If you’re into organic seeds or growing seeds of varieties that are out of the ordinary, you’ve probably heard of this week’s guest. Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) is truly an icon and a powerful force in the seed world. I’m fortunate to catch up with Ira at various garden events along the East Coast, but this was the first time she had joined me for the podcast.
Ira became involved with SESE 25 years ago after moving from Florida to Central Virginia. She co-founded the 70-acre co-op Acorn Community Farm which was the home of SESE. It didn’t take long for SESE founder, Jeff McCormick, to realize that Ira’s co-op was something special. Within 2 years, he asked them to take over SESE management and stewardship.
Under their watch through the past two-plus decades, the SESE has continued to grow – preserving and selling seeds grown on the co-op and a number of small farms nearby. The organization is committed to sharing not just the seeds but the stories and recipes that accompany the heirloom varieties.
Ira stays busy as part-owner of SESE and all the many details of running such a business. In light of several podcasts I’m sharing right now around seeds and seed companies, I definitely wanted to include Ira, a well-respected and seasoned leader in the organic vegetable seed business, to learn more about her niche company, its history and the work they’re involved with.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
SESE specializes in family heirloom variety crops. About a third of the varieties they’ve carried through the years weren’t available elsewhere on the market. They were grown and preserved by a single family or by a small community. SESE has faithfully worked to ensure these crops are available for future generations.
These days, SESE works with 50-70 small area farms to produce open-pollinating varieties to sell online and through their catalog. Some of these farmers specialize in growing just one particular variety. They don’t do the work to make money but out of a belief in the importance of maintaining a tradition of seed saving.
Although much of what’s grown falls under the category of heirloom, SESE partners with a number of farms to develop new open-pollinated varieties too. They take seeds from a hybrid and grow those seeds for 6-7 generations until the DNA of the resulting plant – and its desirable traits – stabilizes.
In a day and age where a lot of newly-developed hybrids are protected as proprietary or patented, the efforts of SESE and their partners mean freedom of access to a wider diversity of plants for all gardeners in the years ahead. It means greater independence in our food choices, and these days, that seems more important than ever.
Large hybrid developers are willing to invest a lot of money to corner the market on particular plant varieties. Many plant patents are, essentially, the same as the patent on a machine part. The genetics of the patented plant are protected from use. Ironically, some of those genetic qualities may have been available naturally for decades.
Ira gives a good example of this. If a hybrid broccoli variety is resistant to high temperatures, is it possible that this heat-tolerance was naturally-available in a lesser-known heirloom variety? Certainly, but without seed preservation and good record-keeping, it can be difficult to win that battle against a corporate patent challenge.
That’s just one of many reasons that Ira is so passionate about her work. She invests a lot of her time supporting and educating up-and-coming generations of seed savers and growers through speaking events and as a member of the Organic Seed Alliance board for the past decade.
Trends and Traditions
All in all, the SESE community grows around 800 plant varieties each year, although those varieties aren’t always the same from season to season. Just like most things, seeds are subject to trends, and the growers have to respond accordingly. For example, Ira reports that the Red Foliated variety of cottonseed sold twice as quickly this year as last year. In order to keep up with demand, some SESE growers will devote more space to Red Foliated cottonseed this season.
On the other hand, there are some varieties that will probably always be on the hotlist. Mortgage Lifter is one of those, and SESE was the first company to offer this popular tomato variety commercially. A nephew of developer and amateur breeder, M.C. Byles, gave them the original seed through Tomato Guy Craig LeHoullier decades ago.
Mr. Byles owned a radiator shop in Western Virginia and sold his unique tomato seedlings for $1 each – a hefty sum back in the 1940s. He had developed the new beefsteak variety by finding four of the tomato plants producing the biggest fruit and hand-pollinating them between each other. Then, he’d take the largest resulting tomatoes, save those seeds and repeat the process.
It took several years to stabilize a plant that always produced enormous beefsteak tomatoes, but once he had it, his seedling sales allowed him to pay off his mortgage. His story is proof that any gardener can do this type of plant breeding. It just takes patience and determination.
Eighty years later and the M.C. Byles Mortgage Lifter tomato variety is being grown in gardens around the world, and that is thanks, in large part, to the continued efforts of SESE.
On the Horizon
Ira and the team at SESE are bringing gardeners a number of varieties never before available commercially. They recently met with two men who traveled the southern states to look for collard greens and gather seeds from the backyard gardens where they were being grown.
All in all, the pair collected nearly 100 unique varieties and added them to the USDA gene bank. They also wrote a book, Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table. and began trialing about 60 types. Fortunately, the pair had enough seed to share those varieties with SESE, which is now starting to offer them for sale to home gardeners.
Ira has also developed a personal commitment to creating a small collection of plants of the African diaspora. She realized not long ago that SESE only offered a few types of plants important in the African culture and resolved to change that. She’s been busy adding seed offerings and recording the history of plants like edible celosia, Callalo Amaranth greens, and Thai Red roselle.
Growing and selling plants from seed comes with some hefty responsibilities. One of those is living up to a non-GMO certification.
In the world of plants and seeds, GMO (genetically-modified organisms) refers to plant varieties which have been artificially-manipulated at a DNA level in order to achieve a specific purpose – most often is the ability to withstand herbicidal application. It’s why many home gardeners are keen to avoid GMO seeds.
While GMO seeds are popular in commercial agriculture, they aren’t available to the home consumer. As Ira confirms, the risk lies in the possibility that crops in a home garden or an organic farm environment may become contaminated through cross-pollination with a GMO crop on a farm nearby. It happens.
The pollen from plants like corn or the brassica family can travel up to two miles on the wind, so it takes concerted efforts on the part of the seed producer to take the appropriate steps to avoid this type of cross-pollination.
When an organization indicates that their seed is “Non-GMO Certified”, it means that they have taken those steps and tested the seed to verify that there has been no GMO cross-pollination. That said, it’s not a requirement to test every crop of seed, however if a supplier’s stock is ever in question, documentation, and testing can be requested to verify that the supplier is taking all the right steps.
Ira’s influence brings gardeners together in a number of ways. One of the most iconic just might be the annual Heritage Harvest Festival event held at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA.
Monticello had never worked with an outside organization to host an event when Ira approached them with the idea. Well, it’s hard to say “no” to Ira, and so, the idea became reality. She arranged for volunteers to donate time to the cause and raised a small amount of money to pay expenses. Everyone anticipated a modest attendance for the first year, so when 1,000 showed up, they knew they had a hit on their hands.
It’s now the featured attraction and the single, largest attendance of the year for Monticello, and gardeners travel far and wide to enjoy the event. I’ve been privileged to attend it, myself, and the crew and I filmed it for an episode of our show, Growing a Greener World®.
The event will be held later than usual this year. So the standard and popular tomato-tasting will shift to focus on samples of pepper, garlic, shallots, and onion. Be sure to mark your calendar for October 4, 2020.
Grow Great Vegetables
By now maybe you’ve come to realize that Ira is the type of person who prefers to stay busier than most. Like me, she’s eager to help people get into gardening or to experience more success with growing food.
As someone who has gardened in southern states for decades, Ira is keenly familiar with the unique challenges presented in each area. Hardiness zones only tell part of the story. So, Ira wrote a series of five books specific to gardening in each of the southeastern states. Grow Great Vegetables in Georgia is one in the series.
Each book guides the gardener to pick the right plant for the state’s specific conditions (such as North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia, along with the right time to start it from seed. The books also include month-by-month guidelines to walk gardeners through the whole growing season. I highly recommend these as a resource for gardeners living in a southeastern state.
I also highly recommend that you listen in to this podcast – if you haven’t already. Ira is a force of nature, and that comes through in our conversation, along with her sense of humor. I know you’ll enjoy listening to our conversation, and you’ll also learn why it’s difficult to stabilize my favorite tomato – Sungold – as an open-pollinated variety.
Are you growing any unusual varieties from seed this season? I hope you’ll share details on your latest plant adventure in the Comment section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
Essential Gardening Fundamentals – My online course teaching the key fundamentals you need to know to create a healthy, productive garden! Limited enrollment before registration closes in a few days.
Master Seed Starting – My newest online course teaching you how to master the art of starting your own plants from seed and seeding care! Registration closing soon, so don’t miss out!
Grow Great Vegetables in Georgia, by Ira Wallace
Grow Great Vegetables in North Carolina, by Ira Wallace
Grow Great Vegetables in South Carolina, by Ira Wallace
Growing Great Vegetables in Virginia, Ira Wallace
Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table, by Edward H. Davis and John T. Morgan