At Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, business and community exist in symbiosis. For more than two decades, the organic seed company has made strides to maintain the integrity of hundreds of seed varieties while also safeguarding certain niche species to keep them in existence.
It’s owned and operated by the Acorn Community Farm, a secular, egalitarian commune established in 1993, which is now solely supported by its rapidly growing sustainable enterprise.
Its business model is unique. Each member of the cooperative has their chosen role. They practice income sharing, make their own hours and function on a non-hierarchical basis.
Ira Wallace, 74, the public face of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, has been referred to by those who know her as the “Godmother of southern seeds” for her educational outreach and collaborative work with other seed companies.
“We don’t think that seed companies, that have the same goals as us, are competition,” she says. “But rather that we are collaborators in making more varieties available to gardeners and farmers that want to save their own seeds.”
Wallace has also written several books on the subject of seeds.
The company has expanded steadily since its purchase by the Acorn Community in 1999 – from packaging roughly 10 orders a day in their living room to a now sprawling operation that ships more than 250 orders nationwide on a daily basis. The enterprise mailed out roughly 52,000 orders in 2022.
The business sees its usual boom at the start of each year.
“January is our busiest month,” says Wallace. “That’s when people start gardening in their heads.”
But after Wallace and the company were featured in a New York Times article written by Margaret Roach earlier this year, the seed exchange was pumping out more than 900 orders a day for a stint.
Orders had already doubled following the pandemic and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has had no trouble meeting customer demand.
Structured on sustainability
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is located in the Mineral area. Its non-GMO seeds are grown, stored, packaged and shipped from the 72-acre farm accompanied by a pair of facilities built by residents of the Acorn Community.
The business practices sustainable methods. The facilities operate mostly through solar powered energy. Seeds are fertilized with compost and are grown without the use of conventional herbicides and pesticides.
Wallace says these traditional techniques help preserve the nutritional value of each variety in a way that has nearly been lost since corporate giants have industrialized seed farming and marginalized the market.
“When people were trying to save their own seeds and have self-sufficiency, they wanted foods that had a lot of healthy nutrients in a smaller amount,” she says. “That idea was sort of overtaken by increased yields. So you have bigger, faster growing varieties but not necessarily as many vitamins and minerals or as high of a protein content.”
Wallace also says conventionally grown seeds can contain trace amounts of herbicides and pesticides. She contends that genetic modification and the use of chemicals in the growing process are culprits for an influx of food allergies and intolerances in recent decades.
Keeping variety alive
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s catalog now offers 800 varieties, each seed with its own origin. The agribusiness sources the majority of its seeds from small-scale farms.
“We get 60% from small, independent farmers who grow anywhere from one to 10 varieties for us on contract,” says Wallace.
The company works closely with its contracted agronomists to ensure seeds are grown to organic and natural standards.
The Acorn Community Farm and other closely modeled seed saving organizations have been essential in keeping seed variety alive.
“We specialize in heirlooms, especially family heirlooms – varieties that have been saved in either one family or one local community for a number of generations,” says Wallace. “A lot of bigger companies have gone toward hybrid and more uniform varieties.”
The seed exchange also collaborates with traditional plant breeders, many of whom release their safekept, unique seed varieties to the Acorn Community upon their retirement.
Such practices have allowed Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to continue expanding its offerings of vegetable, flower, herb, grain and cover crop seeds.
For Wallace, she’s partial to collard seeds.
“There’s purple ones and curly ones. It’s just amazing; the real diversity,” she says. “That gene pool is diverse because out of the same ancestors as collard came broccoli and cauliflower and so many cabbages. I don’t know why I thought there is only green collards, but it’s not true.”
For more information on Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, visit www.southernexposure.com.
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