Thomas brothers help create heirloom seed project | News | The Press and Standard

by | August 26, 2016 5:00 am

Last Updated: August 24, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Ted Chewning growing crops from heirloom seeds from two
brothers from Smoaks.

By GEORGE SALSBERRY
gsalsberry@lowcountry.com

Two Smoaks area brothers have fed Ted Chewning’s constant craving for heirloom crops.
Chewning, the Colleton County Farmers Market Manager who recently decided to resign that post, wants to spend more time working his farm and playing a role in resurrecting heirloom seeds. He plans to spend more time building up his collection of seeds from the Thomas Brothers Collection.
Chewning bestowed the title on the seeds from 11 different heirloom crops provided to him by semi-retired farmers Jake and Ray Thomas.
The Thomas brothers, both in their 80’s, have spent years periodically growing the farm crops which had long disappeared from the agricultural landscape.
While working the family farm, the Thomas’ would periodically grow some of the heirloom seeds for themselves and a selected few others.
Chewning said the Thomas brothers provided him with the seeds to grow three varieties of corn, a couple of bean varieties, and the seeds from an heirloom radish, watermelon and field pea.
Chewning said he then provided Clemson Research some of the seeds from each crop. Anson Mills, which has been working for years to popularize heritage crops like Carolina Gold Rice, is covering the cost of planting and researching the heirloom crops at Clemson’s experimental station in Charleston.
At Chewning’s Sweet Bay Farm, one of the corn varieties, Sea Island White Flint, and some of the watermelon seeds went into the ground.
The corn crop is in. Sea Island White Flint, he explained, was grown by Native Americans, primarily in the coastal areas.
“We were very successful with a small stand,” Chewning said.
Flint corn is not grown much in the Carolinas anymore. It is more likely found growing in the Midwest and South America.
It is the corn that becomes popcorn in the Midwest; in South America, flint corn is used to make tortillas.
The corn grown locally, Chewning said, is dent corn, so called because when the kernels are dried, they form a little dent.
Chewning said he grew a small stand of Sea Island White Flint because “you have to isolate the seeds. They are open pollinated, so you can’t grow other corn nearby.”
All the corn from the first year of growth will be going into the seed bank. He plans on a larger stand of Sea Island White Flint next year, hoping to eventually reach the point where the seeds can be distributed to other farmers who want to test the commercial value of the heirloom corn.
That’s the same process that Chewning and Anson Mills used to reintroduce Jimmy Red corn to the culinary landscape.
Now Jimmy Red can be found on the menu in many high-end restaurants in Charleston. This fall, Highwire Distillery in Charleston will be ready to release its first bottles of Jimmy Red bourbon.
While the corn crop is in, Chewning said the heirloom watermelon, which dates back approximately 170 years, is coming along slowly. “We planted late because of the possibility of bad weather — we did not want to lose any seeds.”
When that crop of watermelon is in, he added, all the seeds will be banked.
Next year, Chewning said, he wants to plant a larger stand of Sea Island White Flint.  He also expects to plant some of the field peas. He anticipates growing the field peas in his greenhouse to make sure that the deer don’t get them and they are protected from the weather.
“The Thomas brothers deserve all the credit because they have saved these seeds over the years,” Chewning said.
Chewning said he filmed the Thomas brothers talking about their lives on the farm that has been in their family since the 1790s. “They were very generous with their lives and their seeds,” he said.
Eventually, Chewning added, he hopes to produce a video and have it available.

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