For nearly four decades, John Coykendall’s passion has been preserving the farm heritage – the seeds and stories - of a small, farming culture in Southeastern Louisiana and this work is the subject of a new documentary coming to Louisiana Public Broadcasting Tuesday, December 6th at 7pm on LPB.
John Coykendall is a renowned heirloom seed saver, a classically trained artist, and Master Gardener at Blackberry Farm, one of America’s top resorts. Since 1973, he has made an annual pilgrimage to Louisiana, where he has recorded the oral histories, growing techniques, recipes and folktales of Louisiana farmers and backyard gardeners in more than 80 beautifully illustrated journals. He has saved and safeguarded rare varieties of the crops they once grew, and handed them back to the communities where they came from. "Seeds carry with them more than the potential to sustain people as food, they are living history of the people who cared and tended to them and cultivated them and passed them down. I feel 100-percent total obligation, I am the caretaker," believes Coykendall. "This is what we’re working to save, this history, the heritage, the way of life, the way of farming, way of cuisine, everything to do needs to be preserved while its still here to be preserved."
A Tennessee native, the 73-year-old Coykendall is a true Renaissance man and a celebrity in a growing movement that places a premium on farm-to-table cuisine and locally sourced, organic and heirloom food. He is a classically trained artist, who studied at the Ringling College of Art and Design and worked as an instructor at the the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he is well-known for his sketches of the pastoral landscape in which he works.
For nearly 20 years, he has been the Master Gardner at one of America’s most celebrated destination resorts, Blackberry Farm, in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. The 4,200 acre resort, working farm and culinary mecca has been heralded by the world’s most prestigious magazines, including Travel and Leisure, Bon Appetit, Forbes, Vogue, Town & Country, Southern Living, and Garden & Gun among many others. At Blackberry Farm, John cultivates the property’s seven acres of farm land that supply the resort’s award winning restaurants with fresh from the ground, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.
In his role at Blackberry Farm, he has also become one of the nation’s most important seed savers - locating, preserving and sharing nearly extinct vegetable varieties, once abundant in America and particularly in the South. It is the work of a seasoned detective. And while his efforts take him around the world searching for seeds and beans and the cultural knowledge of how to grow them, what inspires him most is his annual pilgrimage to a small Louisiana community he stumbled upon 40 years ago. Drawn to the Washington Parish area as a college student in the early 1970s, John forged relationships with local farmers in the community, where over the years he has served as a dedicated and beloved volunteer at the Washington Parish Free Fair and has painstakingly recorded notes, documented stories and created beautiful sketches in volumes of moleskin notebooks detailing an agricultural way of life that is at risk of loss across our nation.
"That term renaissance man is often overused, and way too often applied, but in this case it is completely appropriate to think of John Coykendall in that way, " says John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. "John's belief in seed saving and the possibilities of seed saving has inspired a whole generation of chefs. One of the things that is interesting about John's relationship to Franklinton and Washington Parish is that he's an outsider, like we are stepping into his world by way of John's journals, and often times, when you're an outsider, you see things more clearly and you appreciate what's in the midst of these people whom you've joined and you turn a mirror on their experiences and say look at this - this is valuable, this is important. It's beautiful."
Coykendall's work inspires us to reconnect with the land, with the seeds and wisdom that our ancestors passed on to us, to grab hold and pass that legacy on to future generations - while there is still time. "Today, as we reach back out of this crazy world we live in, with so much activity where we are so busy,” says friend Chef John Folse, “there is a deep desire within all of us to know from where we came from. John Coykendall laid it all out for us here in these journals."
The documentary, "Deeply Rooted" was produced by independent producer Christina Melton for Louisiana Public Broadcasting, and features images by local photographer Sarah Hackenberg and an original music score by Mike Esneault. The program airs Tuesday, December 6th at 7pm on LPB.