Black History 365: Ira Wallace

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Ira Wallace ambles around the butcher block countertop in the kitchen she shares with a community of farmers in central Virginia. She has separated a single leaf from the large baskets of unusual, parti-colored collard greens she got from a friend’s farm. Its creamy-white veins stretch upward across the green leaf, narrowing as they reach purple-tinged tips.

“Purple is a color that develops in the winter much more strongly,” Wallace explains, as she probes the frost-damaged leaf. “But look at that color! And that’s anthocyanins. They’re supposed to make you healthier.”

These aren’t commercially produced collard greens typically sold in supermarkets or restaurants. Many of the heirloom varieties Wallace and her friends grow are rare, some once teetering on extinction. Other types can likely be found in backroad gardens of aging stewards, but countless varieties have vanished in the U.S.

There was once a kaleidoscope of diversity in collards, as people diligently collected and replanted seeds, passing them from one generation to the next to preserve the qualities they found most important. Collards — an inexpensive, nutrient-rich vegetable — became a staple for many Southern families, especially African Americans trying to feed their families healthy food year-round.

“Where I grew up, if you didn’t eat greens at least five days a week, you were funny — ya know?” Wallace joked. “Like, what is wrong with you?”

Wallace pulled a lot of those greens from her grandmother’s Florida garden, but fewer and fewer Americans cultivate home vegetable gardens these days. There are fewer small farms, too. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in the U.S. has shrunk from about 6 million to 2 million over the past 75 years, while the average size of farms has doubled. As farms and gardens vanished, so too did the heirloom collards.

Now the race is on to preserve what remains.

These collards have names: Meet “Big Daddy Greasy Green” and “Granny Hobbs”

Wallace, 73, is doing a lot of the work as part of a group of seed savers, farmers, activists and academics, known collectively as the Heirloom Collard Project. They want to preserve and reintroduce people to rarer collard varieties and connect with older seed stewards before their stories are lost to time.

“If you want to save a seed, it’s good for it to be a good and tasty and productive seed,” Wallace says. “But a seed with the story endures.”

Collards like “Fuzzy’s Cabbage Collard,” “Big Daddy Greasy Green Collard,” “Granny Hobbs” and “Tabitha Dykes” have been preserved by the Heirloom Collard Project, and each tells an evocative story of stewards who faithfully saved and shaped their collard variety over a lifetime.

Aside from quirky names, many have unusual colors or textures. They tend to be sweeter or spicier, more tender or more disease- and cold-resistant than regular greens.

“When you grow your own food, when you save your own seeds, that’s an ancient tradition that’s been passed down,” says Amirah Mitchell, who grew up eating collards in Boston but had never tasted the “Green Glaze” variety until she met Wallace.

Image of Amirah Mitchell standing in greenhouse
Amirah Mitchell, founder of Sistah Seeds, stands in the greenhouse at the incubator farm where she runs her Black heirloom seed business in Emmaus, Pa. Kriston Jae Bethel for NPR

“Oh my goodness,” says Mitchell, who recently launched Sistah Seeds, a Pennsylvania farm that specializes in producing seed, rather than produce. “It was so good. I absolutely adored them because they were a little bit more tender than the other varieties. They looked prettier even when they had a little bit of bug damage on them.”

Historians trace the roots of collards to the gardens of enslaved African Americans in the South. Collards were “superfood powerhouses for the enslaved and poor whites,” said Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian and James Beard Award winner, during the Project’s 2020 Collard Week festival. The leafy vegetable, he said, provided much-needed nutrients in a diet that typically included hominy, corn, salt fish and pork.

Collards continue to be a staple in Soul Food restaurants and many Black households — enjoyed throughout the year and especially as part of holiday meals. “They remind me of Thanksgiving at my grandma’s house,” says Mitchell. “That is a time when we would never go without them.”

Researchers logged 12,000 miles to find America’s “Collard Belt”

Mitchell, 29, and her generation will be crucial to ensuring that the mission continues as it’s passed on by an aging generation of gardeners and seed savers.

“That’s a piece of this struggle,” says Edward Davis, a professor at Emory & Henry College in southwest Virginia. “It would be great if a whole lot of these seed savers were still doing it, but they’re mostly dead [now].”

Davis studies cultural geography, and in 2000 he embarked on a project to define what made the American South unique and cohesive. He figured collards would be a good place to start. He quickly learned that the origins of the modern plant are difficult to trace, and collards are not as ubiquitous as he first thought.

“People will look at the South and say, ‘One thing that tells you you’re in the South is collards,'” says Davis. “But that’s not true. There’s lots of places in the South that don’t [grow] collards.”

Davis and his colleague John T. Morgan scoured yellowed garden logs from the 18th and 19th centuries, searching for clues to the collards’ origins. They wanted to define the American “Collard Belt” and found a kindred soul in the USDA’s Mark Farnham. He was a research geneticist at the time, in charge of the agency’s collection of Brassica oleracea seed — a wildly diverse species of vegetable that includes kale, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and, yes, collards.

Farnham had already noticed a decline in the availability of heirloom collard seeds and began collecting some from savers around his home in Charleston, S.C., as early as 1992. With Farnham’s help, Davis and Morgan got a USDA grant to search the backroads of the South, looking for collard growers — particularly gardeners who saved and shared heirloom seeds. Heirloom vegetables are plants with a lineage that goes back at least several decades and can reproduce without human hybridizing or intervention. Together with Farnham and a Clemson University researcher named Powell Smith, Davis and Morgan hit the road.

“I got to where I could pretty much tell it was an heirloom collard patch from the road,” Davis said. “Then you’d go to the door … and you’d say, ‘Excuse me, I think you’ve got some pretty good collards. Are you a seed saver?'” Davis said he was always greeted with a wide grin, “and man, would they open up — Black or white person.”

The researchers often traveled in January and February, when winter-hardy collard plants were the only green in gardens, making them visible from the road. But the limited daylight hours posed problems. “You’re driving as fast as you can on these country roads to find a collard garden before dark,” Davis says.

They collected samples from 78 seed savers during the trips, which covered more than 12,000 miles across 10 Southern states. What they found was a tight grouping of collard seed savers in the eastern half of North Carolina and the low country of South Carolina. Outside these areas, they were surprised to find hardly anyone saving collard seeds, though there are commercial farmers and home gardeners growing the few conventional varieties that exist.

The samples are stored at the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit, where they can be kept indefinitely and regrown periodically to maintain the genetics. Their work is chronicled in a book published in 2015.

The team’s itineraries were thorough, but they didn’t get to every collard seed saver out there. On a later, solo trip — after the USDA grant had expired — Davis found a man whose collards are the stuff of local legend, grown from a seed whose pedigree goes back well over 100 years.

A dying man passes on his family heirloom

Deep in the deepest southeastern county of North Carolina, among the swamps and tobacco fields, Levi Grissett has just planted collards for the 48th season. For all but a few of his 73 years, he has lived in Brunswick County, on his grandfather’s land.

Grissett did a tour in Vietnam after high school before he found a good manufacturing job back home in nearby Wilmington and married a beautiful girl named Frances. After Grissett’s grandfather and father passed away, the couple bought a parcel of the family farm in 1973, and he’s been there ever since. Grissett never farmed professionally like his grandfather and namesake uncle, but he’s always been a gardener.

“I know this sounds crazy,” he says with a deep chuckle, “but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I say, ‘Oh Lord — please hurry up and let it get daylight so I can get in my garden.’ “

Funny thing is, Grissett never acquired a taste for the vegetable that has made him something of a local legend. “The first year I got married, I was living in a mobile home and had a garden behind the house, and my wife was standing there in the kitchen,” he says. “She come out, and she said, ‘Old boy, why don’t you plant some collards? I love collards.’ And from that year on, I never missed a year from planting collards until my wife passed.”

Grissett acquired his first seeds from an older woman who lived nearby, and they were an immediate success. “They looked like a work of art,” he says. People admired those early crops, especially the older folks who appreciated the flavor and texture of heirloom varieties.

Grissett wasn’t saving his own seeds yet and couldn’t find any more heirloom collard seeds to plant after his neighbor died. “Most the old folks died out. And when they died out, the old timey collards went with ’em,” Grissett said.

He continued to plant conventional collards until finally, in 2008, he acquired some “old timey” seeds again — this time from his friend A.D. Munn. These seeds were good, but they also had a story.

As Grissett tells it, many years ago, Munn’s stepfather, Quincy Harvey, was friends with a man who grew gorgeous, tall collards. Harvey always coveted these collards, but his friend never shared the seeds. They were a family treasure, passed down for over a hundred years. When that man was on his deathbed, he called Harvey to the house and finally shared the precious seeds. Harvey grew the seeds, and then Munn, before Grissett got his hands on some.

The first year, Grissett said, the plants grew so tall that even Munn was shocked. “We went out there and measured that collard, it was 54 inches tall. And it kept right on growing till it grew …8 feet tall,” Grissett says proudly.

Grissett’s wife — who encouraged him to plant collards in the first place — died the following year, in the spring of 2009. “After my wife passed, for three years it took me so far down the tube I didn’t even plant anything,” he says.

It wasn’t until 2013, what would have been Grissett’s 40th wedding anniversary, that he decided to garden again and planted Munn’s seeds. By August of that year, you could spot the collards from the road. That’s exactly what happened when Davis, the professor, was on one of his coastal Carolina seed-searching expeditions. As he’d done so many times, Davis got out of his car and knocked on a stranger’s door.

“I think you have some very special collards back there,” Davis told Grissett.

Grissett vividly remembers that day as the sweet fulfillment of something akin to a prophecy. “I would tell my wife all down through the years: I hope that one day a researcher would come by and look at my collards,” Grissett says. “I told her that the first year. … After 40 long years, he came — 40 years since I told my wife that.”

Lessons from the civil rights movement inspire a seed saver

Stella Brown raised Wallace after the child’s mother died. Wallace often tagged along as her Grandma Stella worked to register Black voters around Tampa, Fla. When they got discouraged, the older woman would urge perseverance: “We do this because we need change. … And if we don’t try, that [change] won’t happen.”

Image of Ira Wallace in collard greens patch
Collards have to vernalize — experience the cold of winter — to produce seeds. Here, Ira Wallace inspects a small patch of collards that have entered the seed-producing stage of life at Acorn Community Farm in central Virginia. Eze Amos for NPR

Wallace said those words still resonate when she thinks about the modern seed saving movement. “So, if that was true about voting and civil rights, I think it’s true about changing what foods are available to all the communities that are underserved and sold not-good-for-you food.”

Wallace said she sometimes gets a lukewarm reception about seed saving from some African American communities. But when she introduced the Heirloom Collard Project, the enthusiasm was noticeably different.

“People who aren’t your usual suspects are like, ‘Let’s try it. I care about collards. It brings me back memories of home and family and community, and I want to carry that on.'”

Over the years, Wallace’s pioneering work has become widely known. The seed saving movement is defined by its collaborative rather than competitive nature, an ethos to which she’s contributed greatly. Philip Kauth, the former director of seed preservation at Seed Savers Exchange, calls Wallace “a legend in the seed saving world.”

She is a regular at festivals and conferences. In 2007, she spearheaded the founding of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, a festival showcasing heritage vegetables from the Colonial period. It was there, in 2016, that Wallace met with Davis, Farnham and representatives from several seed saving organizations to create the Heirloom Collard Project.

Together, Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange requested more than 60 heirloom collard varieties from the USDA’s collection of Davis and Morgan’s seeds and began adding the seeds to their yearly offerings. In 2020, Wallace and the Heirloom Collard Project held a virtual Collard Week festival. That’s when she asked Mitchell, the up-and-coming seed steward, to do a workshop on saving collard seed.

“I was in the middle of finals for my last semester at school,” recalls Mitchell, a Temple University graduate. “But I couldn’t say no to her — you know, no one says no to Ira Wallace,” Mitchell says with a laugh.

Last year she joined Davis, Wallace and others at a meeting about the Heirloom Collard Project’s future. Mitchell now plans to grow several varieties from the project — including one she’s especially excited about. The “Moses Smith Yellow Cabbage Collard” is an African American stewarded heirloom that hails from the same region of North Carolina as Mitchell’s ancestors. She plans to sell the seeds next year, once they’ve matured. This is key to the project’s vision of finding new, energetic seed stewards to revive heirloom varieties.

The Heirloom Collard Project is hoping to find grants to help finance their work. The project also wants to identify varieties best suited for commercial use, such as the “Miss Annie Pearl Counselman Collard,” which Seed Savers Exchange added to its catalog in 2021.

“They don’t have to be the next kale, the next superfood,” Mitchell says about collards. “Because they’re special — and they’re special to me.”

Correction April 25, 2022

A previous version of this story incorrectly said that seed samples are stored at the USDA’s National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation. In fact, they’re stored at the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit.