One summer when I was a kid, my brother and I were eating watermelon in the backyard after dinner. As kids are wont to do, we decided to hold a seed spitting contest, launching our watermelon seeds over the 6-ft. wall in the yard and landing them on the sidewalk, the street and in a tiny patch of yard next to the wall. Although we knew were being slightly obnoxious, what we didn’t realize at the time was that about six month later a watermelon would appear next to our sidewalk, having sprouted from the seeds we’d spat over the wall out the summer before. Although we’d both learned about seeds and plants in school by that time, we didn’t think watermelons could grow in the California desert—every vegetable our mom had tried to grow in our yard before had never survived . We never thought a seed or two, spat over the wall, would bear fruit.
Unless you’re an avid gardener, seeds are probably not something you give much thought to, either. And yet without those tiny kernels, much of our ecosystem—and our food supply—would cease to exist. In many ways, seeds are the tiny underdogs of the plant world, each struggling to sprout, germinate and bring new life in the form of a carrot, squash or eggplant.
At the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, seeds and maintaining our food heritage through seed sharing and stewardship are not only very much top of mind but a labor of love. It all began in 1975, when Seed Savers Exchange founders Diane Ott Whealy and her husband Ken, who were recently married at the time, were gifted with some hand-me-down heirloom seeds from Diane’s terminally ill grandfather. These weren’t just any seeds, they were special seeds that had traveled with his father from Bavaria when he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1800s. And what began with just two varieties of heirloom seeds—German pink tomatoes and morning glories—has blossomed into a mission to keep heirloom plants thriving for perpetuity.
Worried that if she didn’t take stewardship of the seeds and that these unique plant varieties might be lost someday, Diane knew there had to be a way to preserve rare seeds. Operating under the assumption that “sharing seeds was the best way to protect them,” Whealy began the Seed Savers Exchange as a way to not only keep the seeds her grandfather had given her alive, but to also preserve other rare seeds.
According to Grant Olson, public programs manager for the Seed Savers Exchange, the organization began to take root when Whealy reached out to publications such as Mother Earth News and Countryside and other “back to the land” publications to ask whether other people would be interested in doing a seed swap to help keep these rare seeds going. That first year, about 30 people responded and began swapping, trading and sharing seeds, Grant said. Today, forty years later, the Seed Savers Exchange has grown to include a membership of approximately 13,000 people.
In its early years, the Exchange served about 1000 seed savers many of whom discovered the organization not long after it was established, Grant said. At that time, the Exchange was limited only to seed swapping. But eventually older exchange members who also that feared their seeds would be lost if they died, started sending seeds to Diane and Ken with the intent of having the Whealys take care of their seeds. As Diane and Ken’s seed repository continued to grow, they bought a farm just north of Decorah, Iowa, where they could grow out their booming collection of seeds.
Until the early 2000s, Grant said, the organization consisted mainly of the exchange itself and the seed collection. But as both became larger and larger, the Whealys decided to start a seed catalog and incorporate as a non-profit business so they could more widely distribute the seeds they were amassing, conduct outreach and education programs and get people excited about heirlooms.
“I think they had very like-minded people in the Exchange and associated with the organization, and the catalog was the first campaign to reach out and get more people interested,” he said.
Over the past decade, Grant said, the organization has really blossomed, beefing up its educational efforts and growing from a dozen employees to 50. Today the farm is home not just to a dedicated visitor’s center, the Lillian Goldman Visitor’s Center, but a number of on-site gardens where the Exchange grows out different heirloom plant varieties on a yearly basis, but also a research, education and seed preservation facility as well as the company’s catalog operations. In addition to maintaining heirloom variety fruits and vegetables, there are a few heirloom livestock on the farm, including cows and chickens.
“It’s really exploded,” Grant said.
A seed saver in the making
Growing up in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, Grant says he actually didn’t enjoy gardening because it meant “a lot of weeding and a lot of hard work in a buggy, muddy garden.” Nevertheless, gardening was something his father, who had grown up on a farm, insisted the family do. Maintaining a garden was something that was expected—it was just what you did.
“I didn’t really appreciate stuff that was coming out of the garden when I was kid,” Grant said.
Despite having no love for gardening, Grant decided to pursue environmental studies and anthropology in college. “That was when I stared to get a different perspective on people and food, and particularly the relationship that people have with growing their own food,” he said. Seeing the impact that growing food can have on cultures and the environment finally got him interested in gardening.
“It was really exciting to me to see this really diverse and rich history of people growing their own food,” he said.
It wasn’t until Grant decided that he wanted to spend one of his summers experimenting with growing different varieties of potatoes that he became acquainted with the Seed Savers Exchange. Grant says he wanted to grow potatoes because he “loves them,” and he’d just read Michael Pollan’s A Botany of Desire, which he says, has “a great chapter on potatoes and diversity.” As Grant started to look for places where he could find different potato varieties, he discovered the Seed Savers website, where he also noticed a job advertisement for seasonal work. Since he was in-between semesters of a graduate program in environmental education, he decided to apply.
“So I came here and just stayed after that,” Grant said. Although he’d only gotten part-way through his graduate program, he was offered a full time job at the Exchange, which he took. “This is what I want[ed] to do anyway,” he said.
Grant’s focus at the Exchange is on education and encouraging people to save and share seeds. Part of his work is to go into communities around the country and help them establish seed projects such as seed banks or seed swaps. He also helps facilitate the organization’s seed exchange.
“My focus is on the cultural work that we’re doing like encouraging people to save seeds and talking about why it’s important—not just that we’re saving seeds—but why everyone should be saving seeds,” Grant said.
Grant says there are many reasons why it’s important to save seeds. On the most simple level, seed saving is just easy, he says, and you get a lot of return for minimal investment, particularly if you’re growing things like lettuce, beans, tomatoes or peas. Harvesting seeds can take a couple different forms, both of which are fairly simple and straightforward, he says.
“It’s not that much extra work to let the plants flower and produce seeds and harvest those seeds,” he said. And for many vegetables, such as tomatoes, it can be as easy as cutting them open, scooping out the seeds and drying them.
“As a gardener, it gives you a more full circle perspective about the plant and a different relationship with the plant. You’re not just growing it for food and then you’re done with it. You’re growing it and then maintaining it and becoming a steward of that particular variety,” he said.
Grant says that a lot of the people in the Exchange that have become seed savers over the years started doing it initially because they had a favorite varieties of vegetables that they would grow every year that suddenly disappeared from their favorite seed catalogs.
“That happens all the time—varieties disappear from commercial commerce.” In fact, Grant noted that in 1903, there were about 544 different varieties of cabbage, for example, offered commercially in seed catalogs nationwide. Today, he says, only 28 of those varieties still exist in the National Seed Storage Laboratory.
Grant says seed loss in the 20th Century happened in part due to seed company consolidation in the early 1900s as well as small, local seed companies being bought up by larger seed companies. To maximize their offerings, large seed companies tended to sell seeds that would do well in most regions of the country rather than varieties that might have been adapted to only grow well in certain regions.
“That’s the reason a lot of folks started participating in the seed exchange—because they realized they couldn’t get ahold of their favorite seeds anymore,” he said.
Until about 15 years ago, most of us had probably never heard of “heirloom” vegetables. Then heirlooms—primarily in the form of tomatoes—started popping up in grocery stores everywhere. Since then, heirlooms—with their often funky shapes, unusual colors and craggy stems—have become de rigeur carrying with them a perception that by sheer virtue of being heirloom, they are far better than your average hothouse tomato.
And from a biological standpoint, that is largely true. Heirlooms, while not necessarily organic, are by definition non-GMO. To be designated an “heirloom” variety, plants and seeds must meet certain criteria. Just as family heirlooms, such as china or jewelry, are passed down from generation to generation, heirloom seeds are also passed down—among families, gardeners or savers. Heirloom seeds typically come from plant varieties that have been maintained for at least 50 years, if not longer.
Grant says many of the family heirloom varieties that the Seed Savers Exchange maintains have a high level of specificity to them—they can be particular to a certain region or to a family that has kept and grown them.
“They’ve been selected for very specific things,” he said. “A variety that’s been grown in one family in one location for a generation or two is going to be really well adapted to the pests and the climate and the conditions of that particular area. They also start to develop all these cultural qualities that surround the seeds, as well.” Often certain varieties can become really important to not only a region or family but something as simple as a family recipe.
For example, Grant says, one of the heirlooms they grow in the garden at Heritage Farm is a variety of pepper called a fish pepper. Fish peppers were nearly lost but were rediscovered by William Woys Weaver, a seed historian in Pennsylvania. According to Grant, fish peppers were an important ingredient in many fish chowder recipes made by African Americans who lived in the Chesapeake Bay area during the 19th Century. “So by preserving this seed, we’re not just preserving the genes inside the seed, we’re also preserving this entire culinary tradition that goes with this variety,” he said.
In addition to preserving rare varieties such as the fish pepper, the Exchange also maintains an apple orchard with approximately 500 varieties of 19th Century apples. Many of these apples, Grant says, have been bred specifically for different uses—from cider to making apple butter or as fruit that might not taste great off the tree, but they store well.
As a seed steward and educator, Grant says one of the most satisfying parts of his job is hearing and learning the stories behind different seeds and plant varieties. One of his favorite stories is about a seed saver named Russ Crow that was an avid collector of dried beans. According to Grant, one year Crow mixed up some of the seeds that he harvested. The variety was supposed to have white seeds, but when he opened the pods, the seeds were blue. Crow decided to grow those blue seeds and after a few years, he found that he continued to get the same blue seeds every year. Stabilized by that time, the seeds had adapted and Crow had, in effect, created a new variety of beans, which he decided to call “Blue Jay.”
Then Crow moved and stopped gardening for a few years. When he wanted to go back to it, he started looking for interesting bean varieties to grow and found something that had the same name as his bean—Blue Jay—in a catalog in Canada. After digging deeper, Grant says, Crow found out the Blue Jays in the catalog were the same bean he’d discovered years earlier—someone had gotten a hold of the Blue Jays through the seed exchange. Eventually they were being featured in that seed catalog in Canada.
Another seed that nearly met extinction is a variety of watermelon called the “moon and stars watermelon.” Grant says the variety dates from early 1900s when it was known as “sun, moon and stars,” because it was a green watermelon with small spots that look like stars and big spots that look like the sun. Although the variety had been popular in the early 20th Century, it had all but disappeared from from seed catalogs. A campaign was started to see if the variety could be found. Someone who had been growing the variety for 20 years heard a radio program about the seed search and then donated seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange. Now, the moon and stars watermelon is thriving and is being featured again in the Seed Savers Catalog.
“It’s made a huge comeback. It’s a really unique watermelon,” Grant said.
Grant says “heirloom varieties” are so named because they’re a collection of plants that all share a certain heritage and similar growing and taste characteristics. But if you plant different varieties of plants—say a big juicy, sweet tomato and a small, tart yellow tomato—next to each other in a garden, chances are you’ll get some hybrid plants that cross-pollinate and combine the DNA of both whether from insects going from flower to flower or wind, etc.
To keep heirloom varieties pure and make sure they don’t cross-pollinate and become hybrids, heirlooms are grown in very specific areas and purposely not grown near other varieties of the same plant species. That helps prevent the pollen from being spread. Whereas most plants can be grown on, say the opposite two sides of a garden, others cannot. According to Grant, plants like corn that have very fine pollen to begin with can be cross-pollinated within even a two or three mile radius and therefore must either be hand-pollinated or grown far away from each other.
“Cross-pollination happens for the most part within the same species. Tomatoes only cross with other tomatoes. So we recommend that you have two different varieties in the same species, you plant them as far apart in your garden as you can. Commercial recommendations will say if you’ve got two different varieties of peppers, plant them a quarter mile apart. But nobody has a quarter mile of garden to plant varieties apart.
Instead, we just recommend putting things on opposite ends of the garden. If it’s something that’s really rare, something that you can’t get a hold of those seeds again, then we recommend taking other precautions as well. Maybe keeping insects out with tents or hand pollinating flowers, or just growing that one variety and not growing any other peppers in your garden. Here at the farm, we’re pretty strict about our isolations,” Grant said.
Grant says that with many of the things grown at the farm—from squash to watermelon—they do take care to grow them in isolation. Those plants are gown in tents, and the staff will actually place insects into each tent to pollinate the plants or they will hand-pollinate the varieties themselves.
Seeds are stored and maintained in either what’s basically a walk-in fridge or in a long-term storage freezer that’s kept at about 3°F. Grant says that “freezing” the seeds does not kill them. Instead, they just go dormant, as if they were hibernating, until they are thawed at which time they can be planted and grown. “They’re just sleeping basically,” he said.
Some people, he says, try specifically to preserve seed varieties from certain years, much like vintages of wine are specific to different growing years. “Which is interesting,” Grant said, “because these varieties are always changing and adapting to the air quality, the soil, the needs of the family that’s stewarding it.”
In addition to their other work, the Seed Savers Exchange is experimenting with storage and germination rates to see whether plants need to be grown out every few years to help maintain them, Grant said. Each summer, the garden at Heritage Farm is curated specifically to maintain different varieties of heirlooms, he said.
“Some of the seeds will last for 10 or 20 years, others will last—depending on the variety—for 50 or 100 or 200 years in storage,” Grant said.
Two hundred year old seeds? Now that’s heirloom!
What drew you to seeds and seed saving?
I think I was drawn to seeds because seeds seem so sort of dull and uninteresting, and they’re very much like an underdog. You don’t think about that much when you think about a seed, but in each seed there’s the entire history and the entire future of our food. It all exists in a seed, which is really unique and powerful. Once you realize how much stake exists in a seed, it’s really eye-opening and also really empowering, as well, to think that you can participate in being a steward of our food heritage. You can have a really big impact on not just protecting fruits and herbs and vegetables that not just existed a hundred years ago, but also slightly changing those varieties and creating things that are new or creating things that are significant from a biological perspective but also participating in this tradition that we’ve been passing down recipes and oral histories of all these different foods. To be able to participate in that and protect it, I think is really remarkable. It’s something I believe really strongly in—maybe not always doing things yourself, but trying to do things yourself. I think that the ‘grow your own’ movement is generally fantastic and fascinating, and we’ve done really well, but the next step is to produce your own seeds, which is even more empowering because you’re not just freeing yourself from grocery stores, but you’re also freeing yourself from seed catalogs as well.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I’m not sure if there’s a root to this or not, but I’ve always been kind of interested in finding those sort of hidden treasures, I guess, that exist in a seed and pointing them out and really getting people excited about things that seem very sort of mundane. And that, to me, is the most exciting part of the job. To be able to totally change a person’s point of view about their food just by pointing out to them the importance of seeds and telling them really fascinating stories about family heirlooms or old commercial varieties of things that were almost lost and found again. I’m not sure, but there probably is a root to that somewhere…
Have you gotten any advice along the way in being part of this organization and would you have advice for people who are interested in seed saving?
I think the most important realization I’ve had in the time that I’ve worked here is just how simple seed saving can be. People are often really interested in what’s the ideal population size or what’s the ideal isolation distance or what are all these other factors, and people who hear those things coming to seed saving as a newcomer think ‘This is too technical for me.’ But it’s something that can be as easy as slicing open a tomato and scooping the seeds and drying them out. So the advice that I usually give beginners is just to try it, just to do it for one year and look for the flowers, wait for the seeds to be produced, try and get the seeds at the right time and then plant them again next year. I think the simplicity and also the fundamentalness of that act, just how natural that seems, is really empowering for people, I think. So my advice is just to try it. Grab a tomato—even a tomato that you really like at the farmer’s market, ask the farmer ‘Is this an heirloom variety? Is this something I could potentially save seeds from?’ and then take it home and potentially save seeds from that.
It’s pretty straightforward 90 percent of the time. It’s pretty straightforward until you get to the point where you’re like ‘I really want to maintain the characteristics of this variety exactly.’ It’s really hard. Even historically, people get nervous about wrecking a variety—if they’re growing a variety, they think, ‘Oh, I’m going to wreck this if I do something wrong.’ I really hesitate to use the word ‘wrecked,’ though, because as we grow out these varieties, nobody that saved seeds a hundred years ago was trained in seed saving, except for maybe what their parents or grandparents taught them. Seeds aren’t static, they’re never meant to be static, so I think maybe getting over that is maybe a challenge. But if it is something you’re interested in—really preserving the characteristics of a variety—if you have a favorite variety of cabbage, for example, ideally you’d grow 40 cabbage plants and you wouldn’t eat any of them. Then you would—here in Iowa you’d have to dig ‘em all up, put ‘em in pots and put them in the root cellar—and then plant them back out in the spring and they’d take up tons of room and then they would flower and produce seeds and then you’d have seeds enough for like a thousand years, you’d have so many seeds. So if you do get into that sort of detail, then it does become tough. Certainly the things that we do here, we do very much to that next step to maintain the characteristics of these varieties in perpetuity.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The most satisfying thing in this position is just to tell people “Yes, you can.” I feel like all the education we do, all of the workshops that we do—I think seed saving is really intuitive, but people don’t necessarily feel like they have permission to do it, so a lot of the questions that get asked are like, ‘Can I just cut this pepper open and scrape the seeds out?’ And really that’s the heart of it. I mean, that’s it. You cut it open, you scrape the seeds out, you dry ‘em out and then you’ve got seeds for next year. So that’s been really rewarding is just to see the look on people’s face when they have this idea that they can do something and they just need a push, they just need somebody to say, ‘Yes, you can do it,’ and then it totally changes their relationship to food and to gardening. It’s fantastic.
I think maybe 10-15 years ago there was this idea that kids that maybe saw carrots growing out in the garden would look at them and say ‘I’ve got no idea what that is,’ and then you’d pull it and ‘Oh, it’s a carrot’ and there’s this disconnect between people and where their food came from. Now, I think some of the work that we’re trying to do, if you would show a carrot flower to the bulk of folks they would have no idea what it is and you could say ‘Oh that’s Queen Anne’s Lace,’ which would be true—it’s the same species. But now we’re trying to connect the dots not just between people and their food, but people and seeds, so I guess the hope is that maybe in 10, 15 years if you showed a carrot flower to someone, they’d say ‘Oh, that’s a carrot flower’ or if you ask where did carrot seeds come from, they’d be able to tell you.
Do you have a favorite seed variety?
I do. Actually there’s a couple. My favorite crop is beets, I love the diversity in beets and all the different things you can do from just roasting to pickling and, just, I love beets!
My favorite seed variety is, probably, I’ve got a collection of these dwarf tomato varieties. This is a project where there’s a gentleman named Craig LeHoullier and a woman Patrina Nuske-Small who’s from Australia. Craig lives in North Carolina, and they’ve started this tomato breeding project where they’re trying to encourage people in urban environments to try to grow heirlooms. And most heirlooms are like big, sprawling plants and they take up a lot of room, so they’ve been crossing these old heirloom varieties with dwarf varieties that only grow 2-3 feet tall and saving the seeds, so they’re actually trading seeds back and forth between Australia and North Carolina and amongst all these other members of this project, and they’re breeding these really fantastic tomatoes that are very small and stout and very drought tolerant, very productive. They’ve got really fantastic flavored fruits. I really like that intersection of old and new and making heirlooms more accessible to people that need to grow things in pots or that don’t have a big garden, they’ve only got a window sill or something like that. So my favorite seed variety is the Dwarf Barrel Beauty variety—it’s just a really fantastic little tomato.
Are there other artisans in this field that you admire and why?
Yeah. I think Craig is absolutely. I think Craig’s doing really interesting work. Lots of our members are doing really cool things with seeds. Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger are a couple from the Pacific Northwest who recently went to Europe and they collected all these seeds in Europe and so they’re trying to breed regionally adapted varieties of, particularly, kale and cabbage and those brassicas for the Pacific Northwest, so they’re doing really cool stuff. Alan Kapuler, Frank Martin, are two other seeds producers both from out West that are doing really interesting things. There are two gentlemen at the University of Wisconsin who are trying to take seeds and do for seeds what the open source technology folks did for technology. They’re trying to make seeds part of the public domain, so they’ve got a project where they’re breeding vegetables and encouraging people to breed vegetables and then instead of patenting them, which is what often happens when plant breeders develop varieties, they’re encouraging people to license them to the public domain so that they’re accessible to everyone.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
It would be—my family’s very Norwegian—and I had it just the other day and I would absolutely choose it again, but it was mashed potatoes and meatballs wrapped up in lefse and covered in gravy and it was the most Norwegian thing—potatoes wrapped in more potatoes and wheat and meatballs, smothered in gravy and it was fantastic. Maybe not as interesting or flavorful as some other things, but that’s my ultimate comfort food.
Favorite food/resto/chef in the Decorah, Iowa area?
I will say that—he makes fantastic food—and his philosophy of food is really incredible, but Lee Chapman and David Cavagnaro—they’re a part of The Pepperfield Project here in northeast Iowa, just outside of Decorah—they put on this year it’s been bi-monthly dinners where they choose a food heritage with different themes like Mexican, Italian, German, Korean and different fruits and vegetables form those countries. Lee is sort of the chef, and David is the creative force behind it, but they’ve been doing these regional dinners and they grow everything for the dinner from the garden and they source meat from locally from surrounding farms, they make their own cheese, but everything that they have is grown there. Many years ago when the organization first moved to Decorah, David is the garden manager—so he grew out 1500 varieties of fruits and vegetables every single year and over the course of 8-10 years picked out his favorite varieties so he’s got a fantastic seed collection and he could select whatever he wanted from 1500 varieties of fruits and vegetables and so he knows intimately not just the varieties but also their history and cultural significance and he really makes that a part of the meal and the experience that they have. They focus just as much on education and the stories behind the food as preparing the foods themselves.
Seed Savers Exchange
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