Classic Amish architecture and idyllic red barns belie the science going on behind closed doors at Seed Savers Exchange's Heritage Farm—where scans of seeds become the basis for some of the nation’s most intensive cataloguing of America’s genetic biodiversity.
Photo By Barry Rustin
At the Seed Savers Exchange Farm in Decorah, Iowa, a living link connects our nation’s past and its future. Inside, scientists preserve genetically isolated varieties of heirloom seeds in refrigerated cases filled with futuristic-looking rows of test tubes. Outside, the Historic Orchard grows hundreds of varieties of 1900s apples, while 80 of the world’s approximately 800 remaining Ancient White Park Cattle—which roamed the British Isles before the time of Christ and are described in ancient Celtic lore—graze in a brush field. Classic Amish architecture and idyllic red barns belie the science going on behind closed doors—where scans of seeds become the basis for some of the nation’s most intensive cataloging of America’s genetic biodiversity.
As Grassroots as It Gets
As you stroll the farm’s 890 acres and impressive seed storage warehouses, it’s hard to believe that the nonprofit was founded with little more than a handful of seeds back in 1975. That fact is all the more impressive when you consider that the organization now houses the nation’s largest nongovernmental seed bank of its kind, or that its 2012 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook (an annual publication listing seed varieties available for trade among members) weighs in at 504 pages and includes thousands of seeds. As cofounder Diane Ott Whealy writes of Seed Savers Exchange’s origins in her memoir, Gathering, “Twenty-nine gardeners from all over the United States and Canada sent 25 cents and a large envelope to the True Seed Exchange; in return, they received a six-page publication listing seed that other gardeners were willing to share.” In the early years (before the True Seed Exchange was renamed Seed Savers Exchange), the group’s annual publication was a hand-addressed booklet including carefully written variety descriptions from the farmers and gardeners who submitted seed from plants their families had grown for generations.
Cofounders Diane Ott Whealy and her ex-husband, Kent Whealy, were inspired to found the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) out of their Missouri homestead after being handed down seeds by Diane’s grandparents. “My grandparents gave Kent and me seeds (Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory and German Pink tomato) that my grandfather’s parents had brought over from Bavaria when they immigrated to northeast Iowa in the late 1800s,” Diane says. “Shortly after that time, my grandfather passed away, and we realized how precious they had become. We were responsible for keeping that seed and the story alive,” she says. Having grown up in rural Iowa with a tradition of family farms, Diane connected the plants her family members grew with distinct memories, and she realized that many of these plants were being lost as commercial farming emphasized varieties that grew without blemishes and were able to withstand long-distance travel. “We felt an urgency to collect and save as many heirlooms as possible before the seed disappeared,” she says.
So Kent began writing letters to a few of the back-to-the-land magazines that had sprung up at the time—among them Countryside, Mother Earth News and Landward Ho—seeking others interested in saving heirloom seed. Kent and Diane received responses from a few of them, and word began to spread. The group’s membership-driven model proved to be the perfect format to attract the many Americans who were enthusiastically, but individually, saving family seeds. By 1980, Seed Savers Exchange had been featured in hundreds of magazines and was a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times. Because it was small-staffed (in the early years, it was just Kent and Diane, and for years after was only staffed by the two and friends and volunteers) and in constant contact with real gardeners, the nimble SSE was more readily able to investigate previously unknown seeds—it backs up its collection in the government’s National Seed Storage Lab in Colorado, providing seed diversity the government likely never could have collected on its own. In 1981, Seed Savers Exchange became a federally recognized nonprofit organization, still run out of its cofounders’ Missouri homestead living room, but growing each year.
If You Build It
On an early ’80s trip through the Kansas City area, Diane and Kent became inspired by the area’s beautiful farms to begin a demonstration farm for Seed Savers Exchange, where “SSE members could visit, walk through the gardens, see and taste the genetic diversity we continuously talked about, and feel the same sense of awe,” Diane writes. Kent and Diane knew they would have to move in order to make their dream of an SSE display garden come true. Their Missouri homestead was too isolated to create what they hoped would become a visitor destination, and the hot, dry weather didn’t permit enough crops to grow without major irrigation. So in 1984, the couple packed up their four young children and headed north toward Iowa, near Diane’s childhood home. Three years later, they purchased a 57-acre farm with a two-story white farmhouse four miles north of Decorah, Iowa. Calling the place Heritage Farm, Diane and Kent got to work planting a Preservation Garden where they could grow many of the varieties of heirloom seeds they had worked to save. They wanted visitors to be able to taste the flavor of heirloom tomato varieties, to see the beauty of thousands of colorful varieties of beans. In 1987, the couple added ambitions of creating an apple orchard to help preserve breeds outside the commercial market favorites of Red Delicious and McIntosh—fewer than 1,000 of the 7,000 U.S. apple varieties named in 1900 exist today.
Since purchasing Heritage Farm, SSE has continued to grow rapidly. The organization now boasts nearly 900 acres of land for crops and gardens. A creek runs through the property, where SSE has begun a sustainable native fish conservation program. The farm is home to heritage cattle and chickens, along with several offices, a giant seed bank, outbuildings and research facilities. “Our little two-person (not counting my daughter, who was a baby at the time) nonprofit now has 70 employees, and our membership has grown from the original 29 who each sent us a quarter in 1975 to 13,000 members today,” Diane says. “A project that started with a single cardboard pillbox filled with a few tiny black seeds has more than 24,000 different records of seeds in its collection.”
Seed Savers Paradise
Although the facilities have expanded greatly over the 35 years since its conception, at its heart Seed Savers Exchange remains largely the same. While it is researched and maintained by a staff of horticulturalists, the SSE collection is still updated by individuals growing heirloom plants all over the country. Today, when contacted about a potential donation to the group’s collection, an inventory technician tries first to gather as much information about the variety as possible. While in some cases the donation may be refused (most often because it already exists in the collection), generally the material is allowed to be sent to the SSE, where it goes into a “holding collection” in climate-controlled seed-storage rooms until it is able to be evaluated. “The goal for all donations that become fully accessioned is to be grown out and subsequently offered in the Yearbook,” says Aaron Burmeister, an SSE Collection Technician. “Given the volume of seed donations combined with the demands of maintaining the current collection, this process may well take a number of years.”
And while the organization has grown incredibly over the course of its existence, its mission remains unchanged: To preserve the heritage seeds of our nation. “We have a tremendous responsibility to preserve this precious collection of seeds entrusted to us,” Diane says. In addition to continuing to store its collection with a government lab in Colorado (Fort Collins’ National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, rechristened from the National Seed Storage Lab in 2002), SSE also takes international safeguards by storing it with the Svalbard Global Seed Trust in Norway.
Yet despite its organizational and technological advancement, SSE’s grassroots beginnings remains its foundation. And connecting with people is still of no less importance. “I have always felt the best insurance is to grow the seeds again in gardens,” Diane says. “This is where anyone can help with our mission. SSE can safely store this collection in our freezers, but SSE cannot plant gardens all around the country. You can. We need as much seed to be grown by individuals who save seed to pass onto the next generation, which all contributes to building local food security and a healthy, safe environment.”
SSE believes that the best way to keep interest in heritage seeds alive is through stories that connect human history and seeds. The organization is working to document stories and information about every seed in its vast collection. “I am so excited about reconnecting the two,” Diane says. “There are two common themes that have pulled everything together at SSE over the past 35 years: seeds and people. My life, my family, my passions, my work have all been about planting seeds, sowing seeds in new grounds, and loving the family and folks who shared the same love and appreciation for what grows from those seeds,” she says.
Read more: Enjoy the compelling, charming story of Seed Savers Exchange and its founding family in Diane Ott Whealy's beautifully written memoir, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver.
Natural Home & Garden editor Jessica Kellner relished the opportunity to stroll the grounds at the Seed Savers Exchange farm in Iowa, which she considers one of our nation’s most vital agricultural treasures.
Seed Savers Exchange is committed to connecting heirloom seeds with the personal and family histories attached to them, so the group makes a habit of collecting and cataloging the personal letters that accompany seed donations. Here are a few:
The first True Seed Exchange newsletter included a note from Lina Sisco of Winona, Missouri, one of the original members:
“I have been gardening for more years than I like to think about, and I do love to raise all kinds of stuff and do lots of canning. I share with lots of people from my garden. So I am sending you two kinds of beans that I raise. The Bird Egg beans have been in my family for many, many years as my grandmother brought them to Missouri some time in the 1880s. As for Paul Bunyan beans, I got the seed from Oregon, but I understand they are a very old bean. So they are all free to you. Hope you have good luck with them. I am sending my quarter and envelope.”
Fifteen years after the first newsletter, this note from Becky Silva of Vancouver, Washington, was published in the Seed Savers 1990 Summer Edition:
“I was going through some old Mother Earth News magazines that were given to me and was reading your interview in the 1982 January/February issue...I had been thinking of some special beans my grandma used to have. Then you mentioned Lina Sisco and her Bird Egg beans. Lina was my grandma! Lina was proud of those beans, which she had been given by her grandmother, who brought them to Missouri in the 1880s. One year Lina sent us some when I was little. I remember being in awe of ‘Granny’s Beans.’
It seems my mom can’t find those beans, and I doubt they were ever planted because my folks aren’t gardeners. I’ve been gardening for three years but after reading your article am quite interested in heirloom varieties. And I would like to start with Granny’s Bird Egg bean. Can you put me in touch with someone who’d be willing to share a few? I loved Grandma Lina. She called herself the ‘fat squaw,’ and it would mean so much to me to grow her beans.”
Personal letters like Sisco’s, Silva’s and this one from Bernice Hagan Mobley will accompany a Seed Savers Exchange heirloom variety display at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, September 2012:
“Dear Sirs: I read your article about the heirloom seeds in our local paper’s supplement, which is printed in Franklin Town. I have a story to tell, and am sending you a few seeds that I consider heirloom. My papa and mama were married in 1892 and started housekeeping and gardening. They planted a garden in 1893 and planted a little yellow tomato seed about the size of a marble. They planted seed every year. Mama died in 1960 thinking she had lost seed of the little yellow tomato. My sister and I were in the pantry going through things, and we found a little tin can with seeds in it marked ‘Little Yellow Tomatoes, 1943.’ I brought them with me and planted them in spring 1961, and they came up. I have planted them every year since. They do come up volunteer, but I plant some in case they don’t. They are delicious. Keep a bowl on your counter. Sincerely, Bernice Hagan Mobley, 92 1/3 years, Athens, Alabama”
Get Involved in Seed Savers Exchange
There are countless ways to become involved in the important work Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is doing. The first is to grow an heirloom garden of your own. You can order heirloom seed directly from SSE via its catalog or the Seed Savers Exchange website. You might also wish to become an SSE member. Members receive the organization’s four annual publications, including the annual Yearbook, as well as a 10 percent discount on all orders through the SSE catalog and Lillian Goldman Visitors Center. You may also wish to donate to the organization, visit the beautiful Heritage Farm in northeast Iowa, attend one of SSE’s various annual events or participate in one of its free monthly online presentations on topics ranging from seed cleaning to hand-pollination of squash and corn. Visit Seed Savers Exchange to learn more, or call the organization, which prides itself on always having real people to talk to, at (563) 382-5990.