Meet the Modern Farmer Saving Turkey’s Heirloom Seeds

When Mehmet Öztan moved to the US in 2006, he by no means imagined he’d sooner or later change into a seed farmer in West Virginia or that he would change into the caretaker of considered one of the largest collections of Turkish seeds in the nation.

Öztan initially got here to the United States to pursue a PhD in civil engineering at Michigan State University. “I didn’t have a garden and certainly didn’t do much cooking in those first few years,” says Öztan. 

In truth, the first meal he ate in America was a fast-food cheeseburger, and ordering pizza from a nationwide chain restaurant rapidly turned a weekly custom for Öztan and his fellow college students. “It wasn’t good. It was very, very bad,” he says.

Growing up in Turkey, Öztan’s mom had at all times ready conventional meals utilizing contemporary native substances. It didn’t take lengthy earlier than he began to overlook the flavors of dwelling. Öztan would telephone dwelling usually, and on these calls, his mom would share her recipes with him, strolling him by way of the preparation of meals equivalent to crimson lentil soup and kısır, a Turkish bulgur salad. Even with the recipe in hand, he had problem reproducing the meals of his youth. The biggest problem, he says, was discovering the correct substances at the grocery retailer. 

Manisa Cizgili eggplant, initially from Manisa of western Turkey. Photo courtesy of Two Seeds in a Pod.

The produce choice at the common American grocery retailer is proscribed, and it definitely didn’t have the identical kinds of produce that Öztan was used to from dwelling. “In Turkey, the average market is similar to what Americans would consider a high-end grocery, with many choices and varieties of fruits and vegetables available,” he says. For instance, in Turkey, shops provide a wide array of various eggplants, a culturally important crop, every suited to its personal specific preparation. But in the US, buyers will usually solely discover one number of eggplant accessible—the typical massive purple fruit thought of by many to be nothing greater than a bland and tasteless blob. 

If Öztan was going to arrange the meals of his childhood, he was going to wish to discover a supply of conventional Turkish substances. And he rapidly discovered that if he wished to have entry to those vegetables and fruit, he was going to wish to develop them himself.

But first, he was going to wish to trace down seeds for the conventional crops of his homeland, which have been virtually unavailable in the US. 

The identical 12 months that Öztan moved to the US, in 2006, Turkey handed a legislation that forbade the sale of “unregulated seeds,” which was already impacting the variety of seed accessible all through the nation. National and worldwide hybrid seed firms leveraged these new legal guidelines to push the outdated varieties out of economic seed catalogs and farm manufacturing in favor of their very own. These new laws required farmers to develop solely government-certified seeds for farmers’ markets and grocery shops. Because of this, the Turkish seed market has change into closely dependent upon hybrid seeds, and oftentimes imported hybrid seeds. 

Growing and saving these conventional varieties, Öztan realized, would accomplish way more than simply filling his personal private want for them. It would assist protect these crops and the cultural values of Turkey, dwelling to the identical land the place the first domestication of wheat occurred in Anatolia, in addition to a few of the oldest recognized cultivation of many crops we nonetheless develop at the moment, together with eggplant. By saving these seeds, Öztan can be working to protect the very roots of agriculture.

Tatil Kil pepper, greatest for contemporary consuming and pickling. Photo courtesy of Two Seeds in a Pod.

In 2010, Öztan and his soon-to-be spouse and enterprise accomplice, Amy Thompson, moved to Tampa, Florida, and his seek for the conventional seeds of Turkey started. As many farmers and seed stewards had carried out earlier than, he began connecting with different seed savers and attending seed swaps. He pined for seeds in business catalogs and the USDA germplasm repository. He contacted the Seed Savers Exchange and reached out to gardeners and farmers again in Turkey. 

A couple of years later, in 2013, the couple launched Two Seeds in a Pod, an heirloom seed firm that focuses on seeds that originated, have been bred, stewarded and handed down throughout many generations in Anatolia. They wished to not solely protect the conventional seeds of Turkey but additionally to share them with anybody that could be . 

It didn’t take lengthy for them to outgrow their area, and simply six years later, they moved their operation to Reedsville, West Virginia, the place they settled on a six-acre seed preservation and analysis farm. Since their founding, Two Seeds in a Pod have launched greater than 100 Turkish kinds of beans, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, wheat and extra to the US market, though these are only a small fraction of the varieties Öztan is working to protect. 

Dayko’s Kapsiz, a squash extensively grown in northwest Turkey. Photo courtesy of Two Seeds in a Pod.

The firm’s web site features as a business platform for purchasers to buy seeds, nevertheless it additionally serves as an archival database for a whole bunch of crop varieties from Turkey. People can discover pictures, descriptions, rising methods and conventional makes use of for eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, melons and a mess of different crops. Öztan has even included phonetic pronunciation guides to assist English-speaking guests to the website study the correct solution to pronounce the varieties’ names. 

This cultural documentation is the cornerstone of Öztan’s work, and a part of his Anatolian Seeds Recovery and Preservation (ANATOHUM) Project. This initiative seeks to perform three predominant objectives: first, to create a web-based seed database for the seeds of Turkey; testing the seeds’ efficiency in numerous rising circumstances and hardiness zones; and, lastly, making seeds accessible to extra individuals to make sure that these varieties are saved for future generations.

What’s subsequent for the farmers? “This year we’ll be expanding our wheat selections,” Öztan says, “There are more than 250 traditional wheat varieties still grown in Turkey today and the documentation of this wheat is vitally important. And, of course, we’ll be growing many more eggplants.”

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