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Saved Seed Grew Into Family Business
Nathaniel Bradford grew up eating watermelon, okra and collards from seed passed down from previous generations. What was family heritage is now a family business, as he grows them for sale to fine restaurants and other markets within a 50-mile radius of his home. The former professional landscaper is now a farmer like his great, great, great-grandfather Nathaniel Bradford, who developed the family watermelon before 1850.
“The Bradford watermelon was first documented in 1851 as one of the best of its time,” says Bradford. “At some point, my namesake shared the seed with others, and it ended up in the northeastern U.S. Our family has no idea how widespread or popular it became.”
“We thought my great-grandfather had bred our watermelon,” says Bradford. “He was a plant breeder in our area and had worked with and improved our watermelon, okra and collards.”
Bradford eventually learned about Dr. David Shields. The University of South Carolina professor had researched and written about once-famous regional fruits and vegetables. One of those was the Bradford watermelon.
“I sent him an email asking if ours could be the one he had written about,” says Bradford. “He replied immediately that it was. He and Glen Roberts of Anson Mills (Vol. 46, No. 1) reached out to me and encouraged me to make the seed available.”
Over the next 2 years, Bradford transitioned from landscaping and part-time farming to full-time farming. He soon added the family’s okra and collards, promoting them to regional chefs with much success.
While he still maintains a Bradford watermelon website, the business continues to change. He’s concentrating on fresh sales versus processed products.
He has also added other old varieties such as Candy Roaster squash, Dutch Fork pumpkins and more. As the family heritage seed story has spread, other seed savers have contacted him, and he’s spreading their stories and seed.
“I’ve met an entire community of seed savers and learned amazing stories of seed saved in freezers, sometimes only a few tablespoons of it, with a hundred years or more of history,” says Bradford.
Last year he introduced Taylor Turnip Tops to South Carolina chefs. The plant produces tops, but not the traditional large turnip root. He received the first seeds from a man named Bill Taylor, whose family had long saved and planted the seed.
“He came to get some watermelon seed and told me about his turnip tops, so we swapped seed,” says Bradford. “When we shared it with our chefs, they went bonkers.”
Later Taylor contacted him with the news that his own seed had gone bad. Meanwhile, some of Bradford’s crop had bolted.
“I harvested 70 lbs. of seed,” says Bradford. “I was able to give him a 5-lb. bag of his seed. Had he not shared with me originally, the variety may well have disappeared.”
Seed for the Bradford Family watermelon and Bradford Family okra is now distributed by Sow True Seed.
Bradford plans to continue trying old crop varieties like Carolina African Runner peanuts, saving seed and, like his ancestors, improving them. Unlike modern peanuts, those selected by Bradford require no pesticides.
However, there’s one seed he’s not sharing. “We aren’t letting our collard seed out right now,” says Bradford. “They’re our bread-and-butter crop, and I want to pass them on to family members. Perhaps they will let them out.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Bradford Watermelon Company, 5275 Dubose Siding Rd., Sumter, S.C. 29153 (customerservice@bradfordwatermelons.com; www.bradfordwatermelons.com); or Sow True Seed, 243 Haywood St., 
Asheville, N. C. 28801 (ph 828-254-0708; info@sowtrue.com; www.sowtrueseed.com).

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2022 - Volume #46, Issue #6