Stephens Land and Cattle, an OSGATA member farm located in Allsion, Kansas, annually plants around 200 acres of ‘Turkey Red’ wheat- accounting for the “largest planting in decades” of this heirloom grain that spanned 9.2 million acres of Kansas farmland in 1919. ‘Turkey’ is a landrace cultivar: it adapts to the bioregion in which it is grown through the annual saving and replanting of seed.
Originally brought from the semi-arid steppes of Russia by Mennonites to the U.S., ‘Turkey’ was first planted in the U.S. in 1873. The Stephens family has been growing this variety for over 20 years and maintains the largest seed supply in the country.
“One farm shouldn’t grow the only supply of a seed… If growers like myself don’t analyze the technology and seed licenses while thinking about the environments, socio-economics, and ethics, we risk [varietal] extinction,” said Demetria Stephens, farmer and co-author, along with Linda Davis-Stephens, of “Seed, Law and Identity: Conserving Biodiversity.” In May 2104, she presented the paper at the 2014 International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences Inter-Congress.
“Seed, Law and Identity” examines the history of decline and resurgence of ‘Turkey.’ Renewed interest is largely attributed to the attention of an artisan baker, who worked to have ‘Turkey’ listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste in 2009. The farm’s direct marketing efforts to establish a brand around conservation is part of an exploratory business model. Millers and bakers have been reaching out to the farm in larger numbers in recent years.
The wheat’s cultural heritage is another factory involved in seed recovery. Stephens writes, “Some wanted the wheat to connect to their roots as Mennonite immigrants,” like a modern-day wheat farmer whose family originally stowed ‘Turkey’ seed in a trunk headed from Russia.
The fact that this landrace wheat remains in the public domain is another element aiding its conservation. Anyone can plant the seed, harvest and save it- allowing for adaption over time- without fear of penalty.
Stephens says the narrative of her farm can be universally applied: “Turkey wheat could be the story of any seed with a diverse genetic code. It is worth saving.”
“Sharing seed and seed stories… has increased its diversity and ability to survive, and encouraged communities to thrive.”