“Closest to Everlastin'”: Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions (Part One)

Crystal Bowne, Back-to-the-Land Ozarker Gardens, Newton County, Arkansas, 2010.By Brian C. Campbell
University of Central Arkansas

Taking form in cultivated fields and gardens, managed hedgerows and woodlands, varieties of crop species, and livestock breeds, agricultural biodiversity refers to the human-modified components of the natural world that contribute to the sustenance of human populations.

Traditional subsistence systems frequently rely on multiple levels of agricultural biodiversity to ensure sufficient food.  Such agrobiodiverse subsistence strategies occur most often in marginal landscapes, where large-scale intensive agriculture systems cannot succeed.  The Ozark Highlands’ karst topography precludes most forms of intensive industrial agriculture.  While the region has advanced technologically, the Ozarks remain a haven for agrobiodiverse farmers and gardeners.  Five years of applied agricultural anthropology research in different locales of the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks reveals three clearly interconnected characteristics integral to traditional subsistence in the region: agroecological knowledge, diversity, and frugality.  These values allowed Ozarkers of historical times to survive, and they permit contemporary hill dwellers an alternative to the industrial food system.  Highlighting the practices of Willodean Smyth, a traditional Ozark farmer/gardener, this essay uses archival and ethnographic research to discuss the interrelationships between agricultural biodiversity and subsistence patterns in the past and present.


This here tale begins in the summer of that year, whatever year it was . . . The year don’t matter. The national situation don’t even matter, because even though we were smack dab in the middle of what we’ve been told was the Depression, folks in the Ozarks was so poor to begin with that they scarcely noticed. No, that’s not right, because poverty’s so relative.  A better way to put it is that folks in the Ozarks still had everything they needed to subsist and endure, and they didn’t want for nothing. So they didn’t even know that people elsewhere all over the country was suffering from want.”
-Donald Harington’s “Vance Randolph” character in Butterfly Weed

After supper Uncle Greene . . . began speaking of the Ozarks.  ‘Used to be a real happy land for us outlaws,’ he recalled. ‘But for us reformed sons of bitches no country ain’t no great sight better than no other country. . .But I still say. . . that whichever the country, hit’s the backhills that stay interestin’ and closest to everlastin’. . .’
Charles Morrow Wilson in The Bodacious Ozarks

A former student introduced me to her great-uncle who runs the family hardware store in a small town in the Arkansas Ozarks.  The store is the modern-day equivalent of the old-timey gristmill, a place of congregation for anyone with a minute to spare.  I began the Arkansas component of a long-term research project in that turn-of-the twentieth century brick building in downtown Marshall.  I arrived with tape recorder, notepad, and pen, ready to identify participants for a study of Ozark agricultural biodiversity.  One of the many names I scribbled that day was Dean Smyth, short for Willodean. When it came to discussing traditional foodways in the region (and in this essay), Willodean, one of the most charismatic and enthusiastic of my contacts, serves as a guide to the continuity of self-sufficient traditions in the Ozarks.

The research foundation for this essay consists of archival data collected in and about each of the subregions of the Ozark Highlands (see Ozark Relief Map below), in addition to semi-structured interviews and  participant observation in the St. Francois Mountains (2002-2004), the Boston Mountains and Salem and Springfield Plateaus (2006 and 2009).

This research is a component of an applied anthropology endeavor to document and conserve traditional varieties (heirloom) of crops and the family stories related to them.  Students, volunteers, and researchers conduct interviews with people who maintain heirloom seed varieties, document and (hopefully) acquire the seeds, store them (along with the stories) in a seed bank and database, grow them out in campus and gardens, and give them away at Seed Swaps.

Crystal Bowne, Back-to-the-Land Ozarker Gardens, Newton County, Arkansas, 2010

The most traditional, conservative Ozark inhabitants, who constitute the cultural focus of this research, have been ethnocentrically misrepresented in both popular and academic media.

Misrepresentations of Ozarkers emerge through a lack of cultural relativism and an inability or unwillingness to comprehend traditional Ozark culture.  The cultural anthropology approach, with its methods of participant observation and semi-structured interviews, allows the researcher to move beyond stereotypes and gain an understanding of the interconnections between the motivations, perceptions, and practices of a group of people.

This study presents Ozark seed savers and agrobiodiverse farmer-gardeners at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it expands beyond conventional ethnography in two ways. I do not focus strictly on the present; instead I engage past subsistence traditions to elucidate contemporary practices, and I cast a wider net, utilizing a more diverse range of media to illustrate the Ozarks as a refuge for agricultural biodiversity. Drawing upon historical and contemporary photographs, recipes, folk tales, works of ethnographic/historical and autobiographical fiction, as well as excerpts from interviews with Willodean and other Ozarkers, these sources illustrate the diversity, agroecological knowledge, and frugality inherent in the region’s subsistence traditions.

Agricultural Biodiversity:

With its adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro highlighted the implications of species extinction and imprinted biodiversity upon the public consciousness as a buzzword for species richness and global health. While biodiversity became synonymous with the importance of not cutting down the rainforest, environmental anthropologists have attempted to expand that narrow conception.  Most of the “natural,” pristine, or “virgin” landscapes that early European explorers encountered in the Americas were actually anthropogenic, created through human modification and management.  Unlike the common perception of humans as the cause of biodiversity loss, humans have enhanced or created biodiversity in their ecosystems through traditional management systems.

Agricultural biodiversity refers to human-modified components of biodiversity that contribute to the sustenance and health of human populations. This includes the domesticated plants and animals that constitute the foundation of agriculture and the non-domesticated plants, shrubs, and trees utilized for subsistence and health and the related soil biota and insects necessary for plant propagation and reproduction.  Several approaches characterize agrobiodiverse farming systems: 1) polyculture; farmers grow an assortment of crop species within a field or agricultural landscape; 2) intraspecific diversity; more than one variety of a species exists in the fields; 3) wild-domesticated continuum; farmers allow non- and semi- domesticated species to grow within and around fields; and 4) utility diversity; species in the fields have multiple uses, as livestock feed and human food, medicine, dye, clothing, storage, cordage, etc. Farmers the world over engaged in such practices before the now ubiquitous modern industrial agricultural model replaced diversity and self-sufficiency with specialization.

While much agricultural biodiversity research has focused on farms and full-time farmers, studies reveal the comparatively high diversity of species and varieties in home gardens. This new angle makes sense in light of the widespread shift from traditional to industrial agriculture throughout the world, transforming home gardens into refuges for culturally important crop species and varieties.  Agricultural biodiversity researchers have encouraged an investigative approach emphasizing persistence in traditional farming practices within or despite culture change. In Heirloom Seeds and their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity, Virginia Nazarea explores “seedsaver gardens as repositories of ambiguities and alternatives that can effectively counteract homogenization and avert cultural and genetic erosion.”  She encourages researchers to “shift from conceptual, aggregate units such as “organizations” and “populations” (whether local or not) to actual people – people who acquire and pass on knowledge collectively and individually.”  This essay follows these leads by focusing on the diversity of one particular farmer/gardener to gain insight into traditional agrobiodiverse farming and gardening practices in the Ozarks.

~ Look for Part Two Next Week! ~

To continue reading this article right now, click on one of these section links.
The Biophysical Geography of the Ozark Highlands
Willodean: Ozark Subsistence Traditions in the Present
Corn (Zea Mays), an Ozark Staple
Agroecological Knowledge
The Future of Ozark Subsistence and Agricultural Biodiversity
Recommended Resources

Previously published on Southern Spaces and reprinted with permission.
Copyright 2010 Brian Campbell – All Rights Reserved

Also by Brian Campbell:

Seed Swap
This documentary film uses the development of a seed exchange and agricultural biodiversity conservation project as an ethnographic lens to explore the seed saving subculture of Arkansas and the Ozark Highlands region.  The film showcases the utility of applied anthropology to get the public involved in more localized food systems, presents a wide range of open-pollinated, heirloom seeds of the Ozarks, and illustrates the steps necessary to establish a community seed bank and host seed swaps.

The Natural State of America
In the 1970’s, in the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas, “the Natural State,” residents organized and successfully halted the U.S. Forest Service’s planned aerial applications of herbicides; now the group battles their rural electric cooperative to protect the region’s organic farms, wells, springs, and the Buffalo River, the only National River in the United States, from being contaminated by herbicides once again.  Visit the film’s Facebook Page.

About the Author:

Brian C. Campbell, P.h.D.Brian Campbell, P.h.D., is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway.  His current focus is on Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation in the Ozark Highlands region of Arkansas and Missouri.

As the Director of CAAH! – Conserving Arkansas’s Agricultural Heritage -Brian has been instrumental in the preservation of the agricultural folkways and knowledge of the Ozarks region through hands on learning and the development of their Seed Bank initiative.   Click here to learn more about CAAH!

Dr. Campbell has also written and produced two documentary films about the Ozarks: Seed Swap & The Natural State of America.

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from

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