Hurricane Florence had its eyes set on Campbell Coxe’s farm. Just days before the storm made landfall in September 2018, Coxe found himself facing an all too familiar predicament in Darlington County, South Carolina – he had to quickly decide which of his family’s crops to save.
With only 24 hours to spare, Coxe knew exactly what to do – he chose to save the Jimmy Red corn, an heirloom crop known for its unique flavor and high oil content. This decision wasn’t just based on personal preference. Scientists have long recognized the potential of Jimmy Red corn to help combat food scarcity and the effects of climate change as temperatures rise, water becomes scarce, and storms grow stronger.
In an extraordinary effort that would normally take a full week, Coxe tirelessly harvested his 50 acres of Jimmy Red corn just before the storm hit, saving it from Florence’s destructive path. Within hours, he delivered what he had saved to the only Jimmy Red customer two hours away in Charleston.
This was not the first time Jimmy Red had narrowly escaped extinction. Nearly two decades earlier, a farmer and heirloom seed collector saved the last two ears of this unique corn from a local moonshiner’s shop. Years later, it was discovered that by saving Jimmy Red, the farmer had preserved valuable genetic traits that could help commercial corn growers adapt to a rapidly changing climate.
While Jimmy Red may not be suitable for immediate consumption, its genetic makeup makes it uniquely equipped to withstand the challenges posed by climate change. This resilience is what researchers are now looking to harness by breeding Jimmy Red’s genetic code into other commercial corn varieties that have been struggling in the face of increasingly extreme weather conditions.
In a world where growing conditions are becoming more challenging, there’s a growing appreciation for “the old ways.” High Wire Distilling, the largest consumer of Jimmy Red corn, is leading the charge in bringing back traditional grains and reviving age-old agricultural practices. By spreading this precious crop to more farms in the region, High Wire is mitigating the risk of losing Jimmy Red to a single catastrophic event.
For Coxe and other farmers like him, growing heirloom crops like Jimmy Red isn’t just a nod to the past – it’s an investment in the future of our food supply. As scientists and farmers work together to safeguard these genetic treasures against the uncertainties of climate change, it’s clear that the value of preserving heirloom crops goes far beyond tradition, ensuring that we have the tools to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
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