In South Carolina, the Bradford family strengthens its Southern roots by saving one of the world’s best tasting heirloom watermelons from extinction.
Last year, Nat Bradford found a bulbing allium growing in a patch of woods on his farm in Sumter, South Carolina. Because I organize the Western North Carolina Garlic Festival, Nat emailed me with the inquiry, “Could this be a landrace garlic?” I decided to sleep on it, and didn’t reply straight away.
The next morning I had a Facebook message, a text message, an email, and a missed phone call, all about the garlic. Nat had already shipped samples to a collection of well-known chefs, taken various photos, and transplanted some of the bulbs into pots. Within the week, I received my own zip-close bag containing an uprooted garlic-esque plant. I’m pretty sure the allium is a naturalized elephant garlic that didn’t get very big — but this isn’t a story about an amazing new garlic cultivar. It’s the tale of a landscaper-turned-farmer who has two essential qualities for success: a bit of luck, and loads of persistent and enthusiastic motivation.
One would guess that Nat inherited these qualities from his great-grandfather, who developed new seed cultivars back in the late 1800s — the age of agricultural experimentation — on the same land Nat now farms. Today, Nat’s dedication and botanical sense of adventure are why he was one of a select group of farmers to reintroduce the Carolina African runner peanut (Arachis hypogaea), thought to be extinct; why he’s continuing the work of Louisiana State University’s American Groundnut breeding project; and why he’s one of the few farmers in South Carolina to grow industrial hemp in more than a hundred years. It’s also the reason he’s resurrecting and reintroducing three family heirlooms: an okra (which you can find in the “Seed Shop”), a collard, and a watermelon.
The ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon is an heirloom with a classic narrative of glory, loss, and revival. Think of it as the poster child for the story of our food culture. This cultivar’s history begins during the American Revolution, on a British prison ship bound for the West Indies in 1783. On board, a Georgian prisoner named John Franklin Lawson saved the seeds from a slice of watermelon offered to him by the captain. After being freed and returning to his home state, Lawson planted and grew out those seeds. The resulting watermelon was noted for its sweetness and flavor.
The Bradford connection to this melon appears around 1840, when Lawson sent some seeds to Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of Sumter County, South Carolina. Bradford crossed the Lawson cultivar and ‘Mountain Sweet’ to produce ‘Bradford Family.’ From the 1850s to the 1910s, the ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon was famed in the South and beyond for its ability to produce late in the season. It was also known to be drought-tolerant and incredibly tasty.
The last commercial planting of ‘Bradford Family’ was recorded in 1922. Nearly 100 years later, Dr. David Shields, distinguished food historian, award-winning author, and professor at the University of South Carolina, began hunting for the seed. “I checked germplasm banks, seed savers’ exchanges, read original seed catalogs from the 1800s, and wrote watermelon growers in the boondocks rumored to have old melons. They tended to have old, bad melons. I was unable to find the ‘Bradford,’ and I almost lost hope,” says Shields.
Why did such a fantastic watermelon nearly go extinct? The answer lies in our modern foodway practices. The ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon couldn’t be stacked ten deep. It couldn’t be loaded on trains or trucks without loss because its thin skin and soft flesh would bruise and split easily during transportation. So, other watermelon cultivars with tougher, thicker skin were bred for larger commercial operations. The ‘Bradford Family’ wasn’t alone in falling out of favor, despite its superior flavor: From 1903 to 1983, there was a 93 percent loss in commercially available seed cultivars. Much of that loss is extinction level.
The ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon could easily have disappeared too. But the Bradford family kept it alive, maintaining the cultivar “in a little field in Sumter for well-nigh onto 100 years,” Nat Bradford says. By chance, he stumbled upon a reference to the ‘Bradford Family’ in an 1850s book describing the best fruits and vegetables of the time. With some effort, investigation, and a little luck, Nat connected with Dr. Shields, who confirmed the watermelons were one and the same. Nat discovered he was an eighth-generation grower and seed-saver of a famed watermelon.
Inspired to champion the reintroduction of the ‘Bradford Family’ melon, Nat connected with southern food culture. He made watermelon molasses for the first time in 125 years. He partnered with local distilleries to create watermelon brandy, and with breweries to produce watermelon beer. All of this is possible because of the exceptional characteristics of the ‘Bradford Family’ fruit — extremely sweet flesh, thin skin, thick rind, and large melons (up to 40 pounds). Sow True Seed became the sole distributor of ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon seeds in 2017, offering seeds that are grown and saved not more than 10 miles from the original breeding site. The aim is to get this watermelon cultivar the attention it deserves and to encourage people to save the seed far and wide.
Sow True Seed is also making ‘Bradford Family’ okra seed available for the first time in the 2018 growing season, and will introduce ‘Bradford Family’ collard seeds in 2019. While these crops don’t hold the same level of nationwide fame as ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon, they are true family heirlooms; the Bradfords’ selection practices focus on superior flavor. Recently, the South Carolina State Farmers Market received rave reviews when it served slaw made with ‘Bradford Family’ collards and topped with pickled ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon rind.
‘Bradford Family’ heirlooms are appropriately named because a botanical legacy connects Nat Bradford to his great-grandfather, the original seedsman of the family. Nat learned the tricks of cultivar maintenance and seed-saving from his grandfather, planting his first watermelon when he was just 5 years old. Now, the weight of the ‘Bradford Family’ watermelon rests firmly on his shoulders. Looking to the future, Nat’s children also work to continue the family heritage: They test watermelons for ripeness and load them into trucks, clean and shell peanuts, and pick okra and bunch collards.
Heirlooms are more than mere commodities. The Bradford family’s efforts go way beyond the resurrection of lost fruits and vegetables. They hope to build a sustainable and rich food culture, one that focuses on flavor, nutrition, and local collaborations. Like many heirlooms, this food culture used to exist in abundance and neared extinction, but is making a comeback.
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