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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Lyn Soeder


Lyn Soeder has been growing heirlooms at Mathomhouse Farm, located in the Todd area, since she moved to Ashe County nearly forty years ago. She raised four children, along with vegetables, elderberries, blackberries, goats, miniature horses, and chickens because it seemed “ingrained in me, because my family lived next door to my grandparents, [... and] they were serious farmers. [...]  I was there all the time watching them. They raised pigs. They had a dairy cow. My grandpa had honey bees. They always had chickens, everything, so I saw the process, even though I was a little kid and didn't actually participate in a whole lot of it. We always had big gardens.

The reason I picked up farming right here is because I was blooming where I was planted. I had two little kids. I had been teaching at Appalachian [State University … and] I wanted to stay home with them. The second year we lived here was when I started working on the gardens. And that just sort of grew and grew. Then when my son Charlie was born, we were in the Canary Islands, [...] and those islands don’t have any cattle on them [...], but they have a lot of goats. I just fell in love with goats. [… Those goats] were so efficient and so able to handle that terrain.” After returning home, Lyn bought her first goat. “I bought a goat from the neighbor up at the corner,” she says, “and walked her home.” 

She bought Dragon’s Tongue bean seed and started growing them twelve years ago. Lyn selects her seeds for characteristics that she wants to encourage in her vegetables. The first year she grew the Dragon’s Tongue beans, she did not know they were bush beans, but she had one plant that went up the trellis. She selected and saved bean seeds from the one plant that climbed. She wanted a climbing bean over a bush bean so that she doesn’t have to bend down as much to pick the beans as she grows older. Lyn says, “What I’ve lost is they were yellow with purple spots on them. Now mine are green with purple spots, which is fine with me because when you cook those purple ones, they just turn gray anyway.” When asked if this was a common thing for the plants to change this way, Lyn says that it is. “It’s not a hybrid,” she says, “It’s just selection.” Lyn recommends using cattle panel as a trellis because it is so thick and sturdy that it only requires two stakes to hold up a row of wire fence sixteen feet long. 

Describing the beans, Lyn says, “[they’re] on the buttery side of taste, they're not my favorites though. Fresh Cherokee Trail of Tears are just divine.” Lyn describes those beans as, “not woody, they’re not buttery, they’re more crisp and clean and greeny. They’re sweet.” Lyn got her Cherokee Trail of Tears seeds from Dimir Turan at Todd’s Table, who got them from the Watauga County Seed Library. “He just handed me this little packet,” she says, “only had six seeds in it. I grew them and tasted them and thought, ‘Whoa, these are really good.’” 

For taste, another one of Lyn’s favorite beans is the Italian Romano. “I’m trying to find some more Romano pole beans,” she says, “I‘ve lost my source of those. All of them now are bush beans.”

“I have a Speckled Eye,” says Lyn, “which is very similar to Jacob’s Cattle.” Lyn explains that she got this bean seed from Joe Mullis at Parker Tie Company about ten years ago, and she has been growing it ever since. She remembers Joe saying to her, “Here, let me give you something,” and he pulled the seeds out from a drawer at the hardware shop. “I have never planted enough of them to make a crop, really. I just keep it going for the seeds. I eat some of them, but I haven’t ever planted a whole lot of them.” Lyn says they are delicious as a dried bean and they’re enormous. She doesn’t eat Speckled Eyes fresh, but you could. They are a big cream-colored bean with dark purple speckles on them. The top of each one has a larger purple speckle with a white “eye” in the center where the bean seed has been attached to the pod.    According to some folks, they look a lot like another heirloom grown in Ashe County, the Good Mother Stallard, but there is a difference. Good Mother Stallard has no “eye” in the middle of the top speckle.

Lyn also offers this advice for cooking dried beans in the mountains, “Our boiling point is not 212 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s at least 206 F here, [and even lower at higher altitudes].” To increase the temperature enough to cook the beans, there needs to be some pressure. “Put the lid on your pot,” Lyn suggests, “and then put a weight on top of it. You can see my big pot there that has a rock on top of it.”

Lyn also describes what she calls a Jack Bean, which she got about ten years ago at the Ashe County Farmers Market from Claudine Silver. “They were shelled fresh and I just bought a package from her and then I laid them out and let them dry. […] They’re a lot like Scarlet Runner Beans, but they come in different colors and the flowers are different colors. They range anywhere from white to pink to red with variegated in between. [...] They're as close as you can get to a Lima bean in this climate. You can eat them very young, fresh; you can let them get mature and then shell them and eat them as fresh shelled beans, or you can just let them dry and then have dried beans.”

Lyn also plants a French filet bean called Aiguille Verte, which she says “[are] just wonderful. They’re tiny, they are smaller than a pencil even when they mature. [...] They’re [also] stringless, and they are straight as a stick. If you're going to make dilly beans, that's the way to go.”

Tomatoes are another heirloom that Lyn enjoys growing.

“I save a whole lot of different varieties of tomatoes, probably more than one person should manage. I try to plant some of each one of them because I want to keep the seeds going. […] I think growing tomatoes in this climate is a sport—sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” The Cherokee Purple tomato, a type she heard about years ago from Ann Rose, is a variety that Lyn has grown using selection. “They’re always real lumpy and just weird. I saved the ones that were round each year and repeatedly saved the round ones. So, my Cherokee Purples are now pretty much round.” Her round Cherokee Purples are about 3 ½ inches around. Lyn really loves the Cherokee Purple because of their taste, but she says they don’t grow any better than any of the others because of the climate. The Cherokee Purples are not actually purple, but according to Lyn, they are, “a deep, burgundy red.”

Lyn likes to make a plate of different colored tomatoes because they are so attractive as well as having different flavors. That is one of the reasons that another favorite tomato of hers is the Yellow Brandywine. She thinks that most yellow tomatoes are too sweet, but the Yellow Brandywine she says “tastes like a real tomato.” Lyn has also had success with a variety called Patio tomatoes because they came on early and last a long time. She said you can grow them in pots, but, she says, “I put mine in the ground and it got huge. I staked it up with 8’ bamboo poles. It was prolific.” The tomatoes, Lyn says, are about one and a half inches around. To add to her plate of pretty tomatoes, Lyn also recommends all the heirloom Brandywines, “There’s the red, the pink, there’s black, and there’s yellow. I like all of those, and they’re a good-size, big tomato. A lot of people really want those big ones.”

Another heirloom that Lyn has been growing for four years is Bloody Butcher corn, which she got from Pinetree Seeds. “You can eat it very young, and it’s still white, or if you let it go on to dry, it turns red. You can grind it into cornmeal and it’s red. It’s amazing. […] I made hominy out of it, and it was wonderful. […] People think you have to [use sodium hydroxide to soak it], but you don’t; you can use pickling [lime]. You soak it for a while, and then you cook it, and then you’re done.”

An heirloom flower that Lyn enjoys growing is called the Boone Gladiolus. “It’s a hardy gladiolus, it’s only one color that’s sort of an apricot color. The flower’s not as large as the big gladiolus that you buy. [...] It came originally from Africa […] and was brought here well over a hundred years ago. The plant that I got had been growing on a farm in Tennessee for probably 150 years.”    She also grows an heirloom marigold that she got from Ms. Mary Miller in Boone. “She called them Mary’s Gold, and she would save the seeds and give them to everybody she could get to take them. Her neighbor, Walton Conway, gave me some. Their center is dark gold and the petals are burgundy. They’re gorgeous, and they’re about two feet high. They’re a delight to see in the garden.” 

Lyn likes to grow heirlooms because you can save your seed from year to year, plant the seeds, and get the vegetables or flowers that you planted. She says she is not opposed to hybrids but prefers heirlooms because if you use hybrids, you have to buy new seeds or plants every year from the companies that own them. As Lyn says early in the interview, regarding her love for growing heirlooms and raising goats,

“It has been the love of my life. I just can’t imagine living any other way. [...]  And now I don’t know how to let go. I don’t know how to retire.”

Interview with Lyn Soeder by Brenda Smith 1/27/23

Lyn Soeder's Interview Transcript



This project is funded in part by a grant from South Arts’ In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture initiative.

Photographer: Brenda Smith

Interviewer: Brenda Smith