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Truelove prizes seeds and stories from around the world

Since last fall, Owen Taylor has been partnering with small-scale farmers from around the region and beyond to source, save, and sell rare and culturally significant seeds.

Owen Taylor, Founder of Truelove Seeds, holds Truelove Seeds at the farm at Bartram's Garden, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, June 26, 2018.
Owen Taylor, Founder of Truelove Seeds, holds Truelove Seeds at the farm at Bartram's Garden, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, June 26, 2018.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

On a small farm 40 minutes outside Philadelphia, a new business is blooming.

Since last fall, Owen Taylor has been partnering with small-scale farmers from around the region and beyond to source, save, and sell rare and culturally significant seeds — each one, he says, carrying within it a story.

Taylor launched Truelove Seeds from his farm in Newtown Square in November 2017, after four years managing the Roughwood Seed Collection, an 85-year-old compilation of nearly 4,000 heirloom varieties, based in Devon. Seed saving is an ancient practice, but Taylor prefers the term "seed keeping" for his new endeavor.

"Seed-saving could mean anything — I walk down the street and collect the seeds that I see — but seed-keeping is holding onto the cultural knowledge as well" as the genetic material, said Taylor, 37. He credits indigenous communities for this phrase.

In its first season, Truelove Seeds partnered with 17 farms, including five across Greater Philadelphia, to harvest and preserve crop varieties significant to the communities that grew them. He works to learn where each crop came from, what it is called, and how best to grow it and cook it.

"For all the farms I work with, the first thing I ask is, 'What is the story?' " Taylor said. "Often, that's taken as an ancestral question."

From the Novick Family Urban Farm, which works with Burmese and Bhutanese refugee communities in South Philadelphia, comes the Burmese Rat-Tail radish and the White Garden Egg eggplant. The Resilient Roots Farm, a project of VietLead in Camden, produces seeds for mướp đắng, or smooth bitter melon.

Taylor himself produces southern Italian varieties — broccoli rabe; winter squash; beans with names like "Tongue of Fire" and "Purgatory" — in honor of his own ancestors, including his great-grandmother Letitia Truelove, after whom his business is named. Altogether, Truelove Seeds sells about 80 plant varieties.

Taylor prioritizes working with farms that do cultural preservation and food justice work, he said, and many have little experience with growing for seed, rather than for food. This means he is not merely merchant but mentor, teaching people how to avoid cross-pollination during planting, how to winnow and thrush after harvest, how to select the hardiest and healthiest seeds, and how to legally package and ship their products to him for distribution.

In Southwest Philadelphia, the Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram's Garden is rooted in the history of the African diaspora. There, farm manager Chris Bolden-Newsome, 41, oversees the growth of crops significant to Americans of African descent, including okra, yams, sweet potato, groundnuts, and a wide variety of greens.

"When you're eating the foods of your ancestors…whether you know their stories or their names or not, you're able to share in one of the most important aspects of their lives," said Bolden-Newsome. "When you're growing out their seeds, then you're keeping not only their memory but their work alive. And that's crucial, because that's how you know who you are."

This principle is embodied in the farm's name, which comes from a Twi phrase, Se wo were fina wo sankofa adyen kyi. Bolden-Newsome translates this as, "Ain't nothing wrong with going back to fetch what you left."

That's why the farm and the seed company were such natural fits for one another — that, and Bolden-Newsome and Taylor have been married for six years. They met at a conference dedicated to food, faith, and social justice nearly a decade ago, and bonded over what Bolden-Newsome described as "the spiritual work of cultural recovery."

The first seed that Sankofa grew for Truelove is the Speckled Brown Butter Bean. Bolden-Newsome grew up shelling these beans with his grandmother on his porch in Greenville, Miss. When he couldn't find them up north, he had neighbors from back home — Earl and Charlene "Duck" Hunter of Shaw — pick some up from the country store.

"It represents the ancestral connection to the seed, the family connection, the story," Taylor said of the bean. His company's logo — etched, front and center, on every Truelove seed packet — is a black-and-white illustration of Bolden-Newsome's hands holding those speckled beans.

This year, Sankofa will grow two more bean varieties for Truelove — crowder peas and purple hull peas, similar to black-eyed peas — as well as sorghum. As he enters his company's second season, Taylor is working with producers to grow more varieties, and developing relationships with new farms. This year's catalog is likely to come out in December or January.

He primarily sells to backyard farmers and urban farmers, through both the online catalog and brick-and-mortar retailers, including Greensgrow West and the Mariposa Food Co-Op in West Philadelphia, and the Bartram's Garden gift shop. Sales peak from January through May, as people prep their gardens. Taylor gives 50 percent of profits back to the growers.

Taylor also gives seeds away in a process he calls "rematriation," another concept he credits to indigenous seed keepers, including Rowan White, a seed keeper from the Mohawk community of Akeasne. The idea is to get seed stock "into the hands of people to whom they're most important," said Taylor.

"As I learn the stories about this cucumber, or that tomato, or this corn, and I learn this is an Iroquois corn, or a southern tomato, or a Syrian cucumber, I'm making sure I put that story out there and get the seeds to a person from that part of the world and excited to keep those stories," he said. "Reconnecting seeds to people is a way of reconnecting them to the land. Even if they don't touch the soil, they have this connection to the food."

A few months ago, he sent Lana Mustafa, a Palestinian American who lives in New Jersey, the seeds for molokhia, more commonly known as Jew's mallow or jute. The plant serves as the basis for her daughter's favorite food, and Mustafa, 30, would typically depend on her grandmother to send dried leaves over from the village of Mukhmas in the West Bank.

Now she can grow fresh molokhia in her backyard. While she planted, she said, she told her children stories about her grandparents, their great-grandparents: "When I tell my kids about the seeds, I can tell them, 'These go back generation to generation.' "

That's a powerful concept for Amirah Mitchell, 25, who's been apprenticing under Taylor since April. She aspires to run her own seed farm one day, and, as an African American farmer, hopes to produce African diasporic breeds for other farmers of color.

"The communities I identify with were culturally displaced," she said. "Farming, in a huge way, helps me reconnect with part of my cultural identity. Seed saving is another way to help reclaim part of my cultural heritage, by connecting to the same food that I know my ancestors grew."

Taylor works to share the story of every seed where he can: at seed exchanges throughout the city; at presentations and workshops; on the pack of seed packets; on his expansive website; and on social media, where his Seedkeeping Tumblr blog and Instagram page are anchored with the tagline, "The story is in the seed."

"Seeds are placeholders for our culture," he said. "They come from thousands of years of selection, and the relationship between humans and these plants. You have to give your respect to those who came before by passing on that culture and that story."