Southern Exposure: The Early Years

SESE Founder Jeff McCormack

The First Catalog

radiator charlie's mortgage lifter heirloom tomato

1999 catalog

Left to right: Southern Exposure's founder, Jeff McCormack, in 1987; Southern Exposure's first catalog, from 1983; Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter Tomato; & the 1999 catalog cover

"I feel very fortunate...that I've led a very unconventional life, and that if I decide that I want to do something, I do it. I haven't made a lot of money in the process, but that was never the primary goal. What I've learned to cultivate over the years is trying to listen to and stay open to whatever voices are inside and pay attention to them, and I feel that's where my calling comes from." – Jeff McCormack, SESE Founder

The inspiration for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange can be traced back to the 1970s. Jeff McCormack and his wife, Patty Wallens, were in New England, where Jeff was a graduate student and later a biology professor. On a weekend trip to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts - a restored early 1800s farm and village - Jeff was intrigued by heirloom poultry breeds and also by the colors of an heirloom bean, Jacob's Cattle.

Further inspiration came with Jeff and Patty's move south in 1977 - Vermont's cold, cloudy climate and short growing season frustrated them. Without any jobs lined up, they moved near Charlottesville, Virginia. They built their own passive solar-heated house heated mostly by an attached greenhouse. "I took a course on basic house design, Patty took a course on plumbing, and we both took a course on wiring. Later we went to the building site with our box of tools and our box of books. When it came time to do the roof, we opened to the chapter on roofing, and did that!” Jeff and a friend started a consulting business in solar greenhouse design and construction. Named Southern Exposure of Charlottesville, it operated for many years, and eventually lent its name to the seed business.

Meanwhile, Jeff was teaching at the University of Virginia and managing the biology departmentÂ’s greenhouses. There he devised organic/low-spray growing methods; while at home, he studied vegetable varieties that could thrive in solar greenhouses. Through a local group, Blue Ridge Seedsavers, he got to know many interesting varieties, including potato onions, which he was surprised to learn were no longer available in seed catalogs.

Jeff and Patty brought all these interests together when they jumped into a new project – starting a seed company. “For my whole life, basically I have jumped into things and then learned how to do it as I go along. I just feel passionate about something, and then I figure out how to do it.”

SESE got its start in 1982. 1,700 copies of the 1983 catalog went out, and 196 orders came back that first year. The first catalog was small – 65 varieties – but included interesting heirlooms such as Tappy’s Finest tomato, Yellow Potato Onions, and Calico Crowder southern peas.

tappy's finest tomato

jacob's cattle soup bean

calico crowder southern pea

yellow potato onion

left to right: Tappy's Finest Tomato; Jacob's Cattle Drying Bean; Calico Crowder Southern Pea; & Yellow Potato Onions

They started small – the first year’s inventory fit in their hall closet, with bushel baskets of potato onions stacked around the house. They used baby food jars to store small lots of seed, and Jeff found himself buying baby food when they ran low on jars. (He remembers applesauce as the best, and turkey as the worst!)

Some people think of Jeff as SESE’s founder, but Patty was there for it as well, coming up with the slogan (“Saving the Past for the Future”), and working long hours cleaning seed, filling orders and helping manage the business, even taking on all of Jeff’s work one year when he was sidelined by illness.

The 1983 catalog was small, but the positive response encouraged them to keep at it. (One customer wrote, saying “These seeds aren’t going to be around in a couple decades,” and donated $500 to help out.) The 1984 catalog increased to 140 varieties. Still, it took three years for SESE to turn a profit, what with investing in the business and learning to make it all work. With his academic thoroughness, Jeff would go around with a stopwatch trying to figure out how much time it took to grow and clean seeds, pack the seeds, and process orders. With SESE growing, in 1988 they hired some local staff. Many were UVA students, like the triathlete who dug 40 raised beds by herself and the law student who later said he’d enjoyed the seed work much more than his legal career!

Varieties came in from many places. Mortgage Lifter Radiator CharlieÂ’s tomato came SESEÂ’s way in 1986 when Jeff was in a computer store to buy SESEÂ’s first computer. Talking with a woman in the store about the catalog, she got excited and told him he should talk to her husband about his grandfatherÂ’s tomato! Jeff got some seeds and interviewed M. C. Byles to get his story of how heÂ’d bred the great-tasting tomato back in the 1930s and used it to pay off his mortgage.

Many varieties came to SESE through Seed Savers Exchange members; Jeff was involved in the organization’s early years, serving on its board of directors for eight years. And many varieties came from customers and growers. Merlyn Niedens, Carolyn Male, Walt Childs, Bob Bell, Glenn Drowns, and Craig LeHoullier were among the many who grew seed crops and sent interesting varieties. Craig sent seed for Cherokee Purple tomato, and SESE introduced it in 1993. “It was the first purple tomato that I had grown. Though the flavor was very good, to my eye it resembled rotten roast beef when sliced open, but I carefully worded the catalog description, saying ‘for the more adventurous.’ I figured the color would appeal to some gardeners, but I wasn’t sure how well it would be accepted because of the internal color. I was surprised by how popular it became!”

bush medicine of the bahamas, jeff's new book

cherokee purple tomatoes

jeff and patty on san salvador island

left to right: Jeff's new book; Cherokee Purple Tomato, & Jeff & Patty on San Salvador Island

Ultimately SESE grew larger than Jeff was comfortable managing. The office hours were long, he was getting more interested in medicinal varieties, and SESE would need more investment to continue to expand. The decision to sell the business was difficult; Jeff worried that heÂ’d be letting down the staff and community that had built up around SESE, and he worried that it might fail, as many businesses do when they change hands. Jeff said it ended up working out beautifully with Acorn Community Farm buying SESE in 1999. He was thrilled that Acorn kept the same business ethics and relationships with customers. And most of all, they preserved and expanded his original vision.

Jeff ran a smaller catalog for many years, Garden Medicinals and Culinaries, which he later also sold to Acorn Community Farm. He talks of starting a 3rd seed company (one with a much shorter name this time!), and through McCormackÂ’s Botanicals he sells a few varieties from time to time. (He claims that a 3rd company would be his last one, but everyone who hears this is skeptical.)

A recent adventure for Patty and Jeff led to their writing a book. In the Bahamas for a tropical marine ecology course, they heard from a local guide about bush medicine on San Salvador Island. “I asked the man if his children were learning this, and he said, sadly, ‘No.’” Knowledge is being lost as the old ones pass away. Jeff had been interested in ethnobotany in his graduate school days, and this was a chance to get back to it. They jumped into it, making another trip and interviewing practitioners of bush medicine. The result is a new book, Bush Medicine of the Bahamas (see p. 83). A follow-up video documentary, or a similar trip to Belize, may be next.

Jeff and Patty continue to garden in Charlottesville, and Jeff has various projects in the works, like selecting an improved strain of Green Glaze collards and figuring out organic methods for control of Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs. He maintains a website, www.SavingOurSeeds.org, which has news on these and other projects, and extensive seedsaving information and resources.

If you really love what you’re doing, the support for that work will follow in some way. I feel very grateful. One thing I’ve really learned, through Southern Exposure and this project on bush medicine, is that whatever one person does or accomplishes is really the result of the community of people. Running Southern Exposure wasn’t just something I did myself or Patty and I did, it involved a whole community of growers and people who really believed in what we were doing. – Jeff McCormack, SESE Founder

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