Seed saver, writer, educator, and worker and co-owner with the Virginia-based Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Ira Wallace wants people to know the story behind the seeds that are grown. Through her work, Wallace is trying to preserve history while ensuring a sustainable future for food systems.
The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a cooperatively managed seed company that encourages self-reliance in agriculture. They place emphasis on open open-pollinated seed varieties—those that have been bred naturally through insects, bats, or wind—to encourage seed saving and exchange among gardeners and farmers, as well as heirloom varieties—those developed before 1940—to encourage seed saving and exchange among gardeners.
“Since people have been keeping records of it, farmers were at the center of selecting varieties that did well in their gardens or on their farms and carrying those forward,” Wallace tells Food Tank. “But about 100 years ago, that began to change as companies started to produce more seeds.”
Today, the ETC Group estimates that four firms control more than half of global seed sales. And as corporate consolidation continued, Wallace says, companies shifted their focus from regional adaptability to profit. And she believes that this change has come at the detriment of resilience.
“When new situations come along, you don’t know what you need, right? Having a diversity of genetic materials available in the seed system is important,” Wallace tells Food Tank.
Seeds also hold immense cultural significance, representing another argument in favor of their preservation. Behind seeds, Wallace says, are stories and a way to remember the past.
The Heirloom Collard Project, of which Wallace is part, focuses specifically on preserving the seeds, culinary traditions, and history behind collard greens.
“Collards are pretty much the only Brassica oleracea that was selected in the southeastern part of the United States, largely and initially by enslaved people and continued by poor people, Black and white, throughout the South,” Wallace tells Food Tank. “And it is one of the things that is like a sign of home.”
By bringing together seed savers, researchers, farmers, and chefs, the Project celebrates the diversity of collard varieties.
“Seeds are living things,” says Wallace. “You can’t just put them away.”
Listen to the full conversation with Ira Wallace on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to hear about how Ujamaa Seeds is producing culturally meaningful seeds, the sense of place and belonging that crops can provide, and the next generation of seed savers inspiring Wallace.
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Photo courtesy of Hans Stuessi, Wikimedia Commons