Iowa Public Television


Seed Savers Exchange

posted on October 26, 2012

In addition to choosing a president next month, voters in California will say “yea or nay” to a controversial proposal relating to genetically engineered foods.

Proposition 37 would require labeling of retail foods made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. While some products would be exempt, the mandate would prohibit marketing such food, or other processed food, as “natural.”

In recent years, genetically engineered crops have gained widespread acceptance. But some growers have discovered benefits of planting seeds that were grown decades and even centuries ago.

A case in point can be found near Decorah, Iowa where the Seed Savers Exchange collects thousands of heirloom vegetables, herbs, flowers and plants making it one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the United States. And as producer Judy Blank discovered, the non-profit organization preserves America’s rich agricultural heritage by saving seed.

Sunlight filters through verdant gardens at Heritage Farm, headquarters for Seed Savers Exchange.  

The thousands of heirloom varieties in the Seed Saver's collection have been passed down through generations of farmers and gardeners and are valued for their genetic diversity and adaptability to pressures such as climate change.  Seed Saver's mission is to preserve and share this agricultural heritage with its membership and the public all over the world.   

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director: “There's a lot of moving parts to Seed Savers and all of them kind of come back in some way to our core mission that is to maintain heirloom seeds, distribute them, educate the public about genetic diversity, why it is important.”

Many of the heirloom varieties in the collection are donated by people who become members of the organization, and share seeds that have been grown by their families for generations.  

The handing-down of seed is what inspired Diane Ott Whealy to co-found Seed Savers Exchange in 1975 with her former husband Kent Whealy.  Diane's grandfather, Baptist John Ott, gave her Morning Glory seeds that were brought toAmericaby his ancestors. 

Diane Ott Whealy, Co-founder and Vice President:  “I am holding this handful of seed that I am linking back to ancestors in another country that I never knew about or thought about. I felt the magic in that seed was bringing my family into my life.”

In 1986, Seed Savers Exchange expanded to the 890 acre Heritage Farm where Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory continues to flourish.   

Diane Ott Whealy, Co-founder and Vice President: “And now when you think about the power of that little seed, we have 13,000 people that are, you know, members, we have 24,000 different accessions of seed in our collection and we have grown into this beautiful, beautiful paradise, and all from a little seed."

The gardens are living classrooms that are open to the public.  Seed Savers offers various educational resources including online webinars.

While its primary purpose is to educate the public about heirloom plants, the history of the seed plays a vital role in Seed Savers’ goal of preservingAmerica's garden heritage.    

Christy Marsden, Horticultural Technician - Education and Outreach:  "You have the Phebe Vinson Heirloom, our seed historian was able to get the back story on that by emailing the great, great granddaughter, and we were able to get more of the story and background to the bean as well as give the seed back to the family because they had lost it."

The organization also helps the public learn about seed-saving techniques that are no longer commonly known. 

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director:  “Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning that the seeds can be saved from the fruit, grown out the following year and you're still going to have fruit that is true to the parent type.  Heirloom comes in, in the sense that it has been handed down generationally.  Most farming inAmericaprior to WWII involved open-pollinated seeds where the farmers would select seeds from the harvest to be their seed stock for the following spring.”

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership estimates between 60,000 to 100,000 horticultural varieties – about 25 percent of all plants -- are in danger of becoming extinct.  

Seed Saver's founders believe genetic material in open-pollinated seeds could be critical to our future survival.

Diane Ott Whealy, Co-founder and Vice President: “In many cases they have had a chance to adapt to many climate conditions and over the years have turned into a very strong plant - and I just think that who knows what we are going to need for plant breeding in the future?”

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director: “A hundred years from now we might not know what seeds in our seed bank are best adaptable to the conditions that might exist say here inDecorah,Iowa.”

The historic apple orchard at Seed Savers Exchange displays hundreds of varieties of 19th Century apple trees.  But Seed Savers says those represent only a small fraction of apple varieties that have survived.  

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director : "Our orchard manager's name at Seed Savers is Dan Bussey, he's a seed historian and he's working on a book, he's identified more than 20,000 different named varieties of apples that were grown in North American between 1629 and the year 2000 - over 20,000 varieties.  As of 2000 he estimates that we're down to about 4000 varieties." 

Seed Saver's goal is to offer apple trees for sale in its catalog, which already features hundreds of heirloom vegetables, flowers and herbs. 

Shannon Carmody, Public Programs Manager: “Seed Savers is probably most known for their commercial catalog and that has about 600 varieties in it, they have kind of been standout all star varieties that we want to make available to the general public and that's our major fundraising mechanism.”

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director: “We sell seed throughout the world, primarily inUnited States.  We probably had a customer base this year of around probably 40 to 50 thousand customers.” 

In addition to its catalog, Seed Savers also publishes a "Yearbook" to facilitate the actual "exchange" of seed between some of it's more than 13,000 members. 

Shannon Carmody, Public Programs Manager:  “And that person-to-person exchange is really the most resilient system we can have for our seeds.  That means that they are out there, it means that they are getting used, and it means that they are relevant and important to people.”

The organization also sells wholesale to larger growers and in bulk to other seed companies.   More than 500 garden centers across the nation carry Seed Savers Exchange Retail Seed Racks.

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director: “I would say more than 50 percent of the revenue that we generate each year comes from seed sales of individual packets.”   

Seed Savers contracts with various growers to help produce its retail products.  Mike Bollinger and Katie Prochaska, of River Root Farm in northeastIowa, help grow garlic with a little assistance from their two young children.

John Torgrimson, President and Executive Director: “We will sell about 50-60 thousand heads of garlic for seed this year, and they are part of that effort.”

Mike Bollinger, Owner, River Root Farm:  “They are providing seed stock to us and then we're growing it out, we're doing all the processing and bringing it back to them as a finished product.”

Mike and Katie also provide certified organic seedlings for sale at the Seed Savers Exchange visitors' center at Heritage Farm. 

Like plants that originally began with a single seed, the Exchange has grown over the past 40 years.  Its vast seed collection is carefully maintained according to international gene bank protocols.

Aaron Burmeister, Collection Technician - Seed Storage and Distribution: "This is the freezer vault, the long-term storage area at Heritage Farm."

But the history also is preserved in literary form.  Hundreds of letters accompanying seed donations are carefully studied and documented. 

Each year, more than 20,000 visitors are drawn to Heritage Farm where the work to preserve agricultural diversity has expanded to include livestock, such as rareAncientWhiteParkcattle. 

And, while Seed Savers Exchange is Ott Whealy’s top priority, she has found time to write about her passion for preserving botanical history.  Her book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, is the story of the Exchange.

Diane Ott Whealy, Co-founder and Vice President: “I think when we started we, you know we felt the urgency too because when a seed is gone, that's - it is gone and it is irreplaceable.”

For Market to Market, I’m Judy Blank. 

Tags: agriculture Decorah Iowa news plants seed