The Daily Dirt

Green Acres Spotlight: Ira Wallace

ira_wallaceIra Wallace is a farmer, an educator, and a seed saver. She is a founding member of the Acorn Community, a cooperative farm in rural Virginia, home to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. We’re thrilled that Ira will be joining us at the Georgia Organics Conference, where she will be signing copies of her book, Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, and participating in an old-fashioned seed exchange. We talked to her about the value of biodiversity, the importance of seed saving, and why growing in the Southeast is different from anywhere else.

Wallace will be speaking at the 17th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Green Acres, Saving the Planet One Bite at a Time, which will be held on Feb. 21-22 at the Jekyll Island Convention Center.

When you don’t have very many varieties being grown it puts the whole agricultural system at risk, because the pool of genetics available to deal with changing weather, new pests, and disease, is much more limited.  That kind of agriculture is also not well geared to support a community of pollinators or the natural enemies of pests. When you have monoculture, you don’t have the homes to support your natural predators and your natural pollinators year round.

If people are selecting for their more local conditions, it generally means that you have a much wider range of genetics available within a region. You have people selecting for different qualities, because not everyone likes the same thing. And not everyone’s soil is the same.  Varieties that are selected for the widest adaptability aren’t the best for any particular place; instead, they do well in a lot of different places. They’re not the ones that are going to take you through the worst conditions you might run into in your particular location; they do well in the middle of the road conditions with a lot of added inputs.

Supporting biodiversity starts from the soil up. It means feeding the soil. It means making a diverse community of microorganisms in the soil that feed a diverse community of food plants. For organic and sustainable farmers, our first line of defense is to not build up pests and disease. Biodiversity and rotation help keep populations of pests under control, and support the natural predators of pests and the natural pollinators. When you build up your soil, you reduce run-off.  You make a system with limited added inputs.

A lot of the Acorn Community growers came to seed growing because some variety that was important in their farm had been dropped from commerce, and they wanted to continue to make it available. Most of our farms only grow a few things to sell for seed. But farmers like the security of knowing that they can save seeds, and that they can maintain their favorite varieties and share them with neighbors in a more traditional way. When this recent movement of seed saving emerged in the eighties, many of the varieties that we now consider common heirlooms were being held by only one or two families. Your choice to preserve a variety that you think is important can make a difference for that variety’s survival.

It was written for the Southeast. You read Elliot Coleman, and there’s great information, but he is in Maine. So he is not really focused on conditions in the Southeast. Here, in order to have a fabulous fall garden, you’re going to need to do summer planting when it’s 90 degrees in the shade. How do you get those seeds to germinate at that time? That’s important. Mentioning things like two season gardening – what to do for an early summer garden, and then for a later one, so you don’t just have two growings of your string beans, but you have two crops of tomatoes, and neither of those crops have their main production in the heat of the summer. As one of them is slowing down, the other is starting to grow, and you don’t lose all your tomatoes in August. The varieties and treatments I’m suggesting are ones that are more for our region.

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