Lady of the Land

Ira Wallace wants to save the world, one seed at a time

Eze Amos

Photography by Eze Amos

A few years ago, an envelope containing about 20 seeds and a note arrived at the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange office at Acorn Community in Mineral, Virginia. The note explained that the seeds were for a variety of bean that had been in the sender’s family for many years, and that if picked in the shelly bean stage—when the bean has just started to swell in the still-crisp yellow pod—and sautéed, the beans taste like mushrooms.

The note said something to the effect of, “Nobody in our family wants to carry it on. Hope you like it,” recalls Ira Wallace, a worker/owner of Southern Exposure, a cooperative company. Marge Mozelisky, the sender of that little envelope, got the seeds from her grandmother, Nellie Chernoff, who obtained the seeds from a Russian woman in the 1950s. Chernoff grew the beans in Kamsack, Saskatchewan, Canada, until 1988, when Mozelisky took over the tradition of preserving the variety.

Prized for their unique flavor and creamy texture, Grandma Nellie’s mushroom beans are now offered in heirloom seed catalogs (including Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s) and grown in gardens and on small farms all over North America.

Grandma Nellie’s yellow mushroom bean, young and just catching to the trellis.

“A plant with a story is more likely to survive,” says Wallace. “Taste is good, but when you have a story, a recipe, it takes you back to some time and some place that is really good.” It’s how a yellow podded bean from Russia ends up growing in a backyard garden—and eaten at dinner tables—halfway around the world in central Virginia.

Wallace, a certified master gardener and expert seed saver who, among other things, wrote The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast (widely regarded as the book on year-round gardening in the Southeast) and sprouted the idea for the Heritage Harvest Festival held annually in September at Monticello, has dedicated most of her life to preserving and sharing seeds and their stories. In doing so, she’s upholding our collective food heritage.

“All roads lead back to her and her work,” says Sara Wood, oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, an institute dedicated to the documentation and study of the cultural, social and economic practices relating to American Southern food. It may not be a direct road, Wood says, but it’s a sure path.

Aunt Mary’s sweet corn next to the barn at Acorn Community.

Planting roots

On the summer solstice, the longest period of daylight all year, Wallace spent a good part of the afternoon on the dirt paths that run between the approximately five acres of wild-looking, experimental gardens at Acorn Community, a 72-acre intentional, egalitarian, income-sharing, secular, nonviolent, feminist, eco-groovy commune that operates on consensus—all members must agree to any changes in the status quo—that Wallace co-founded in 1993. She’s lived in intentional communities almost consistently since college—first at Aloe in North Carolina, then Dandelion in Canada before moving to Twin Oaks, just down the road from Acorn in Louisa County. She’s also gardened at all of these places, as well as on a kibbutz in Israel and on a large organic farm in Denmark.

Acorn Community has about 30 members plus some seasonal guests, and most everyone contributes in some way to the gardens—planting, tending, harvesting and, eventually, either eating the bounty or saving some seeds. Wallace, who’s been with the community from the start, knows the plants well. There’s the blueberry bush grown from a clipping given to Wallace by members of Koinonia Farm outside of Americus, Georgia, and 350 tomato plants that Wallace and others planted late in the season so they could have tomatoes for the Heritage Harvest Festival tomato tasting in September.

In Acorn’s kitchen garden bed, Wallace points out vining petunias and rows of collards, which she says are prettier and tastier in the winter—Alabama blue, green glaze, cabbage collards, white mountain cabbage collards—she goes down the line, naming each variety by sight. Wallace and a few other seed savers around the country are currently testing 60 varieties of heirloom collards to see how they grow in different climates. The intention, she says, is to get these seeds into the hands of small farmers and gardeners and thus onto more plates. If you buy your collards at the grocery store, she says, you’d think there was only one type.

Silverskin softneck garlic hanging to cure.

A little ways away, Wallace points out a bed of basil that she and others have planted to see which types hold up against a wilt that’s been going around—holy basil, green basil, purple basil. Wallace loves working in the garden—there’s nothing like spotting that first pea, she says, putting her hands to her cheeks—but in recent years, she’s had trouble with her legs and hasn’t been able to walk through the patches quite like she used to. But she’s still out there, often with interns and new gardeners, working with the plants and the soil and sharing all that she knows about pear trees (you need two for them to bear fruit), when to pick gooseberries (when they’re dark red-purple) and how to save a cucumber crop from pests without chemicals (cover them until they’re growing faster than the bugs can eat them).

Wallace, who will turn 69 in August, began gardening as a homesick student at New College of Florida. Her mother died when Wallace was just 2 years old, so she went to live with her grandmother, Estella Brown, at the edge of Ybor City, a historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, populated mainly by immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy. Wallace remembers her grandmother’s garden well, from the pecan tree that shaded most of the yard in the summer to the avocado, mango and key lime trees that bore fruit to eat. There were turnips and “lots and lots” of greens, primarily collards and mustard greens.

Brown had only a fifth grade education, so she declared it Wallace’s job to study hard and go to college. Wallace helped in the garden during the summer, but year-round, she couldn’t help studying Brown’s gardening and cooking methods, like how to remove the big vein from a leafy collard before cooking and eating it. Brown died the year before Wallace left for college, so it makes sense that Wallace would turn to the garden when she missed home.

A couple of weeks before I visited Wallace at Acorn Community on June 21, we made lunch together at a friend’s home in Charlottesville. She brought canvas bags of fresh produce from the Acorn gardens, and as I fumbled over preparing a kale salad sans knife and cutting board, she taught me to bend each big green leaf in half and pull out its purple-green spine before tearing the leaf and massaging the pieces to break down the tough fibers and create a more palatable base for a simple but delicious salad. Once I had a full bowl of kale, Wallace added some olive oil, chopped garlic and a squeeze of lemon before spotting a small jar of truffle salt and declaring, “Oh, we’re gonna go there!” as she sprinkled some flakes over the bowl.

Next time I make a kale salad, I’ll make it Ira’s way; at some point, I’ll serve it to friends, and their roads, too, will lead back to Wallace. This is how she works.

Sow it goes: Ira Wallace talks seed stories

  • “A plant with a story is more likely to survive,” says Wallace. “Taste is good, but when you have a story, a recipe, it takes you back to some time and some place that is really good.”

  • Amy’s apricot mix cherry tomato, one of Wallace's favorite varieties. Wallace taught preschool when she lived at Twin Oaks, and one of her former students, Dusty, brought this tomato back to her from his aunt Amy’s garden in Italy.

  • An ear of glass gem corn, "known for its translucent, jewel-colored ears, each one unique. A stunning variety selected over many years by Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer and breeder. It became an Internet sensation in 2012 when a photo of the dazzling cob was posted," says Wallace.

  • Wallace holds a handful of yellow potato onions, an heirloom variety well-liked for its drought resistance, pink root resistance, adaptability to different growing regions and keeping quality—they’ll last 8 to 12 months under good conditions. This particular variety was one of the first offered in Southern Exposure’s seed catalog in the 1980s.

  • Flowers and immature seeds on drunken woman looseleaf lettuce. "The red-tipped frilly lettuce is said to remind one of a tipsy redhead on a breezy day," Wallace says. It's a lettuce with a crisp texture and sweet taste.

Family heirlooms

Wallace started saving seeds around the same time she started gardening—the two are not the same thing. Gardeners plant to harvest crops for consumption; seed savers take it a step further and plant with the intention of harvesting seeds from the crops borne (and eating some of the fruits and vegetables, too, to see how they taste). There are many millions of gardeners in the world, explains seed saver and gardener Craig LeHoullier, aka the Tomato Man, perhaps best known as the person who introduced the Cherokee purple tomato variety to modern-day seed catalogs, and renowned for his penchant for growing hundreds of tomato plants in five-gallon buckets and hay bales in his driveway in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina. But you’d have to put 1 million people together in a room to find just five or six seed savers, LeHoullier says.

Seed saving is a fairly technical process that’s different crop to crop and variety to variety. For example, to save okra seeds, you have to allow the pods to mature on the plant until they’re browning or splitting open, then clip the pods and allow them to dry for one week after they’re fully browned, then remove the seeds. For Southern peas, you must harvest pea pods when they’re crinkly dry or leathery, then allow the pods to dry in a thin layer for two weeks before removing the thin husk, called the chaff, from the seed, either by hand, by sifting it over a screen or by blowing it away with a fan. The process for saving wet seeds—tomato, watermelon, squash, cucumber—is even more involved.

There are a number of national seed saving groups, such as the 13,000-member Seed Savers Exchange based in Iowa, and local groups, like the Blue Ridge Seed Savers in Nelson County. Gardeners at Monticello have been saving and selling heirloom seeds from the historic gardens for decades, in the name of preserving Thomas Jefferson’s epicurean legacy.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange worker and Acorn Community member Irena Hollowell works in the garden.

Sitting at a big communal dining table at Acorn at dusk and eating a snack of bread with butter and huckleberry jam made from commune-grown berries, Wallace recalls how she came to work with seeds in the first place. Not long after forming Acorn, she and another community member, Brian “Cricket” Rakida, looked through newspaper classified ads in search of a winter job to make money for the community. “There was this funny ad,” Wallace recalls, pretending to open a paper in front of her, “something about ‘interesting work with heirloom seeds, some computer skills appreciated; unfortunately, not so great pay.’ We thought it was so cute and sincere, and we thought it would be fun to learn more about seeds,” Wallace says, and she figured her extensive gardening experience would come in handy. So, they answered the ad.

Jeff McCormack, a UVA biologist with a pharmacology background who’d been interested in seeds ever since he picked up a packet of Jacob’s cattle bean seeds at Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum in Massachusetts that imitates rural life in late 18th- and early 19th-century New England, had placed the ad. McCormack had started Southern Exposure Seed Exchange more than a decade earlier, in June 1982, and needed more employees to work at the expanding company that got its start saving and selling, among other things, an unusual variety of potato onion from the Blue Ridge Seed Savers that McCormack wrote about for Organic Gardening magazine.

McCormack says he started Southern Exposure for a number of reasons: to document the stories behind the seeds; encourage the sustainable practices of planting, growing and consuming organic and regional varieties; and to preserve the genetics of these heirloom and organic crops and varieties. With all that in mind, the company focused on collecting and selling open-pollinated, non-hybrid seeds to encourage customers to save their own and share them with other gardeners, McCormack says. He sold the business to the folks at Acorn Community in November 1999, just as the Y2K craze was hitting, and many people, fearing the end of society as we know it, stocked up on seeds and other gardening and seed-saving supplies from companies like Southern Exposure, McCormack says.

Today, Southern Exposure is located in its own building on the grounds of Acorn Community and its seed catalog offers a few hundred heirloom and organic seed varieties. Some of the varieties are saved at Acorn (and they experiment with many more varieties than they save), but most varieties are grown and saved by 70 dedicated farmers and gardeners all over the country; about 80 percent of those providers are located in central Virginia, says Ken Bezilla, Southern Exposure’s inventory manager. Farmers ship the seeds to Southern Exposure, where they’re sorted, processed and packaged before being stored in the neatly organized, air-conditioned seed room that SESE seed processing specialist Irena Hollowell says contains “many millions of seeds” of all shapes and sizes and with names like early moonbeam, Ali Baba, sugar baby and scaly bark (all watermelons).

Seeds need saving because not all seeds are created equal. Most of the crops that we consume today—fruits, vegetables, grains—come from hybrid seeds that are produced by intentionally cross-pollinating plants to beget certain qualities such as rapid growth, high yield and hardiness for a cross-country trip in the bed of a truck. (Sometimes this happens naturally, as insects and the wind can cross-pollinate plants, but it’s usually intentional when money is involved, as it always is in big agriculture.) Many of those crops are genetically modified (GMO) seeds that are created in a lab. The hybrid seed contributed to the dramatic increase in American agricultural production in the second half of the 20th century, and to increased use of chemicals and pesticides in the growing process. “It’s very…complex,” Wallace says of the Big Ag world.

Wallace, LeHoullier, McCormack and their ilk focus on organic and heirloom seeds. Organic seeds are grown and harvested without using chemical processes. Hybrid seeds can be organic, and LeHoullier says some gardeners enjoy experimenting with hybrid plants, though the hybrid seed is impure and cannot be saved for future generations; if planted, a hybrid seed will not result in the same plant from which it came, but it will be a blend of the two parent plants, much like a human baby exhibits physical characteristics of both its parents, LeHoullier says. 

Heirloom seeds, though, are pure seeds—these varieties have been around for so long that their genetics have stabilized (hybrid seeds can eventually stabilize when developed properly). Save a seed from a Cherokee purple tomato, plant and cultivate it, and you’ll get a vine full of Cherokee purple tomatoes.

The tropic tomato is a modern open pollinated tomato developed at the University of Florida. Wallace says that it’s really disease resistant, large, flavorful and early. Recommended for growth in the Mid-Atlantic, it can be grown in gardens and greenhouses.

Seed savers believe there are many reasons for preserving heirloom seeds. For one, older heirloom varieties are tastier than newer varieties (what’s better than a vine-ripened tomato?) and, as Mother Earth News and many individual seed savers point out, crops grown from heirloom seeds are likely to be more nutritious. They’re usually grown organically (no chemicals) from open-pollinated seeds that have been chosen for adaptability to climate, flavor and quality—they’re not meant to live in a shipping container for weeks on end, losing nutritional value by the day. Many heirloom seeds haven’t been in commerce at all—they’re instead passed down through generations of a single family, like the Shows okra variety that an elderly Mississippi woman and member of the Shows family sent to SESE so that it could be preserved and shared long after she died. The stories, the seeds’ history, are worth saving, too.

And then there’s the preservation of genetic variety that goes along with saving heirloom seeds. Because they’re created in a specific climate and have survived in that climate for so long, heirloom seeds are more adaptable than hybrid and GMO seeds. They’re more likely to stand up to disease, drought, extreme heat and extreme cold. “When we think about climate change, or climate instability, having varieties that are more adaptable” is key to preserving our agricultural future, says Wallace.

That genetic diversity is crucial, too—if a farmer plants 100 acres with just one variety of corn and it’s hit with a blight, that’s 100 acres of crop lost. If a farmer plants 100 acres with three different varieties of corn and that same blight hits, perhaps it wipes out just one third of the crop.

“If the practice of seed saving were to be so forgotten that nobody would tap into those seeds, they’d go extinct,” says LeHoullier. “And to me, extinction of any living thing is sad. That’s a bundle of genes you can’t get back again.”

“If the practice of seed saving were to be so forgotten that nobody would tap into those seeds, they’d go extinct. And to me, extinction of any living thing is sad. That’s a bundle of genes you can’t get back again.” – Craig LeHoullier, “The Tomato Man”

Ready to grow: See how Southern Exposure stores its seeds

  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange's seed storage room contains many millions of seeds, all packaged and organized according to crop and variety.

  • Sugar baby watermelon is just one of more than a dozen varieties of watermelon offered in the SESE catalog.

  • M.C. Byles, known as “Radiator Charlie,” nicknamed from the radiator-repair business he owned at the foot of a steep hill in West Virginia on which trucks would regularly overheat. He developed this variety of tomato in the 1940s and sold the plants—which bore large, tasty fruit—for $1 each and paid of the $6,000 mortgage on his house in just 6 years.

  • Before the seeds can be packaged, they must be properly saved. Seed saving is a fairly technical process that’s different crop to crop and variety to variety. Here, Hollowell removes the thin husk, called the chaff, from seeds by sifting them over a screen before they are stored and packed.

  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange inventory manager and Acorn Community member Ken Bezilla examines containers of seeds in one of the exchange’s climate-controlled storage rooms.

  • Proper seed storage is a balancing act—multiple environmental factors, such as low and high temperatures and humidity levels can affect how a seed germinates and whether it germinates at all.

  • .

Sharing crops

Seed savers preserve their seeds so that they may be shared with future generations, and Wallace is particularly good at the sharing part. She’s always out and about, in the gardens at Acorn or Twin Oaks, or traveling around the country, attending seed swaps and giving talks and workshops for amateurs and experts alike. Her colleagues say that her many connections have helped Southern Exposure and the Heritage Harvest Festival grow in reach every year.

When hosting a tomato tasting at the Heritage Harvest Festival, she’ll likely serve Amy’s apricot mix cherry tomato, a variety that one of Wallace’s former preschool students from her teaching days brought back to her from his aunt Amy’s garden in Italy. And she gets just as excited about garlics and onions and the Doe Hill golden bell peppers that she says “are just so cute,” too.

Wood, the Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian, likens gardeners and seed savers to bird-watchers—they have their own language, really, and if you couldn’t tell, things get technical quickly. But Wallace can talk to everyone, on every level, about this stuff, from expert gardeners in Virginia to third-generation farmers in Jamaica, from the journalist who doesn’t know how to tear kale to the baby who’s trying her first ripe cherry (which Wallace pitted first, of course).

“She bleeds gardening and preservation and seed saving, but she also bleeds sharing with people and giving and being open, and honesty and kindness. All of these things are in short supply in the world, and all of these things, Ira has,” says LeHoullier, who’s known Wallace since 1995. Her vision is that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you have or do not have, everyone gardens together. That’s a big part of why Wallace, who is a recipient of the Fellowship for Intentional Community’s Kozeny Communitarian Award, received the 2016 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern Foodways Alliance. “It’s high time that we, too, recognize Ira Wallace as a food world hero any thinking eater should know,” the award announcement read.

“That’s a gift she has,” says Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants who’s worked with Wallace on the Heritage Harvest Festival since Wallace proposed the idea more than a decade ago. Wallace makes the food come alive.

Perhaps that’s because when Wallace looks at a seed, no matter how tiny, how funny-looking, she sees potential.

“When I was a young woman, I thought I could change the world. I was very involved in anti-war and all this stuff, and then, maybe, some of those things didn’t happen. But with a seed, you have the possibility of bringing hope to lots of people in lots of places,” Wallace says, noting that Southern Exposure has worked with Seed Programs International to send seeds to Haiti, “where they’ve just had hard times like I couldn’t imagine.” As she talks, her eyes well up with tears while folks gather in the Acorn dining room for a shared dinner that includes cooked kale à la Ira. “Those seeds—you see the pictures of the food they’re able to grow, and take children who have distended bellies and make them into hardy little things,” Wallace says, her voice catching a bit before she smiles wide. “And it’s just sending a packet of seeds.”