Sarah Ross, executive director of the University of Georgia Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe Historic Site and founder of Social Roots, on why heirloom seeds just might save the world
On a bright Sunday in late March, I meander through a veritable who’s who of growers and shakers: farmers, chefs, foodies, food purveyors, ecologists and food historians at the University of Georgia’s Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe Historic Site. What looks a lot like a waterfront party beneath our coast’s ubiquitous live oak canopy is more like a workshop in the value of local and heirloom food — especially seeds.
Guests today share Ossabaw pigs, local clams, wasabi arugula, mushrooms, cheese, bread, croquettes, a tasting station with 30 varieties of collards from an adjacent test garden and Bloody Marys made from the pork drippings, fresh celery from the test garden and a host of other ingredients from Sapelo Island purple ribbon sugarcane to ghost chili peppers and star anise.
The star of this party is Sarah Ross — executive director of the University of Georgia Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe Historic Site, president of Wormsloe Foundation, executuve director of Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History and founder of Social Roots — though she’d be first to say that seeds are the stars of the party, and she’s just getting them into the right hands.
Ross is not, in fact, in the business of seed sharing for personal gain. “I have a job, so I don’t need to make money doing this,” she reminds me. As a matter of fact, she wants to see other heirloom seed businesses thrive. That’s what variety is all about. Ross tells me that the mission of Social Roots can be boiled down to one sentence: “Give everything away for free, forever.”
Specifically, she’s focused on growing between 450 and 500 heirloom varieties of vegetables — from collards and okra to fava beans that haven’t been cultivated on the Georgia coast for 180 years — in an effort to help reconnect Southern heritage, heirloom vegetables and local farming.
Ross is a rare mix of storyteller and keeper of an encyclopedic knowledge of coastal Georgia. She pivots from discussing disease resistance, growth rates, flavor profiles and diversity propagating to a story about a now-rare native plant called Apios americana, a type of legume that tastes, according to Ross, “like a cross between a toasted pecan and the most perfect French fry you’ve ever had.” In short, if you ever get the chance to sit down with Sarah Ross and hear what she has to say, take it.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, Ross grew up in Gainesville, Florida, where her father worked in pathology at the University of Florida. In the mid-seventies, she moved back to Georgia, settling on Savannah after driving all over the Southeast looking for a place to live. At 19, Ross opened a quickly successful frame shop and art gallery and put herself through two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree in science education at what was then Armstrong Atlantic State University. “The next thing I knew,” she jokes, “they were like, ‘You have to stop coming back; you’ve already graduated three times!’”
She’s been growing vegetables on the coastal plain for 45 years, all the while directing education programs that center around coastal environments — first as the national education coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuary Program and later as the director of education for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Now, as the director of research and education at UGA’s Wormsloe campus, Ross takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying the coast, coordinating with UGA’s ecology, environmental engineering, geography, hydrogeology, forestry, landscape design, historic preservation and archaeology departments.
So why grow plants for seed in her spare time? According to Ross, the genetic diversity of plant species is not only a boon to our palates and our sense of history, but as big seed companies homogenize seed offerings, it’s important that these varieties remain in the hands of small farms and home gardeners so that choice always exists.
Ross believes that Southern cuisine is the single unique cuisine for the United States of America, and it’s one of the main reasons she wants a robust variety of plants to survive and thrive in the South. “I don’t know of any other place on the face of this earth with people coming from South America, Central America, the Southwest United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Central West Africa and Asia, all with these different cooking techniques, to amalgamate into a whole new cuisine.”
More and more, chefs around the country agree with her about local cuisine. For instance, Savannah chefs don’t want to replicate California cuisine or even use ingredients grown thousands of miles away to cook Southern staples. Ross hopes that her seed-sharing program, and others like it, will catalyze what she calls relational versus transactional interactions between chefs and farmers: humans talking to each other about what works best.
“We need to bring back our history and our heirlooms to make an impact on what chefs have to work with as a palette,” Ross explains. “It’s like giving a child a box of crayons and taking 60 of the 64 out and leaving them four colors to dabble with, and they don’t even know the other 60 are there.” Ross uses okra as an example. If, say, 50 chefs in Savannah each choose three okra out of 30 varieties, we will suddenly have a huge diversity of okra dishes to choose from between the flavor and hardiness of each okra variety, seasonality and each chef’s personality. “We can be serving foods to everyone from tourists to children who have grown up here that taste like what people were eating here a hundred years ago.”
Still, small family farms can’t grow all the varieties — in Ross’s estimation, farmers already work plenty hard, not to mention the dangers of cross-pollination when growing on finite acreage. That’s the added benefit of seed diversity: If each farm grows two or three varieties of a vegetable, suddenly there are more farms supplying more varieties of plants that particular chefs want.
Large seed companies aren’t doing this kind of research, and farmers need to grow for production, not seeds, so it takes people like Ross to do some leg work — and it’s a lot of leg work. From calculating distance and space for varietals, to building raised beds that make it easier for volunteers to reach plants (her husband’s doing), to enmeshing already fertilized plants to keep other pollinators out, to documenting and labeling each variety meticulously: this is a labor of pure love.
At a fundamental and global level, the question of how we’re going to feed our exploding populations with good nutrition tops the list of priorities for many researchers, and Ross is no exception. According to Ross, thirty-one percent of the effects of climate change are the result of industrial agriculture, which in turn affects pollination cycles — sometimes flowering plants and their pollinators completely miss each other. So, not only do we need hearty varieties of plants, we must adapt to real environmental upheaval to grow them.
Larger environmental questions aside, seed sharing is important on a community level as well. Ross gives away seeds to interested home growers — but she doesn’t take orders for specific seeds because Social Roots is not a business. Instead, she’s all about spreading the love with her seed cache by igniting people’s excitement for growing food. “If a child grows a tomato,” she poses, “he or she is much more interested in it than if you’ve bought it from the grocery store. And then parents are with kids outside digging in the dirt. There’s no downside! Everyone rises on the tide of this.”
When I leave Wormsloe in the heat of the afternoon, it’s with an armful of pea tendrils for my dinner salad — but I eat most of them on the drive home. Ross is right. When you know where your food comes from, well, it just tastes better.