Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Michelle Wallace helps Durham community garden take root

CorrespondentMay 17, 2014 

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Michelle Wallace, 44, a horticultural agent for the Durham bureau of the NC Cooperative Extension Service, photographed Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in the Briggs Avenue Community Garden in SE Durham. Wallace has worked for the past eight years for ag extension in Durham helping farmers, master gardeners, landscapers and all Durham residents who come to her for help.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Michelle Wallace

    Born: October 1969 in Atlanta

    Residence: Chatham County

    Career: Horticulture extension agent, Durham County

    Awards: Outstanding Extension Staff Award, N.C. Cooperative Extension, 2013; NCSU Wolfpack Award, 2010; Outstanding Senior in Horticulture, NCSU, 1995; Most Outstanding Female Soldier in Northern Israel, 1990

    Family: Husband, Steve; children, Yarden and Samuel

    Fun fact: For her military service in Israel, Wallace worked as a dental hygienist in a combat area; she was one of 20 women among 700 men on the base. She also spent a year of service working on date groves and banana plantations in economically depressed areas of the country.

    If you go: N.C. Cooperative Extension is holding a dinner Monday, and legislative visits and other activities this week to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Learn more at http://bit.ly/1mYSX91. Durham County will have its own celebration on May 31 at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

— After being plucked from the life of a typical American teenager to pick kiwi fruit on an Israeli kibbutz, Michelle Wallace might be forgiven for eschewing agriculture as a career.

Instead, the Durham County horticulture extension agent says working the land drew her in – much as it has the growing number of gardeners and urban farmers across the country in recent years.

“Our whole history started with farming, and it’s a large part of our heritage, even if it’s somewhere deep, deep down,” she says. “When you grow up on a farm, people want to forget it, but it finds you.”

Cooperative extension, established to bring the knowledge acquired at land-grant universities to the public, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, nationally and in North Carolina. Wallace is one of its devoted foot soldiers.

Her job includes educating professionals and the public on topics as varied as pesticide use, landscape design and aquatic weeds, as well as managing a team of 90 volunteer master gardeners who help residents grow plants and food sustainably.

But she’s best known in Durham for her work establishing the Briggs Avenue Community Garden, a shared space that opened on donated land in East Durham four years ago.

Wallace has also helped unite a forum of 150 gardening enthusiasts and expanded her office’s outreach through more frequent public appearances and the establishment of a blog and hotline for master gardeners.

“She’s just this enormous reservoir of knowledge and expertise, in gardening as well as in how to reach out to people,” says Jan Little, director of education and public programs at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, where Wallace regularly conducts classes and other programs. “She has developed a really dynamic group of people that assist this community greatly.”

Plenty of independence

Wallace, 44, spent the early years of her life in Georgia and Florida, where her father worked as a psychologist and professor. When she was 14, her parents sought to “get away from the rat race,” she says, by moving to a kibbutz, a type of cooperative village unique to Israel.

She was the only American in a community of 450 people that was run as a pure democracy, with each adult weighing in on matters such as running the farm, providing health care, and maintaining facilities such as roads and the community pool.

It was a tough transition. All the children lived in a home separately from their parents, and she had to start high school in a foreign language. But there were some benefits, including a close relationship with her parents.

“We didn’t have the normal issues you have with teenagers because they’re all about wanting independence,” she says. “And we had independence.”

Her kibbutz was a top producer of kiwi fruit, and she worked in the fields alongside her father, who continued to practice psychology part time. She picked fruit, pulled weeds and cleared rocks for a few hours a week and for half of each summer during high school.

After graduation, she did military service, required of all Israelis, and national service, which is common for kibbutz residents.

She returned to the United States for college, choosing N.C. State University for its strong programs in both horticulture and landscape architecture.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked an extension agent briefly in Montgomery County between degrees; she loved the job, she says, but not the commute.

So she got a job with a landscape architecture firm in Raleigh and started her own business while her children were small. But when the Durham job came open, she was eager to return to extension work.

Staying flexible

Cooperative extension agents work in all of North Carolina’s counties to educate the public on topics ranging from agriculture to health to home economics.

It’s a job that requires deep expertise as well as the ability to share that knowledge with all kinds of people.

Wallace regularly consults with landscapers and farmers on problems with plants and organizes information sessions at libraries, schools and businesses across the county.

Every square of desk calendar is filled in with scrawled plans. One day, she’s attending a presentation by a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who completed an impact study on Durham’s master gardener program. The next day, she’s offering pruning advice on muscadine grapes or teaching senior citizens about container gardening.

Flexibility is also key. Last week, a shipment of bees showed up at the garden on short notice, and her day was spent setting them up.

“The person who has this kind of job has to be able to go with the flow,” she says.

For Wallace, the Briggs Avenue garden also came with the job – a huge effort, starting with the initial planning and gathering of community support to get it going.

The land was donated as a conservation trust, so that it cannot be developed. In 2006, Wallace took on the project of figuring out how to use it for the community’s benefit.

Local college students created a survey, and she gathered local leaders and residents to weigh in. Gardens and trails topped the list.

The garden now is made up of a quarter acre of rented 4-by-10-foot plots. Durham Technical Community College maintains a slightly larger plot; a demonstration orchard and vineyard showcase other local crops.

She helped find grants and other funding sources and has worked side by side with volunteers at weekly work sessions to add fences, a shed with a rooftop garden and a well for irrigation.

Her public efforts with the garden have made Wallace a well-known figure – not always the case for even the hardest-working extension agents, whose roles are likely to change in the years to come.

The state budget passed last year included significant cuts in salary money for extension agents, and the state office is working on a plan to continue providing its services with fewer people.

“We’ve been around for 100 years, and we do great things in communities,” she says. “A lot of times we really work in the shadows to help other people be great.”

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