Heritage Harvest Festival transforms Monticello into celebration of farm culture

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Ira Wallace, owner/worker at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, got the idea for the Heritage Harvest Festival after visiting an heirloom tomato festival in California. Photo: John Robinson Ira Wallace, owner/worker at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, got the idea for the Heritage Harvest Festival after visiting an heirloom tomato festival in California. Photo: John Robinson

The exalted heights of Monticello are not normally associated with grassroots organizing. Visit this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, though, and you’ll enjoy the fruit of a seed planted in 2007 by Ira Wallace, a master gardener from Louisa and owner/worker at the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

“We actually, on a lark, had this idea. I had been in California at the tomato festival and I thought, ‘It would be so cool to do something like that at Monticello,’” Wallace said.

Wallace reached out to her friends in the sustainable agriculture community in Central Virginia with the notion of putting together an event to celebrate the region’s food heritage, its heirloom varieties, and its small farmers.

The group got a proposal to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which, much to their surprise, agreed to host the first Heritage Harvest Festival at Tufton Farm. The festival stayed at the Center for Historic Plants for two years before it outgrew the venue and moved from relative obscurity right up to the West Lawn of Monticello, in direct view of Thomas Jefferson’s study. Last year’s celebration drew 4,000 people and this year’s program—headlined by sustainable agriculture iconoclast Joel Salatin—is expected to be the biggest event yet.

The festival’s purpose, according to Wallace, is to introduce “a large number of people to heirloom varieties, making people more aware of sustainable agriculture, and bringing together the community of people that values those things.”

Over the course of Friday and Saturday, September 14-15, the Mountain will open its gates to foodies and green thumbs alike at the inauspicious price of $10, free if you’re a presenter, a seed swapper, or a young farmer. The people–dirty fingernails, muddy boots, and all–will swarm over Jefferson’s grounds and gardens to take part in over 50 organized workshops, ranging from how to sun dry a tomato, to how to make a sourdough starter, to how to raise medicinal herbs and keep free-range chickens.

The festival—which these days has the feel of a well-heeled garden party—is also the most informal, kid-friendly, and affordable way for locals to get a feel for what’s going on outdoors at Monticello, significance not lost on Gabriele Rausse, who became Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds in July.

“It is the celebration of the commitment of Jefferson to educate people in growing what they needed, to treasure what they knew and exchange it with other people,” Rausse said. “All of these farmers that are coming here, they don’t mind telling their secrets. This could have been done in a lot of places but this is where it should be.”

Rausse knows the power of the place. The agronomist and winemaker—often called “the father of Virginia wine”—arrived from Italy in 1976 to help Gianni Zonin prove to the world that Thomas Jefferson’s dream of making European wine in Virginia was a possibility at Barboursville Vineyards. The first year was a disaster, as Rausse lost half of the vines he planted. But success followed failure and just seven years later, Rausse was invited by then-Monticello Director of Gardens and Grounds Peter Hatch to help restore Jefferson’s vineyard to its 1807 footprint. In 1984, they planted 22 of the 24 original varieties Jefferson and his Italian friend Filippo Mazzei first experimented with.

In 1995, Hatch invited Rausse to join him as his assistant, and this year Rausse assumed the role of chief caretaker for the plantation’s fields, gardens, and orchards. The Heritage Harvest Festival is his coming out party, in a way, since he’ll be a presenter and since he still describes himself, most humbly, as a farmer.

“To stay on the track that Jefferson put us on is the main thing. When I came to work here, I was thinking to spend maybe two years and then go back to my wine industry, but I fell in love with the place,” Rausse said. “I fell in love with what Jefferson was thinking about agriculture and society. He was promoting the intercommunication between people to improve their education and the agriculture.”

Joel Salatin—who founded Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley and was lionized by new agriculture bard Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma—is the headline act at this year’s festival. If Rausse sees the event as the natural continuation of Jefferson’s ideas and his own work, Salatin will use his three-hour seminar to do what he does best: make people ask the hard questions about where their food comes from and what it’s for.

“I’ve asked if Jefferson were alive today, would he have Tyson chicken houses or would he have free-range chickens and compost piles? And nobody can answer that,” Salatin said. “Because the foundations of his model were grain-based annuals and cheap labor, which is the base of today’s industrial food system.”

Salatin, a spokesperson for agriculture reform and local food, was on his fourth interview of the morning and he was itching to get on to his next task, chopping wood. On September 24, he’ll celebrate 30 years as a full-time farmer, but he’s best known for his ability to connect experimental agricultural practices with new theories about food and culture. He’s as much an evangelist as a food producer.

“We begin yearning for roots, heritage, for the glue that doesn’t change from civilization to civilization. And that deep intuitive soul-level yearning is what is driving the heritage movement, the localization movement, the relationship marketing movement, the farmer’s market movement, even the culinary arts movement,” Salatin said.

Salatin, for all his irreverence, describes Jefferson as a personal hero and admires, more than anything else, his commitment to place at a moment in history when he says the American home is being treated more as a locker room than as an organizing principle for families.

He wants people to leave this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival galvanized to change the way we treat the notions of farm, food, and home.

“We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity and excitement with the infrastructure and the understanding that we have about biology, about fertility, about compost, and animals and plants,” Salatin said.

The festival isn’t just a classroom either. Backyard Revolution, a partner organization, will be demonstrating early American skills and crafts and there will be great music and food, from drop donuts to local hard cider and beer. The list of experts is long and distinguished but the festival has a casual, communal feel. It’s the type of party you might find at someone’s farm—it just happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s place.

Don’t be fooled by the good times, though. Local food is serious business in Central Virginia these days and the festival is a jumping off point for Joel Salatin’s revolution, Gabriele Rausse’s mission, and Ira Wallace’s dream.

“Have you ever done something where you’re thinking, ‘If I had a magic wand and I could have what I want, this is what it would be?’” Wallace asked.

Visit heritageharvestfestival.com for a list of events, ticket prices, and lots more information.

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