What are we doing, why are we doing it, and who are we?

The What

The Utopian Seed Project is a 501(c)3 non-profit, founded in November 2018 with the support of Sow True Seed to explore and promote regional agrobiodiversity in Western NC. We work on the farm side and the consumer side to ensure high impact and lasting change.  Our hands in the earth work at the Experimental Farm(s) focuses on a range of crop and variety trials, seed work, and supporting a WNC Seed Growers Collective. We use this work to inspire, educate and celebrate diversity in food and farming through our outreach initiatives like Crop Stories and Trial to Table dinners. The ultimate vision is an engaged community of growers, gardeners, farmers, foodies, cooks and chefs (actually, everyone) who embrace regional biodiversity because they understand and believe in a resilient, delicious and equitable food and farming system.

Our Mission

To responsibly grow, research, educate and celebrate a wide range of crops and varieties to support diversity in food and farming.

Our Vision

An engaged community of growers, gardeners, farmers, foodies, cooks and chefs (actually, everyone) who embrace diversity because they understand and believe in a resilient, delicious and equitable food and farming system.

The WhY

The Experimental Farm at Franny's Farm

Crop Options for a Changing Climate

National Geographic reports, “The International Food Policy Research Institute projects that by 2050, suitable croplands for four top commodities—corn, potatoes, rice, and wheat—will shift, in some cases pushing farmers to plant new crops.” It is reasonable to assume that we will see similar shifts for other market crops. The article concludes that, “The winners, researchers say, will be farmers who modernize their methods and diversify their fields.”

In some cases this could lead to niche market opportunities for minority and immigrant farmers who may already be knowledgeable and even skilled in growing alternate crops. Either way, we want farmers to have access to seeds and knowledge that will allow them to grow food in a changing climate.

Asleigh and Chris selecting collards

Seed Saving, Breeding & Regional Adaptation

SeedLinked is a crop trialing platform that states, “Increased availability and use of diverse seed would create more diversity in agricultural landscapes, contributing to “breeding ecosystems” that could evolve much quicker in face of climate change, boost local adaptation and performance, and bring resiliency and food sovereignty to local economies in an era of globalizing fragility. 

Janisse Ray, seed activist and author, writes, “When seed varieties vanish from the marketplace, they evaporate not only from collective memory but also from the evolutionary story of the earth. Seeds are more like Bengal tigers than vinyl records, which can simply be re-manufactured. Once gone, seeds cannot be resurrected. Goodbye, cool seeds. Goodbye, history of civilization. Goodbye, food.

Jordan Collins with a funky okra flower

Biodiversity for resilient food systems

In a paper titled, Toward resilient food systems through increased agricultural diversity and local sourcing in the Carolinas, Dr. Janet MacFall of Elon University writes, “Diversity in food production can be considered on three levels, a) genetic diversity as reflected in the range of cultivars which can be selected for production, b) species diversity, captured through production of a wide range of crops on each farm, and c) broad ecosystem diversity, described by the diversity of production between farms and within the broader food system.”

Preserving and promoting varietal diversity in traditional southern crops as well as exploring crop diversity with tropical perennials, perennial agriculture, aquatic edibles and native foods is key is a resilent food system.

Okra taste testing event - culinary evaluation

Celebrating Food, FLavor & Diversity

Our current food system is SAD (Seriously Absent of Diversity). Environmental researcher Seth Cook writes: “A mere 30 crops supply 95 percent of the calories that people obtain from food, and only four crops—maize, rice, wheat and potatoes—supply over 60 percent.” The Food52 blog asked,” What Is Diversity in Food?” And answered, “Diversity in food can mean a few different things: For one, the representation of all cuisines and culture. Or, the array of nutrients needed for a full, well-rounded diet. Or, the variety of crops grown on a farm.”

We believe hearts and minds can be changed by speaking directly to the stomach, and that we should make this conversation fun and accessible through food and celebration.

The Who

Chris Smith

Executive Director, Founder

Chris is a the founder of The Utopian Seed Project and loves growing and eating food. His book, The Whole Okra, won a James Beard Award for History, Research and Scholarship in 2020. He’s passionate about sustainable food systems, heritage seed saving, and surviving the apocalypse. 


Leeza Regensburger

Farm Manager, WNC Seed Growers Collective Leadership Team


Shelby Johnson

2023 Seed Mentee, WNC Seed Growers Collective Leadership Team


2023 Seed Mentee

Jamie Swofford

Founding Board Member

As The Chef’s Farmer, Jamie is a former chef turned farmer focused on growing the best tasting food possible and sharing it widely and with great generosity. His skills in the kitchen and the field make Jamie an incredible asset for The Utopian Seed Project, bringing a market and chef perspective to our work.


Yanna Fishman

Founding Board Member

A legendary seed saver and sweet potato grower, Yanna has an insatiable curiosity for growing and researching new crops and encouraging others to do the same. Yanna is a true inspiration and we are honored to have her contribute her skills and wisdom to The Utopian Seed Project.

Brandon Ruiz

Board Member

Brandon is a community herbalist and urban farmer in Charlotte, NC. He directs the CLT Herbal Accessibility Project, growing cultural foods and herbs for his community. Brandon owns Atabey Choreto Medicinals, making herbal medicines which blend Appalachian and Caribbean traditions. He also loves to make sofrito.


Jacob Rutz, Utopian Seed Project Board Member

Jacob Rutz

Board Member

Jacob’s masters (M.S. in Crop Science) research focused on a Farm to Childcare project, connecting low-income childcare centers with local sources of food in NC. Jacob has an enthusiasm for building the local food economy through programs that diversify ownership, incentivize sustainability and create new opportunities for creative individuals. He currently teaches at Elon University.


Ashleigh Shanti Utopian Seed Project board member

Ashleigh Shanti

Board Member

Chef Ashleigh Shanti’s cuisine pays homage to the rich African-American culinary traditions that once thrived in Southern Appalachia- as well as honoring her own history as a Southern, African-American woman. Ashleigh was a 2020 finalist for the James Beard “Raising Star Chef of the Year” award during her tenure as chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle Restaurant.


Chef Terri Terrell - Board Member

Terri Terrell

Board Member



Tamarya Sims

Tamarya Sims

Board Member



Jay Bost - Utopian Seed Project board member

Jay Bost

Board Member




Carol Koury

Founding Board Member

Founder of Sow True Seed, Carol is a visionary with a large heart and deep passion for building a secure and sustainable food system. As a lover of food and a long time gardener, Carol’s seed industry experience have helped The Utopian Seed Project launch itself into the Southeastern seed system.

Carol is spending more time focuses on family at her home on Martha’s Vineyard, but continues to be a close friend of the project from afar!

Eric Cohen Utopian Seed Project Board Member

Eric Cohen

Board Member

Eric developed his skills in organic production by partnering with Tony Kleese to grow organic produce in 2009 and this led to a strong friendship between the two. Tony recruited Eric as a board member for The People’s Seed because of Eric’s passion for supporting local and organic food and his highly developed marketing skills. When The People’s Seed merged into The Utopian Seed Project, Eric joined TUSP’s board to help continue Tony’s vision.  Eric continues to support our vision as a solid friend of the project!

Jordan Collins - Okra

Jordan Collins

2021 Research Assistant

 Jordan is continuing to research okra in Arizona, especially its industrial applications and potential as an oilseed crop.


Tony Kleese

Tony Kleese

Founder and Solutionary of The People’s Seed

Tony Kleese was a legendary seed and farming advocate who’s legacy organization, The People’s Seed, joined forces with The Utopian Seed Project in 2020. Tony’s mission was to redesign the funding and decision making systems for seed and plant development with a focus on farmer success, food security, nutrition, and protecting the environment.

Read his full obituary HERE.


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Thanks to our Sustaining Sponsors

Two Seeds in a Pod - Sustaining Sponsor
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Sustaining Sponsor