Tuesday, April 13, 2010



I first heard about Bill Best when I spotted his seeds for sale on a counter at a small shop outside of Berea, Kentucky. They were in small clear bags with a label of both the name of the seeds and the words Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. I asked the clerk about the seed packets and he told me, "oh, those are Bill Best's seeds." Since I was unfamiliar with who Bill Best was I asked the shop manager about Bill Best and was told, "oh, he is a collector of heirloom seeds." I wrote down the center's name from the seed packets so I could search for it online.

My search found Bill Best's site titled the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. It contained information on books, articles, heirloom seeds and other agricultural information. A very worthwhile site to check out if you are interested in heirloom seeds.

I decided that I would like to know more about the man who collected all these seeds so I emailed him and we soon were setting up a date to meet at his center.

There is no roadside sign to indicate the center but I had good directions and had no trouble finding it. From the road one would not know of all the activities that go on at the place. It's located in a beautiful rural area in Madison County, Kentucky.

Bill had told me in his email that this is a busy time at the center and that he would be working until five so we made an early evening appointment.

When I arrived he immediately gave me a tour of his high tunnels (like high hoop houses) where he had tomatoes growing that were at least a foot high already. He uses soaker hoses to water them, keeping them in the tunnel during their entire growing period. He said he buys bumble bees for the tunnels to cross pollinate the plants. He then took me out to his blackberries and introduced me to his wife, Irmgard, who was weeding.

Unexpectedly some local young men showed up wishing to purchase some of Bill's heirloom seeds. The young men, Mark and Travis, told Bill how family members in years past had purchased seeds from him and now Mark was starting a garden of his own and wanted to use only heirloom seeds.

Soon Travis, Mark and I were sitting in Bill's living room (he lives on site) and Mark was thumbing through packets of seeds to purchase. All the while, Bill was answering question from all of us.
Here are some of the things we learned:
-He concentrates his heirloom collecting on beans and tomatoes from the Appalachian area.
-That the Appalachian area food crops, historically, have been mainly corn, beans, and tomatoes .
-Bill's mother influenced his love of heirloom seeds as she saved the old open pollinated seeds she used for her next years crop.
-That Bill has 450 varieties of heirloom beans, not all for sale.
- Farmers markets are where he sells his crop of tomatoes and beans. He also visits other farmers markets always on the lookout for heirloom seeds.
- He has collected many of the stories behind many of his seeds and has two books in the works on this subject.
-He does not buy commercial heirloom seeds, he only collects primary seeds from folks that grow them in the Appalachian area.
-That heirlooms are open pollinators.
-That beans have been grown in the Appalachian area for about 1000 years.
-That heirlooms are not used in large-scale agriculture.
-There is a growing trend in growing heirlooms.

Bill, at 74, has collected seeds most of his life. That is between teaching at Berea College for 40 years and doing a bit of cattle farming. He has lived at his present place for 37 years.

I decided to try out one of his bean seeds. I have a very small garden patch but I thought it would help the cause of perpetuating heirloom seeds as I planned to save some at harvest time. I could not believe the array of names on the beans --Doyce Chambers Greasey Cut Short, Lazy Wife Greasey, Goose Beans, Barnes Mountain Cornfield, Bertie Best and Big John are but a few. My choice was Goose Beans.

Bill believes that the local Appalachian farmers markets can be conduits for maintaining the region's seed diversity. Gardeners and farmers can perpetuate the circular system of growing and saving to assure that seed diversity of the region remains. If the industrial crops were to fail we would have the heirlooms to fall back on.

People like Bill are an assest to our agricultural world.


  1. Nice post! I would love to see gardens of heirloom seeds too. I have a small garden back home and plans to expand it as soon as I am done the landscaping. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    Heirloom Seeds

  2. nestor -- Thanks for the nice comment on heirloom seeds. Sounds like you have great plans for your small garden. -- barbara