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From Issue #39 March 27, 2014

Going to Seed

Heirloom seeds link past and present while preserving genetic diversity.

By Renee Brincks Twitter icon 

The diversity of beans

One of Diane Ott Whealy’s clearest childhood memories involves playing on her grandparents’ porch, peeking through morning glory vines that formed a wall of flowers.

The daughter of northeast Iowa dairy farmers grew up gardening, and family members taught her to cultivate blooms, preserve food, and prepare meals with the best of each harvest. Shortly after her wedding, Ott Whealy asked her grandfather for advice as she established her own garden. He shared some German pink tomato and morning glory seeds, and explained how his parents had carried the seeds on their journey from Germany to northeast Iowa. Her grandfather passed away the following winter.

“If I had just gotten that seed from a neighbor down the street, without that story, it would have lost so much value and sense of place,” she says. “The stories bring the seed to life. Every seed does have a story, but it’s up to us to be the voice and tell it.”

The newlyweds took those seeds to Missouri, where they lived as self-sufficient homesteaders and started their own family. Ott Whealy thought often of her grandparents, and felt a renewed link to them each time the morning glories bloomed.

Inspired to preserve and promote the heirloom seeds that serve as a living link to the past, Ott Whealy and her then husband, Kent Whealy, founded Seed Savers Exchange in 1975.

Starting from seed

Today, the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange grows, shares, and collects seeds at the 890-acre Heritage Farm, near Decorah, Iowa. More than 13,000 supporting members access seeds via the organization’s annual yearbook; the 2014 publication features 13,012 unique varieties. Non-members can purchase 600 varieties from the free Seed Savers catalog.

Out at Heritage Farm, visitors explore organic gardens and preservation orchards featuring pre-1900 apples and grapes, while rare White Park cattle roam nearby. An on-site visitor center houses educational exhibits and a garden and gift shop. In addition to workshops, tastings, seed swaps, and festivals, the organization hosts an annual conference and campout that draws noted conservation leaders each July.

To understand how an internationally recognized seed bank, supplier, and educational center sprouted from a few morning glories shared between generations, it is important to first understand seeds.

Long before catalogs featured uniform varieties of tomatoes and peppers, home gardeners harvested seeds from their own plants at the end of each growing season. They sowed those seeds in subsequent years, and sometimes gave extras to family members and friends. Today, growers who don’t save seeds can still purchase open-pollinated varieties similar to those grown in the past.

Plants started from open-pollinated seeds reproduce by either self-pollination (tomatoes and peas, for example, pollinate between their male and female parts) or cross-pollination (pollen is carried naturally among plants, often by birds, bees, water, or wind).1 Open-pollinated plants have stable genetics. That means seeds saved from one parent plant will yield new plants with similar characteristics — if that parent plant is isolated from other varieties. And when naturally pollinated vegetables and flowers pick up pollen from their neighbors, genetic diversity flourishes. Shared pollen can trigger variations in size and shape. Over time, that genetic flexibility also helps plants adapt to local climates and growing conditions.

Commercial hybrid seeds, on the other hand, come from the controlled breeding of parent plants chosen for particular genetic traits. Hybrids can be developed to resist disease, stand up to challenging growing conditions, and produce higher yields. They tend to generate more consistent harvests, as well: think grocery displays lined with rows of plump, flawless tomatoes in an unvarying shade of red.

This measured, often complicated development process leaves hybrids with less genetic steadiness than their non-hybrid counterparts. After one growing season, hybrids tend to exhibit unpredictable qualities, and new plants resemble grandparent plants rather than the carefully bred parents. Occasionally, hybrids are “stabilized,” or turned into open-pollinated varieties through a selective seed saving and cultivating process. But such stabilization takes time and some technical know-how. Most growers instead simply purchase new packets of hybrid seed each year.2

The rise of hybrids is linked to a decline in genetic diversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that approximately 75 percent of global plant diversity has disappeared since the early 1900s, as farmers trade established local crops for higher yields and uniform produce. While plants account for more than 80 percent of the human diet, a mere 30 crops provide most of the food. In fact, FAO numbers suggest that 60 percent of the world population’s energy intake comes from just five crops: maize, millet, rice, sorghum, and wheat.

Back in 1970s Missouri, Diane Ott Whealy and her husband noticed people abandoning open-pollinated seeds for more polished, predictable alternatives.

“When we started Seed Savers, hybrid seeds were part of the threat to non-hybrid seeds,” she explains. “Gardeners were thinking, ‘Why do I want the older varieties when the newer ones are here? They’ve got to be better because they’re newer.’ There was a lack of interest in the older varieties.”

Before it was a garden, it was a cattle corral covered in gravel. Heritage Farm has now filled it with self-seeding flowers and vegetables.

Honoring heirlooms

Captivated by the connections between seeds, stories, and culture, the young couple started collecting and maintaining heirloom seeds. Heirlooms, a category of open-pollinated seeds, are those cultivated and shared over time.3 Some organizations define heirlooms based on age, applying the label to seeds that come from a variety that has persisted for at least 50 years. Seed Savers, however, classifies heirloom seeds as those with a documented history of being preserved and passed between generations.

Only a few grassroots organizations were active in large-scale seed preservation as Kent and Diane Ott Whealy outlined their own ideas. Abundant Life (the precursor to today’s Organic Seed Alliance) was selling regional seeds in the Pacific Northwest. Arizona’s Native Seeds/SEARCH started drawing attention to the crops of the Southwest a few years later. To generate interest in Seed Savers Exchange, its founders worked with gardeners, seed collectors, and back-to-the-land publications. Eventually, supporters started sending non-hybrid heirlooms and the collection took off.

“One day, we looked up and we had a whole counter full of seed packages. The family desk was taken over with seed. I was using cake pans to file letters. It reconfirmed our desire and our belief in doing this, but then we also realized we had a responsibility,” Diane Ott Whealy says. “This was a living collection and we were entrusted with it.”

The family decided to find a farm where they could raise and store more seeds. Returning to northeast Iowa, they rented five acres near the Upper Iowa River. Every variety represented in the collection was planted that first year, including 500 types of beans, 280 tomatoes, 100 peppers, 120 kinds of corn, 130 potatoes, and 370 squash. After purchasing Heritage Farm in 1987, the founders established seed bank facilities and continued expanding Seed Savers’ membership and programming.

Currently, the organization maintains more than 25,000 heirloom seed records in gardens and storage vaults. Many seeds in the catalog are captioned with short histories and details from the family who donated them to the collection. The seed-story link remains as important now as when Ott Whealy first planted her grandfather’s flowers.

“When I see that morning glory blossom, I immediately think of him,” she says.

Banking on the future

Eight years after the Ott Whealys launched Seed Savers Exchange, representatives from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center visited a remote site in the mountains of Svalbard, Norway. Biodiversity advocates were seeking a secure spot on which to build a central bank — a safe deposit box, of sorts — for the world’s seeds. A bunker carved into the permafrost on this stable, isolated island, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, would be protected from natural disasters, manmade calamities, and climate change.

Builders began constructing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault nearly 25 years later, and it opened in 2008. The Norwegian government partners with the Nordic Genetic Resources Center and Global Crop Diversity Trust to maintain the facility. Depositors own the seeds they store at Svalbard, and no other parties can access deposits unless the original contributor grants permission. The vault, which has the capacity to store 2.25 billion seeds, was designed to serve as a backup for more than 1,400 seed storage operations worldwide.

When small seed banks lack the resources for long-term, off-site backup storage, one catastrophe can wipe out an entire collection. In 2003, a fire devastated the Abundant Life Seed Foundation office in Port Townsend, Washington, and claimed many of the group’s rare seeds. Fire and flood have destroyed seed banks in the Philippines. War threatens collections elsewhere.

Seed Savers Exchange, now one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the United States, maintains its own storage facilities at Heritage Farm. To mitigate risk, the organization also keeps duplicates of more than 2,200 unique seed varieties at Svalbard and sends additional seeds to the USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Both of those places are backups for us,” says Ott Whealy. “We don’t put all of our eggs in one basket.”

Ancient White Park cattle originated 2,000 years ago in the British Isles. The herd at Heritage Farm is one of five major herds in North America.

How does your garden grow?

If big banks sit at one end of the seed-saving spectrum, small-scale community efforts occupy the other. Seed lending libraries are springing up nationwide. Often housed within public libraries, they offer seeds suited to local climates and conditions. Borrowers check out seeds to plant in their home gardens, and when the season ends, they return seeds harvested from the mature plants to the same library.

Web sites make it easy for consumers to find maps and listings of local lending facilities, and free online resources guide communities through the process of establishing new ones.

The East Palo Alto Seed Library serves families in California’s sunny Silicon Valley. Highway 101 cuts through the low-income community, in a region where orchards and vegetable fields have been replaced by residential developments and office parks housing some of the country’s biggest technology firms. Collective Roots, the nonprofit food advocacy group that launched the East Palo Alto farmers’ market, installed a seed kiosk at the city’s library three years ago. The organization also offers community garden plots, growing workshops, cooking and nutrition classes, youth programs, and a tool lending library that provides access to equipment for cultivating and preserving food.

Some heirloom seeds in the East Palo Alto library were harvested from the organization’s own gardens. Others were sourced from providers such as Seed Savers Exchange and the Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. Collective Roots also serves a number of immigrant families raising seeds they carried to California from their home countries.

All of the organization’s library patrons and workshop participants are introduced to genetic diversity as they learn to grow and harvest heirlooms, explains Collective Roots executive director, Kris Jensen. His group, like Seed Savers, values the cultural benefits of gardening. “Often, families are bringing seeds with them. A lot of our community gardeners have these amazing plants that tie back to where they came from. It’s really wonderful to talk to them about that, and it really connects their lives here to their lives back home,” he says. “That’s especially true for the older generations trying to engage with their grandkids here.”

As catalogs have replaced conversations about gardening, much of the knowledge once passed between generations has also disappeared. For people who lack access to lending libraries or personal guidance, Seed Savers has introduced a new collection that includes six vegetable varieties packaged with basic growing and seed saving instructions.

“I really did want to draw attention to the fact that our ancestors saved seeds, but they didn’t have degrees. Sure, some did, but generally they were just people who saved out of necessity. They didn’t have the money to buy seeds, and saving became part of gardening,” says Diane Ott Whealy.

She hopes the new do-it-yourself kit demystifies the harvesting and saving process and encourages people to learn more about the seeds they sow.

The stories, after all, are central to seed preservation.

“To save things, you really have to love them. And to love things, you have to understand what they are,” Ott Whealy says. “The stories, to me, are as important as the seed. It’s easier to save a seed that you love.”

Photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.


  1. Some plants are self-sterile, meaning that pollen from the male parts, the stamens, will not fertilize the female parts, the pistils. Self-sterility increases diversity, but self-pollination may have evolved in some plants because of a lack of pollinators or appropriate weather. 

  2. Hybrid seeds are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They are developed from natural breeding directed by human hands. 

  3. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom

Renee Brincks is a freelance writer who covers travel, food, beer, and culture. She contributes to American Way, Zagat.com, and Where San Francisco, among others, and recently explored Switzerland on inline skates. Renee splits her time between Iowa and San Francisco, where she grows plants in pots near her kitchen window.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
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