DECORAH, Iowa — In the extreme northeast corner of Iowa, on a grassy hillside ringed by meadows, limestone outcroppings and prismatic trout streams, an underground bunker safeguards our nation’s food heritage.
Inside the surprisingly small 10-by-15-foot freezer vault at Seed Savers Exchange, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves are packed tight with white cardboard trays full of moisture-proof, foil-lined packets. The packets, labeled with long sequences of numbers and letters, hold the seeds of more than 25,000 varieties of old-time vegetables and plants.
This treasure trove of heirloom edibles is a living testament to the rich diversity of foods North Americans used to eat. But Seed Savers Exchange is more than just a repository. The nonprofit organization is the largest seed bank in the nation that makes its seeds available to the public, with the goal of reintroducing these nearly lost foods to backyard gardens, commercial farms and ultimately the American diet.
“We are the anti-Monsanto,” executive director John Torgrimson says. “We are the safety valve. Before World War II, every farmer saved seeds. Today, patented seeds and hybrids make it impossible for farmers to save seeds.”
Torgrimson says Seed Savers Exchange is also the backbone to the heirloom seed movement. “There’s a good chance that a restaurant in New York is able to offer heirloom tomatoes on its menu because we’ve been doing this work for 34 years.”
It all started with the seeds of two plants from Bavaria.
Diane Ott Whealy grew up on a farm near Festina, Iowa. Her paternal grandparents also had a farm nearby.
Shortly before her grandfather died in 1974, he entrusted Whealy and her husband, Kent, with seeds for two beloved plants that he had always grown: a large pink tomato and a red-throated purple morning glory.
Her grandfather’s father had brought the seeds for both plants to the United States when he emigrated from Dreuschendorf, Germany.
The Whealys realized they were the last people in the family to have the seeds, and that got them thinking about the loss of genetic diversity in food crops nationwide. They wrote letters to Mother Earth News and other back-to-the-land magazines to try to find other people who were also saving heirloom seeds.
In 1975, the couple started True Seed Exchange out of their remote homestead in Princeton, Mo., 115 miles northeast of Kansas City, Mo. That first year, they printed a directory of gardeners who had seeds to share and sold it to 29 people who sent in 25 cents and a large envelope.
True Seed Exchange became Seed Savers Exchange in 1979 and moved to Decorah in 1986. Today Heritage Farm, as the headquarters is known, employs 50 people who work in the organization’s research lab, trial gardens, greenhouses, visitors center and retail seed operation and generates $5 million per year.
“We started doing this before heirlooms were fashionable,” she said. “We knew in our hearts it was the right thing to do.”
Ott Whealy says it took a long time for the public to realize it needs the seeds her organization has worked so hard to find and distribute, but that only sweetens the gratification she feels now.
Kent Whealy left Seed Savers Exchange shortly after the couple divorced in 2004, but Diane Ott Whealy remains vice president and spiritual center of the organization.
Seed Savers Exchange is best known for its online and mail order catalog, which offers 600 varieties of heirloom vegetables and plants. The catalog is hugely popular among gardeners who devour its beautiful color photographs and especially the descriptions, which are essentially little stories about the history of each plant and the people who saved its seeds.
As charming and profitable as the catalog is (seed sales bring in about 70 percent of the organization’s annual revenues), the heart and soul of the organization, the “exchange” part of Seed Savers Exchange, is the members-only yearbook, a listing that allows seed savers to connect with each other to trade, give away or buy and sell seeds.
Currently the organization counts 13,000 members in all 50 states and 40 countries. Membership costs $40 per year and includes a copy of the yearbook and other publications relating to gardening and seed saving. The 2013 yearbook lists 12,495 different varieties of heirloom vegetables and plants offered by 694 member growers. It includes 4,749 varieties of tomatoes, 875 types of peppers and 1,553 beans. The organization also provides monthly webinars at seedsavers.org that teach techniques for gathering and storing seeds.
“We did not just save the seeds,” Ott Whealy said. “We gave people back the knowledge about how to save the seeds that had been lost.”
Seed Savers Exchange has specific criteria for including a vegetable or plant in the preservation collection. The first is botanical: the seed has to be open-pollinated, meaning, unlike hybrids, if you save the seeds and plant them, you will get the same plant. The rest are cultural.
“It’s like ‘Antiques Roadshow,’” executive director Torgrimson said. “We have to have the provenance. We know it was in a seed catalog in 1898 or we know it was handed down generationally within a specific family.”
Most heirloom varieties are pre-1950, before hybrids (which do not come true from seed) exploded onto the scene. But there are exceptions: the Green Zebra tomato was bred by a Seed Savers Exchange member in 1983. It started as a cross between two other tomatoes, but the breeder was able to stabilize the plant so that it now grows true from its seed.
(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Maintaining the 25,000 varieties in the preservation collection is accomplished by a combination of work done in the lab and in the field.
On a Wednesday morning in late May, five technicians are doing different kinds of detective work inside the lab.
One counts seedlings of two okra varieties poking up through potting mix in a plastic grow tray to determine the germination rate. All seeds in the collection are tested for germination rate once every 10 years. Any variety found to have a low germination rate gets put on a list to be planted in test fields to produce more seed as a safeguard.
In another room, a member of the evaluation team looks for genetic markers to tell if an heirloom pepper plant is still true to type.
Nearby, a tissue technician deposits a tiny slip of potato vine into a small test tube with a rubber stopper. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and garlic can’t be stored as seed, so they are preserved as plant material in refrigerated storage containers. More than 700 varieties of potatoes are currently being preserved.
At computer stations, a seed historian studies scanned pages of 60-year-old seed catalogs, hunting for a mention of a particular seed, while an inventory technician reviews documentation submitted with a sample of heirloom seeds someone mailed in.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Their level of scientific research sets Seed Savers Exchange apart from other seed banks, says David Dierig, manager of the USDA’s seed bank in Fort Collins, Colo., where Seed Savers Exchange backs up its collection. The government seed bank is interested in the genetic profile of plants and serves mainly plant breeders and researchers looking to find or develop plants with increased resistance to, say, pests or drought.
“Seed Savers Exchange is documenting the provenance and cultural significance of plants. We are not set up to go out and find those stories. They are performing an important and unique function,” Dierig said.
Most of the seeds in the Seed Savers Exchange preservation collection are food plants, but some flowers are included as well.
By late July, the front of the enormous red barn next to the visitors center will be cloaked in Grandpa Ott’s morning glories. The first seed ever offered by Seed Savers Exchange is now one of the most popular varieties in the country and can be found for sale even in mainstream Burpee’s seed catalog.
Ott Whealy explains why an organization that focuses mainly on heirloom food plants is interested in saving old flower varieties. “If you want to grow food in your backyard nowadays, you also need to grow flowers to attract the pollinators. That didn’t used to be the case, when farms and yards were surrounded by flowering trees and fields of wildflowers.”
Another nonfood aspect of Seed Savers Exchange is its collection of heritage livestock breeds.
Behind a split rail fence on a hill, above a trout stream that flows through the farm, several white cattle with black ears and lyre-shaped horns stand munching the lime-green grass.
These are ancient White Park cattle. They originated some 2,000 years ago in the British Isles. Today, the herd at Heritage Farm is one of only two breeding herds in the U.S.
The farm is also home to heritage pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens. The animals are a big hit with the 15,000 visitors that come to see the farm and hike its 8 miles of trails each year. But the animals are there for more than scenery. An integrated agricultural system is a tenet of the organic farming practiced at Heritage Farm. Chickens running through lettuce beds eat bugs and fertilize the soil, and pigs turned out to roam in orchards loosen the soil and eat fallen fruit that otherwise would rot and attract bugs and mold.
It’s not even noon, but Dan Bussey’s tanned face is dewy with sweat as he moves quickly down a furrow of freshly turned soil as black as coffee grounds. Bussey manages Heritage Farm’s apple orchards.
This morning he is racing to plant grafted apple seedlings in a new orchard that will showcase more than 400 classic Midwest-specific apple varieties, many of them pre-1900 varieties. The trees will be grouped by specific uses they were historically grown for: apples for pie, for cider, for fresh eating, for storage and for applesauce.
Just like heirloom Chioggia beets and Cherokee Purple tomatoes from the Seed Savers Exchange catalog helped spark the heirloom revolution in dining, Bussey hopes reviving old apple varieties will help propel and spread a resurgence in craft cider and apple brandy making that has been launched by a few small brewers and distillers in Wisconsin. Good cider apples tend to be older varieties of small apples with a large skin-to-flesh ratio and high tannins.
Bussey hopes to be able to offer heirloom apple trees in the catalog within a year. Apple grafting workshops are also planned, because while retail sales support important preservation work, the ultimate goal at Seed Savers Exchange remains true to the Whealys’ original vision: to give people back control over their land and food by teaching them how to save their own seeds and propagate their own trees.
Mamie Brown’s Pink
“Donated to SSE in 1995 by Alicia Brown-Matthes of Iowa. This variety was a favorite of Alicia’s grandmother, Mamie Brown, and Alicia remembers seeing it growing in Mamie’s garden when she visited her grandparents in West Virginia during childhood summer vacations. Alicia received seeds of the variety from her aunt Louise, Mamie’s daughter. Louise remembers the variety from her childhood in the 1930s. The family most often uses the fruit for canning and making juice.”
“A popcorn developed by Glenn Thompson of Vermont. Glenn grew and distributed Bear Paw throughout New England from the 1930s until the mid-1960s. This popular variety was served in New England homes and movie theaters and was featured in the Vermont exhibit at the World’s Fair. When Glenn’s health declined and he was no longer able to keep up production, Bear Paw became hard to find. His daughter Ginny has fond memories of the popcorn. She tells how her father hired local boys to help with the harvest. When work was done for the day, the boys were often invited in for cocoa and cupcakes. Ginny and her children remember sitting on Glenn’s lap while the corn was popping over a coal burning stove.”
“Brought to America from England around 1825. Triple purpose bean. Can be used as a snap bean at around 60 days, green shell bean at around 80 days, or as a dry bean if grown to full maturity. Produces heavy crops of stringless 7-9” pods until the first frost.”
“From the Hidatsa tribe who raised corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers in the Missouri River Valley of North Dakota. Shield Figure beans are described in ‘Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden’ (1987). This very productive variety was boarded onto Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste in 2005.”
Good Mother Stallard
“Family heirloom that has been enjoyed for generations. Introduced to SSE members over a decade ago by Glenn Drowns. Maroon beans splashed with white, 5-6 seeds per pod. Wonderful rich meaty flavor, great for soups. Very productive.”
“Ornamental and delicious popcorn with kernels in shades of blue, pink, mahogany, white, and yellow. Slender ears up to 7” long are borne in profusion on 8’ plants.”
A visit to Heritage Farm, headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange, can easily be stretched into a three-day weekend getaway for families or friends.
Located in the heart of northeast Iowa’s bluff country, near the borders to Minnesota and Wisconsin, Decorah has many charms: a turn-of-the-century downtown, an elegant historic homes district, the country’s largest Norwegian museum, a fish hatchery and several scenic parks.
Surrounding Winneshiek County offers additional diversions, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder house, photo op-painted barns everywhere and excellent trout fishing and kayaking.
Historic Hotel Winneshiek, hotelwinn.com, in downtown Decorah has a magnificent three-story atrium, terrazzo floors, period antiques and an opera house. The guest rooms are enormous and feature whirlpool tubs in large bathrooms. The hotel’s restaurant, Albert’s, prepares new American cuisine using lots of fresh, local ingredients for prices that are modest by Kansas City standards.
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, vesterheim.org, in downtown Decorah is hosting a national exhibition of folk art in the Norwegian tradition through July 27. The museum, the largest in the country devoted to a single ethnic group, has extensive collections of tools, textiles, woodworking and decorative painting (rosemaling).
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, lauraingallswilder.us, in nearby Burr Oak, Iowa, is the site of the author’s only home still on its original site.
Heritage Farm, headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange, seedsavers.org, is a beautiful 900-acre working farm with dozens of gardens, apple orchards, a visitors center and gift shop and 8 miles of hiking trails.
Dunning Spring Park, Ice Cave Hill Park and Barnhart-Van Peenen Park abut the Upper Iowa River in Decorah and offer picnicking, bonfire grills, and hiking trails. Go to visitdecorah.com for information on trout fishing and kayaking.
Nordic Festival, nordicfest.com, July 25-27 in Decorah, features a parade, food, crafts and music.