Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.
I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.
Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.
“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.
That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.
Seed Exchange impact
For Wallace, that’s the point.
“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”
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Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.
LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”
This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.
Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.
Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”
There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.
My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.
Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.
“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”
Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz