“There is no way to know the vast amount of experiences that I will have missed by losing my October visit this year. I can only hope that my November visit will in some way make up for October’s irreplaceable experiences.”
—notebook of John Coykendall, October 2016
You’d think John Coykendall would have seen enough of Washington Parish’s piney woods by now. For forty-three years, the celebrated master gardener of Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm (a luxury resort and farm-to-table mecca) has spent each autumn in the eastern corner of Louisiana. There he collects seeds, gleans bygone farming practices from older generations, and visits countless residents on well-worn porches. And during his trips, he always makes plans to attend the 105-year-old Washington Parish Free Fair, the largest of its kind in the country.
Pastoral getaways are not unheard of; Coykendall himself tends Blackberry Farm’s isolated 4,200-acre estate in the Smokies. But an urgency dogs the journals that recount his stays in Louisiana, dismissing the idea that the 73-year-old gardener is ever heading South for a simple holiday. Coykendall returns year after year to hunt Washington Parish’s heirloom seeds: he interviews locals and sifts through memories to determine the whereabouts of plant varieties left in the dust, literally, by homogenized agriculture. Once found, the seeds—promising deep-hued strains like Snow on the Mountain butterbeans and Red Ripper cowpeas—travel with Coykendall home to Tennessee where he nurtures them back to production. Three large freezers contain the bulk, all bagged, tagged, and awaiting the gardener’s care.
But Coykendall’s records go beyond agriculture. Mountains of moleskine notebooks hold his sketches of trees and people (an artist, Coykendall trained at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts), old names that charm him, and local anecdotes lovingly preserved in dialect. It’s the heart of Washington Parish that Coykendall captures each year … could any moment be too small?
On December 6, another layer joins his archive in the form of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s documentary Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey to Save Our Seeds and Stories. (A book, Reclaiming Our Roots: A Personal Journey to Preserve Our Seeds and Stories, is forthcoming from LSU Press.) Like the most precious seeds Coykendall has salvaged, these opportunities emerged from well-timed small talk.
The Seed Gospel
Christina Melton and her husband were vacationing at Blackberry Farm during its off-season. Melton’s an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, whose résumé includes Atchafalaya Houseboat and the Katrina-focused Washing Away: After the Storms; but she considered herself mostly retired from the field.
“There wasn’t a lot going on [at the farm],” said Melton. “So we wandered down to the far corner of the property and found a small, red wooden building with a tin roof.” Inside, a man in overalls sat shelling peas, a fire roaring behind him. “He was very friendly. We told him we were from Louisiana, and he started telling us about how he travels to Louisiana every year and he has for the last forty years. Then he started to tell us about these journals that he had …”
The next day, Coykendall showed the couple his notebooks. “They were unbelievable. Each one of them was like a little work of art, like an artifact of a time that’s gone,” said Melton. More stunning to the veteran storyteller: that no one had yet told the world of Coykendall’s decades of work in Louisiana. Profiles in Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, Garden & Gun, and the PBS program The Mind of a Chef have covered Coykendall’s role at Blackberry Farm, his artistry, and his love of heirloom seeds; but the visits to little Franklinton, Louisiana, got no mention.
“The people in Franklinton don’t know how well known he is, and he doesn’t care to tell them,” said Melton. “I mean, he’s a pretty famous guy. But he knows this isn’t about him. None of this is about him. This is only about getting information in the hands of people who can do something with it.
“There was one woman at the Washington Parish Fair that he’s known for decades; she sat him down at the fair one time and basically said, ‘Now John, don’t let this go to waste. Don’t you just let nothin’ come of this.’”
Back in Louisiana, Melton reached out to LSU Press and to her old boss Beth Courtney at LPB. She teased, “I’ve got a project you can’t refuse.”
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John Coykendall sits with the late farmer Mr. Seldon Lang, who became a close friend of Coykendall's over the decades.
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The Unknown Pea
In four decades, Coykendall has identified over five hundred varieties of seeds almost lost to the world. Blackberry Farm and, of course, the homeland of Washington Parish have been sown and resown with his discoveries. At White Oak Plantation, Chef John Folse has dedicated a garden row to Coykendall, his friend and supplier.
But there are heartbreaks along the way. “I’ve had so many stories that have turned out bad,” said Coykendall in a recent interview. “I get there just a week after they clean out the freezer [where rare seeds were stored], throw everything out, and sell the freezer for ten dollars on the sidewalk. But I’m trying to get as many of these seeds as possible. I always encourage people that have these seeds to come forward and get them into my hands. I’ll make sure that they’re taken good care of for future generations.”
It’s not dumb luck or even instinct that leads Coykendall to his prizes. The gardener uses a technique called “memory banking,” developed by anthropologist Virginia Nazarea of the University of Georgia for botanical research. Family lineage, traditions, recipes, and other cultural memories are all fodder for the notebook. “He takes the time to sit and listen to these farmers and to understand how important they are and how much knowledge they have to offer,” said Melton.
“Memory banking is so important because it tells the story,” said Coykendall. “Then you have the recipe that tells you literally how to use [the plant]. And you have the seeds to grow it again.”
“He takes the time to sit and listen to these farmers and to understand how important they are and how much knowledge they have to offer.”
One rumored seed proved elusive. Fittingly called the Unknown Pea, Coykendall heard of it often in his conversations with the elderly farmers who’d been around during the pea’s heyday in the early 1900s. “But I looked for it for thirty years without success,” said Coykendall. A description from the then-92-year-old Ms. Letha Toney set him on the right track. “She said, ‘Well, honey, it had a long, gnarly green pod. It had little oblong, yaller peas in it. They was delicious, and there weren’t no scarcity to them.’”
Coykendall did find the gnarly pea, and he grew it to the abundance Toney promised. “That was my greatest joy, as far as saving something,” he said.
Coykendall will save any seed he’s given. From the near-extinct varieties of his native Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains to beans rattling in a coffee can inside a Pacific Northwest garage, he’s revived them all. Still Washington Parish and its people in particular draw him back.
“I think he’s so mesmerized by this place because it’s a little untouched,” said Melton. “It has traditions and varieties of seeds that people really do still nurture and safeguard and pass down.”
But desperation sneaks into the idyll. The younger generations are leaving Washington Parish and its crops behind. “There aren’t as many jobs in rural areas. It’s just a natural progression, but it does mean we’re losing so much,” said Melton. “You’re a link in a chain. It started long before us, and if we don’t keep it going, we’re the end of it.”
After forty-three years, Coykendall welcomes company along the way; he’s even starting to crave it. “This one young fella who works with me at the farm, he’s probably the most interested and he just turned 20 this year,” he said. “Every single thing I get, he’s trailing along behind me, wanting to get some of the seeds. I’m tickled to death that he wants to do that.”
Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey to Save Our Seeds and Stories, produced by Christina Melton, airs on December 6 at 7 pm on LPB; the film will simultaneously stream at lpb.org and facebook.com/LPB123.
Heirloom seeds, including those found by John Coykendall, can be procured at seedsavers.org.