On his family’s farm in the piedmont town of Shelby, North Carolina, Chef Jamie Swofford grew up eating collard greens the Southern way—cooked to death with a ham bone and finished with vinegar.
When he left Cleveland County at the age of 17 to cook at eateries across the Southeast, he reinvented the collards of his boyhood, but he never gave much thought to the variety of collards he served until 2016.
“I love okra, and I met this guy on social media who was growing like 76 varieties in Leicester, North Carolina,” says Swofford. That guy, Chris Smith, was shifting his focus from okras to collards. He was specifically interested in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s vast collection of more than 60 heirloom varieties. “When you walk into a grocery store, you see a lot of food but not a lot of diversity,” says Smith. “Varietal diversity means genetic diversity, and that brings about stronger, more resilient food systems.”
Along with Ira Wallace, an organic grower and owner of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia, Smith started the Heirloom Collard Project in 2020 to share seeds with growers, officially launching a collard trial involving 20 varieties and eight farm sites across the country. The premise behind the trial has been simple: plant the seeds and see which varieties fare best. Though participants are logging scientific information related to disease resistance, uniformity, and winter hardiness, and will likely continue some form of data collection this year, the project is more about preserving narratives than comparing quantitative figures.
As a board member of the Heirloom Collard Project, Chef Swofford grew the 20 collard varieties on a one-acre farm he manages in Gastonia, North Carolina. He found Green Glaze, a plant with dark, shiny leaves, to be the most consistent and best tasting. “It’s my wintertime stand-in when it comes to leafy greens,” he notes. But Swofford developed a particular fondness for the Old Timey Blue variety. Not only does the plant produce striking, purple-ribbed leaves, it also evokes a certain nostalgia. “I’m a country boy,” he says. “That variety reminds me of going to the general store, buying boots and groceries, and getting my oil changed out back.”