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Breaking new ground with the Utopian Seed Project

The nonprofit is digging deep to support regional agrobiodiversity and crop resilience.

workers on the utopian seed project farm

The Project supports regional farmers with climate-adaptive crops and more diversity + resiliency on farms.

Photo via The Utopian Seed Project

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The Utopian Seed Project grew from okra. Okay, it’s not that simple, but okra is definitely a part of the nonprofit’s origin story.

Before founder Chris Smith launched the Project, he had taken on an in-depth personal study of okra (which eventually spawned a James Beard Award-winning book) that involved growing hundreds of the plant’s varieties and experimenting with “stem to seed” use. His experience reflected a creative, food-first approach that he wanted to bring to the region.

The Utopian Seed Project was also born from a need for crop trialing and seed selection in the area and concern about climate change’s large impact on food — with a desire to show the role of seed in combating it. Chris says the “power of seed is often misunderstood or ignored in creating sustainable and resilient food and farming systems.”

okra in a row

The variety trials showcase the crops’ diversity and potential and search for standout varieties.

Photo via The Utopian Seed Project

Trial and error

Among many programs, the Project designs trials around different crop varieties, sometimes for open-minded exploration or for the needs of the region — for example, growing and testing four varieties of cucumbers to find the one that’s most mildew-resistant. The team is also working on their ultracross seed project, creating plants with genetic recombinations that are highly adaptive to environmental pressure — which means they’re more climate resilient.

These trials can also give answers to simple questions like “can a certain crop grow here?” The team will plant the crop and learn about its potential for WNC, either in pursuit of agrobiodiversty or in response to community need. The work involves risk, but they often get unbelievable results — out in their open fields, you’ll find tropicals like taro, chayote, and ube.

chefs cook at the trial to table series for the utopian seed project

The Trial to Table events are a chance to test the taste and practicality of the trial crops.

Photo via The Utopian Seed Project

Savoring flavor

The resiliency is crucial, but the Project also works with area chefs to make sure the crops it develops are flavorful and practical. You can get a taste for yourself during the Trial to Table series, where local chefs create dishes using the trial crops. The summer celebration, which is on Saturday, Aug. 19, 1:30 to 4 p.m. at The Mule, will feature experimental summer greens and mountain-adapted tomatoes.

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