2003 Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame: Bill Best
Bill Best, of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Project in Berea, Kentucky, is keeping the seed alive for a powerful Appalachian food, the heirloom green bean.
At the risk of repeating something I tell everyone I can collar, the natural and rapid mutation of the green bean led to a fascinating cultural and culinary phenomenon in the Mountain South. Nearly every holler ended up with a green bean with some distinctly different characteristic that distinguishes it from its cousin the next holler over. Families or communities gave their names to these beans and soon swore they were the best to be found. The mutated strains were passed on from generation to generation of seed collectors, and even migrated around as daughters married sons from other bean stock and, in turn, their beans not only “married” but, in different sunlight and soil, mutated into a new family bean.
A few years back, Bill realized this rich diversity of beans was being lost to the commercial production of homogenous hybrid strains bred for hardiness, disease resistance, and other attributes — but never taste nor character. And so he sent out the word that he was interested in preserving the traditional bean stock of the Appalachia, promising that he would propagate the seeds through his agricultural institute. He also asked people to send him the stories that went with the beans, how they got their names, whose family or community they came from.
Bill has been saving beans and tales for years now, planting small crops to build up specific seed stock. Last I heard, he had over 100 varieties. What’s more, Bill understands Appalachian culture in a profound and complex way, and he has devoted much of his life to teaching about it.
I don’t just think the ground he walks on is blessed; I know it is. Thanks to years of seed saving, the ground Bill walks is green with beanstalks and tomato plants. And I believe his work as important as anyone else’s I know.
– Ronni Lundy, upon nominating Bill Best for the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award