Bill Best knows Appalachian Heirloom Beans

Friends Drift Inn Farm – Gardening

Chef Jeremy Ashby with Bill Best Heirloom Seed Saver

Click to Read Appalachian News Express Article
Berea’s Bill Best Saviing Appalachia One Seed at a Time

Saving Heirloom Seeds and Saving the Appalachian Garden

I’ve always grown a garden. Well, almost always. There was a seven year span when the ground lay fallow, and our spirits were oppressed. Between working day and night to launch our family business and battling an unbelievable number of family crises, illnesses and deaths it was impossible to grow much of anything except weary.

Finally, five years ago life had settled down enough we could again resume the family tradition of gardening.

I cried when I went to the freezer finding my father-in-laws cutshort bean seed had molded into a mass of unrecognizable goo. Back then we did not call them heirloom beans; we just knew they were the family bean that had been grown on the same piece of land for four generations with us making the fifth. I felt sick.

Undeterred, I awaited the seed catalogs my family had always used Gurney’s and Burpees. When the postman made the delivery, I squealed with joy. I grabbed a pen and eagerly flipped through the pages searching for the well-known varieties of my youth. My elation faded to puzzlement. Where were the California Wonder Peppers? Where were the Celebrity Tomatoes and the German Johnsons? And where in the #@%! were the green striped cushaws?

It was a shock.

I had no idea seed companies had turned their backs on old variety open pollinated vegetables. How could this be?

I called Mom quite distraught. When it comes to gardening, Mom always has answers. She listened to my story and grew quiet. She said, “I saw an article years ago in the Rural Electric magazine about a professor in Berea who was doing work saving seeds. Maybe you can look him up.”

Sure enough, I found him and his name was Bill Best. I wrote him a note in long-hand and about a week later he responded. Immediately, I ordered the beans he suggested. We exchanged short notes from time to time.

Jake and Charlie planting Greasy Grit Heirloom Pole Beans

Up and down Johns Creek, I started scouting out the families who raised gardens. They gladly shared seeds. I found heirloom seed sources like Baker Creek     and Southern Exposure Seed which helped fill in the gaps. I scoured local farmers markets looking for old-time varieties and bought produce just for the seed. A program at Kentucky State University sent me more varieties. At last, the garden could be restored to it’s former glory!

My Grandpa would be so proud; and Charlie’s daddy would be too. We are still on the lookout for a few varieties that elude us, but we have made such progress! When I gaze down the rows of Cowhorn Okra, Blackburn Tomatoes, and Greasy Grit Beans a peace falls over me. I can almost see my Grandpa and my father-in-law working side by side hoeing the beans and admiring the cushaws. Sometimes I believe they are there with me.

It was a simple packet of beans purchased from Bill Best that restored my restless spirit.

Last week, we finally met. I could not tell him how I felt because I knew I would cry. But watching the elder Bill Best instruct the youthful Chef Jeremy Ashby in the finer points of heirloom seed saving and history I found my heart was filled with boundless joy. The legacy will continue! That one moment was worth the trip up the Mountain Parkway.

God Bless you Bill Best….for you have blessed me and the people of Appalachia for generations to come. May your harvest always be plentiful and the bean beetles few!

To order Heirloom Bean Seed from Bill Best Go to The Bean Catalog

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About Joyce Pinson

Joyce Friend Pinson is a regional farm-to-table columnist for the Appalachian-News Express. She is a local television host. Her column show and blog, Friends Drift Inn, explores food, gardening, and real life farm-to-table stories from the perspective of a baby boomer in Appalachia. Joyce has a background in agriculture, media, and small business. Joyce is an heirloom gardening addict and home canner. She has a penchant for big hats, pointy toed shoes, and bourbon. Along with her husband Charlie, Joyce really does live in a barn where they ballroom dance. And laugh. And cook. And giggle.