Saving Our Seeds: The Story Behind Seed Savers Exchange

At the breathtaking Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, centuries of history meet our nation’s agricultural future through the preservation of thousands of heirloom seeds.

| July/August 2012

  • Seed Savers Exchange cofounder Diane Ott Whealy shares the compelling, charming story of the organization and its founding family in her memoir, "Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver."
    Photo Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
  • A Seed Savers Exchange employee cuts Lacinato kale from the garden.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Isolated potato tissue cultures grow in test tubes inside the SSE lab. Growing the potatoes in test tubes helps ensure the plants don’t have to be unnecessarily exposed to environmental pressures such as pests and disease.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • 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
  • Allium flowers are a favorite among honeybees.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • A Seed Savers Exchange employee dries Edmonson cucumber seed.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Seed Savers Exchange cofounder Diane Ott Whealy raised her family while developing SSE from the ground up, starting in the late ’70s.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Seed Savers Exchange maintains two herds of Ancient White Park Cattle along with its vast variety of heirloom plants.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • A demonstration garden filled with garden flox sits next to a classic barn used for seed processing and drying and grown over with Grandpa Ott’s morning glories—one of the seeds that helped found the organization.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Sunflowers provide beauty for humans and seed for birds.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Five Color Silver beet has brilliant red stalks.
    Photo By Barry Rustin
  • Castor bean stands out against a bright blue sky.
    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.”



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