the Gateway Farmers Market in Smithers, and assisting Sprouting Farms and the KEYS for Healthy Kids groups by facilitating kids markets and the FARMacy program. 

Lafayette has also worked with Mehmet to research seed saving for two growing seasons now, and hopes to eventually spearhead a local seed saving program which could build an additional sustainable revenue stream for New Roots. 

ART FORM / TRADITION

An heirloom plant can teach us so much about its original era, physical environment, and cultural benefactors. Saving seeds requires a grower to maintain a crop for its whole season until the fruit/vegetables dry up or reach peak ripeness. This process looks different for different crops. They need to be provided an environment similar to the one they have always grown the best in. Some flowers must be hand-pollinated to avoid cross-pollination, resulting in interbreeding, therefore ruining the exact preservation of a variety.

It is proper to select only the best looking fruits/vegetables for seed saving because their health will lend itself to future varietal generations. This is what great entrepreneurs do: capture the best essential quality of a thing in order to replicate it. So did your great great great great grandparents (or their other farmer relatives) when they were preserving their culture by saving seeds for the perpetuation of their personal stock of survival crops. Sometimes there are situations where a seed supply is endangered, and the best choice may be to save seed from the whole crop.

Reasons for saving seeds in the modern world vary as many times as there are individual seed farmers/gardeners, and I believe now that most seed savers have more than one reason for doing what they do. Maybe you select a seed because it is well-known, loved, and trusted by your local community (e.g. Logan Giant beans or Sutton Family tomatoes in WV). A farmer might choose to save a variety for its consistency, pest resistance or appearance/flavor. I found a bean from Bolivia at a seed swap in Morgantown and put it in my personal production plan for 2022 for a friend who was adopted from there as an infant. I am currently seeking old heirloom seeds from Scotland and Germanic Europe as a means of education/exploring my own heritage from some generations back.

ARTIST STATEMENT

When I entered into this apprenticeship, I expected to dig deeper into a sector of agriculture that I knew would help me understand more about the sciences behind growing crops. Even more specifically, I knew that it would provide me with a structured educational experience to choose new foods to cook with – which was very attractive to me because cooking and sharing food is a whole separate art form that is integral in my life.

Clearly I gained more than I bargained for, because I am tracing my history and the histories of my loved ones and colleagues through the singular experience of growing and saving seeds. I’m learning about food sovereignty across cultures, past events that left groups of people with bits of their culture erased, and other reasons why it is important for this experience to be accessible to anyone. I’ve learned that these old varieties made us who we are today, and provided framework for ecological diversity in the regions they came from. So when you cultivate an heirloom plant, you help it grow into something that may be frozen in time, but it is also very much alive!

Lafayette Dexter holding fruits of a traditional squash variety (Kars Egg) from Kars, Turkey.

The apprenticeship program grants are administered by the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston and are supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. West Virginia Folklife is dedicated to the documentation, preservation, presentation, and support of West Virginia’s vibrant cultural heritage and living traditions.

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