Graduating Horticulture senior Amirah Mitchell knows that the importance of seeds goes well beyond their inherent capacity for new growth. Her passion is preserving the rich history that goes along with those seeds.
"I've been really interested in focusing my agricultural career specifically on seeds — seed farming, seed growing and propagation — and that drew me to seedkeeping, which is different than seed saving," said Mitchell, 28, who will complete her Horticulture degree from Temple University's Tyler School of Art and Architecture this semester. "Seed saving is taking seeds from a plant that you've grown and storing them, saving them year to year. Seedkeeping is more intentional in that you are saving seed varieties that are culturally important, that have powerful cultural resonance for people."
Seedkeeping, Mitchell said, not only preserves the seeds, "it preserves the stories, the lore, that surround those seeds, that make them personal."
"We're talking about culturally important heirloom seeds, as opposed to a standard tomato you might find in a seed catalog. For me, seedkeeping is a practice of not just saving the seed, but also saving the traditions that surround that seed," she said. "That's really important, I think, to preserve and share these varieties of seed that are cherished within their communities; that have these rich traditions and stories to tell. I am particularly focused on food crops of the African diaspora, which are the crops that are most important to me — I want to continue to educate people about them."
Mitchell's connection to seeds, plants and the natural world is interwoven throughout the tapestry of her life.
"Ever since I was a child, I've always loved being in nature. My mom used to take my brother and myself on these hikes through the Blue Hills in Massachusetts, which was not far from where I grew up, and when I was a kid and we were just walking through the woods," she said. "I used to pretend that I was a park ranger — giving people educational tours on all of the plants and animals and insects and rocks that I could find even though I knew nothing at the time about anything I was talking about. Nature has always been a part of my life, but it did take me a while to really consider something related to nature as a career."
While it may have taken time to take her interests from passion to profession, it didn't take long for Mitchell to start amassing a broad wealth of horticultural and agricultural knowledge and experience. At just 14, she became a teen farm intern with The Food Project in Boston, MA.
"It was a summer program where young people were paid to work on a suburban farm and an urban farm. It was a great opportunity to learn about food systems and related issues," she said. "We also worked in food banks and charities. It was an awesome experience and I worked there for the next four years throughout high school. I returned every summer and worked my way up the ranks."
The experience, Mitchell said, "created this deep interest in agriculture and particularly in ways to make agriculture better."
"I wanted to learn more about how to farm sustainability. I felt that I had a special calling to agriculture and to farming the land — I felt that farming was part of my ancestry, my history," she said. "My grandmother on my mother's side would tell me stories about growing up in southern Georgia. She grew up on a farm and left when she was a young person, but I had those stories and those memories and that inkling that farming was in my blood."
Farming, Mitchell said, "was also a way for me to receive healing."
"As an African American, there's healing from trauma related to the land that I felt — even when I couldn't quite articulate it — when I was doing that work," she said. "I always felt a sense of sanctuary when I was working with the land. Ever since then I wanted to learn more, so I was always picking up the books and seeking out new opportunities."
For example, Mitchell said, she headed to Brazil to learn about permaculture — "we studied our textbook on the weekday and we went to waterfalls on the weekend" — and went to Panama to focus on tropical ecology and conservation while staying at local farmsteads and indigenous villages, "which completely changed my view of the world and my role in it."
"I was fortunate to have parents that really enabled me to be a go getter in that way," she said.
Mitchell has now worked in agriculture and food justice organizations for fourteen years, including working on urban farms in Massachusetts, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and delivering workshops on agroforestry, soil ecology, urban gardening, and seedkeeping with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Soul Fire Farm and more. Today, she is the 2021 Seedkeeping Resident at Greensgrow in Philadelphia in addition to working at Truelove Seeds.
Turning back the clock a little bit, when college beckoned, Mitchell said, "I didn't have a lot of knowledge of good agricultural programs — I knew I wanted to be a farmer, but I wasn't aware of the word horticulture; I didn't have a clear idea of what it meant, so I wasn't looking for horticulture programs."
"I was looking for something that felt adjacent so I looked for environmental science programs. I studied environmental science at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, but I realized that wasn't the right fit for me," she said. "I love the science, but I'm a hands-on type of person; I want my hands in the earth. I left that program and started working in the field, getting jobs at landscape companies and small farms and farm organizations."
She decided to give the Philadelphia area a try after learning that "Philadelphia, and just Pennsylvania in general, is this huge hub for the horticultural/agricultural field," Mitchell said.
"It also happens to have a really large and active community of people of color in this field and that's kind of what I was looking for. I ultimately made the decision to go back to school and discovered Temple's Horticulture program," she said. "What drew me to Temple's program was that you are studying within an Arboretum, you have these wonderful interactive opportunities to work in a greenhouse. Temple made it very easy for me as a transfer student to make the transition to complete my horticulture degree — I remember writing this very passionate letter about why I needed to be at Temple and everyone here helped me make that happen."
The decision to return to school, Mitchell said, was not without its stresses, to put it mildly.
"I thought I was going to get discouraged before I committed to the decision. When I applied to Temple and I came in to see what the possibilities were, I was set up with an admissions counselor and academic advisor and they were just wonderful," she said. "I initially thought 'Oh no, I'm going have to do four whole additional years on top of the three I've already done — I don't want to be in school forever!' My advisor took a look at the classwork I had taken and she said 'Well, you know, we can get credit for this, this and this' and it was just so encouraging, I think particularly because she saw that as an adult returning to school, I was very serious about my education in a way that maybe I hadn't been earlier in my life."
The support system at Temple for transfer students, Mitchell said, "helped me feel comfortable in my decision, like this was something I could do."
"My advisor, in my opinion, went above and beyond anything I expected," she said. "I felt like we were in this together, figuring out how I could transfer and get credit for all of my work."
At Temple, Mitchell said, what students are learning in the classroom "is directly related and beneficial to working in the industry."
"So many of the professors teaching us have been part of the industry for years — you get that insider's peak that you mighty not get anywhere else. Sometimes it's just seeing a different scale of what you've been learning — visiting large nurseries and being able to ask a ton of questions — that can help change your perspective or give you insight on where you want to take your career," she said. "(Arboretum Director) Kathy Salisbury, for example, introduced me to new ways of thinking about invasive plants. I feel really fortunate to have had the chance to continue expanding my hands-on experience in the campus gardens and the greenhouse and the campus library is second to none — you can find any book that you're looking for on anything horticultural-related and if they don't have it, they'll find it for you."
Paper in hand, Mitchell said she is ready for any challenges ahead as her career "moves full steam ahead."
"Immediately after graduation, I'm going from part-time work to full-time at Truelove Seeds and I hope to continue on as the Seedkeeping Resident at Greengrow so I can help that program continue to expand," she said. "After that, the next step for me is having my own farm. That was one of the primary things I was hoping would come out of completing my degree. I feel like I'm ready to have my own farm and that I have the connections and the resources and the degree, so that I can gather resources and really get started with my own land."
Mitchell said one of the aspects that she truly appreciates about Temple's horticulture program is that "many of us are transfer students and people returning to education after a period of time."
"Many of us already have some kind of life experience. We've had a really excellent opportunity to talk to each other about our careers and experiences, so we get the benefit in our classrooms of talking to each other and learning from someone who came from a teaching background or has worked in psychology. We're getting to learn from each other while we learn from our instructors," she said. "This journey, for me, has been about seeking opportunities and grabbing hold of them. There's no formula, there's no way to do this right or wrong, but there is the journey. I started in environmental science; I thought I wanted to be a landscape designer at one point and I went into restoration and design, then urban farming and now I'm super focused on seedkeeping — I didn't get here without a long journey of discovery."