“Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
— Henry David Thoreau
DETROIT — Purple and orange. Mottled and speckled. Blue kernels dangling from silver chains.
Show Debra Groat a seed, and she’ll show you a wonder.
“Without those seeds,” she says, “I would just be one of the hundreds of thousands of people who make jewelry.”
The heirloom seeds that Groat grows and crafts into art represent more than a hobby to her. They represent 10,000 years of women’s toil and farmers’ sweat. They represent outrage at the loss of precious heirloom crops in an industrialized world.
She is not amused when people ask silly questions that disrespect the bean and its sister vegetable, corn.
“I’ve been at craft shows where people ask questions like, ‘If I’m outside, will squirrels chase me?’ and ‘If I get it wet, will my necklace sprout?’ ” says Groat, 58.
“One time this lady said to me, ’If it’s really hot outside, will the corn on my necklace pop?’ And I thought to myself, lady, if it’s that hot outside, the necklace will be the last thing you’ll worry about.”
Jewelry usually does not have a subtext of agricultural urgency. So if people fail to properly appreciate the seeds, perhaps it is because so few people understand what Groat actually does.
It is technically difficult to attach seeds to jewelry prongs, much less organically grow heirloom beans and corn, harvest them by hand, then spend at least 7 months drying, freezing and preparing seeds before they can be used.
It has been 11 years of trial and error to perfect her secret process of drilling a seed, but leaving it perfectly undamaged.
She is also ruthless about the seeds she uses in her art. Misfits that are misshapen or imperfect go straight into her soup pot.
And she has figured out that she can’t buy other people’s seeds. Commercial heirloom seed companies tend to harvest by machine, which leaves chips and cracks. So she needs to grow her own.
In her second-floor workshop in her rural home in Rhodes, Mich., Groat works amid glass jars brimming with bean and corn seeds. They have exotic and folksy names — Indian Woman, Red Calypso, Tigers Eye, Black Good Mother, Mayflower, Jacob’s Cattle, Hopi Blue and Oaxacan (wa-Hawk-an) Green Dent.
Plain-spoken and plainly dressed, Groat pours everything she’s got into the beauty of her jewelry
“It is exceptional,” says Michelle Holmes, manager of the Dow Gardens gift shop in Midland, Mich., which has carried Groat’s work for three years. Holmes has seen a lot of other jewelry but nothing that surprises shoppers so much.
“They say, ‘Are those seeds?’ ” she says. “It’s a great conversation piece.”
Groat is the sister, daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Michigan farmers. Her family has worked the land and raised dairy cattle in Standish since the 1880s.
Trail of glory
Her passion for seeds may seem strange to city dwellers, but in every small, modest, overlooked bean seed she sees a trail of glory.
“People who immigrated to America brought their seeds with them, and if they didn’t save those seeds and plant them, they didn’t eat,” she says. She holds some shiny black seeds in the palm of her hand.
“I look at these seeds, and I can feel I might start crying. The thought that the Cherokees carried them on the Trail of Tears, that they carried the exact same bean I have here, it just gives me the shivers.”
At least 93 percent of vegetable seed varieties planted in the U.S. have gone extinct since the early 1900s, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International, which advocates for environmentally sound farming practices. Those seeds were replaced by a handful of commercial hybrids and genetically modified seeds.
So pardon Groat if she feels protective of her humble heirloom seeds.
Her company, Saverine Creek Heirlooms, is named after a river that runs through the family farm.
Her earrings, bracelets and necklaces are for sale online for $24 to $136, and at a few gift shops, and once she came pretty close to being featured in Paula Deen Magazine. But 11 years in, “I’ve never turned a profit,” she says.
On the other hand, it’s better than working at the auto parts store.
Groat grew up on the family farm, now called Hagley Farms and run by her brother, Tim Hagley, and their parents. After high school, she briefly attended Central Michigan University, quit, got married, had two children and went to work. First, she worked in an auto parts store. Her specialty was mixing automotive paint. That was followed by 13 years as a stock clerk for the Arenac County Road Commission.
During the summers, her older brother, Doug Hagley, a master gardener who lives in the Upper Peninsula, would come to the family farm. There, he would grow half an acre of the most exotic heirloom crops he could find, sometimes so exotic the family didn’t even eat them. Eleven years ago, Groat noticed how beautiful some of the seeds were.
“I was working full time, and who pays attention to beans or thinks about them?” she says. “But, oh, my gosh, these were beautiful. I wondered if I could make jewelry out of them.” She began experimenting, avoiding seeds that were plain white. Instead, “I looked for the beauty of the seed and whether it had a documented history.”
Gradually, Doug grew more and more heirlooms for her. When she and her husband, Greg Groat, built a house in Rhodes seven years ago, she started an heirloom garden there. She quit her job with the county, and her life intertwined even more with the beans.
Right now, Groat’s garden is fallow, its rough ground surrounded by lonely wire fencing. The land is windswept with snow.
In winter, she still shells dried beans while watching TV. She is home-schooling an 18-year-old grandson at her house. She exhibits her work when and where she can, preferring master gardening shows to craft shows.
Five years ago on a cold March day, Groat fell while alone, carrying wood in front of her house. She broke her leg and shoulder. She lay outside for more than four hours until her husband found her.
She recovered, but still has two brackets and nine bolts in her left leg. She doesn’t have as much stamina as she used to. She is not supposed to sit for hours, because that makes her stiff, but she can’t walk too quickly, either. It humbles her.
But perhaps she should not be so humble. Her work, though not famous, contains a strength and character that speaks to her passion for the objects used in it. Beans are plain. But beans feed the world.
“For her, it’s a cause. It’s a lifestyle, using these heirloom seeds that are almost forgotten. And she’s very fine technically,” says friend Nelson Yoder.
“It is very rare, very unusual, what she does. I don’t know how she promotes it, but the right person would be overjoyed by such a gift.”