Preserving heritage through seed
By Darrin Cline
Nestled among the forested bluffs of northeast Iowa is a different kind of seed company. Sprawling across 800 acres of gardens and orchards is the Seed Savers Exchange. Unlike most seed companies that aim to advance the prolificacy and mass production of seeds for croplands, Seed Savers Exchange works to preserve thousands of heirloom varieties, from oats and onions to cabbage and corn.
Started in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy, the creation of Seed Savers Exchange was inspired by a packet of tomato seeds. The founder received heirloom tomato seeds, as well as a packet of morning glory seeds, from her grandfather, who had inherited the seeds from his grandfather.
Whealy's determination to keep these German heritage varieties alive motivated her to find other gardeners who had seeds they wished to pass on to others. After placing advertisements in numerous magazines, she found a handful of individuals with a similar passion; the groundwork for Seed Savers Exchange was laid.
This small group of growers began to share seeds and a passion for gardening. Over the next decade their network grew. Hundreds and eventually thousands of growers who had their own heritage seeds to share joined the Exchange.
"Every year people send us what they want to share and we compile it in a yearbook, which looks like a 500-page telephone directory," said Carmody.
Seed Savers has burgeoned to a level of near-capacity for what they can care for and manage. According to Carmody, they have limited their varieties to American heirlooms, but have entertained ideas and contributions from international growers.
In order to preserve this mass volume of seeds, the Seed Savers team has gone to extensive lengths to maintain their quantity and purity. Aside from their Iowa location, they also store back up packets of their seeds at the global seed vault in Norway and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture seed bank in Fort Collins, Colo.
At the home farm, meticulous pollination practices have been established to ensure purity. Gardens and plots are placed at certain distances so that one variety does not cross-pollinate with others. In an open-pollination environment, the use of hand pollination plays a major role.
"When I speak to people who don't know much about farming, I tell them it's like open source software. We have seeds that we want people to take and adapt," said Carmody.
The amount of hands-on labor keeps the 50 full-time employees busy year round. According to Carmody, they are certified organic and have minimized mechanization in harvest, maintenance and planting practices.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Seed Savers is that they do not actually sell the produce they work so hard to procure. According to Carmody, this has to do with the difference between maturity levels in the plants.
"For example, when your cucumbers are green and delicious, the seeds are tiny and if you tried to save those seeds they wouldn't be valuable. We have to let them grow and get orange and big and moldy basically, because that's when the seeds reach maturity," said Carmody.
With the delicate nature of the heirloom seeds, the Exchange aims to have as many quality seeds as possible; in order to preserve quality, there is an unseen technical side to the company. The seedbank hosts trained experts who can test and examine seeds for the desired characteristics. Seeds are methodically examined, cared for and placed in temperature-controlled refrigerators to increase shelf life.
Most of the Seed Savers herbs and vegetables are continued through seeds, but some crops require a unique approach. Potatoes are grown in and reproduced in a different manner. They are grown using tissue cultures. The plants are kept in refrigerated test tubes and are protected from viruses and other environmental hazards. Once the plants have outgrown the test tubes, smaller cuttings are taken from said plant and used to replicate the process again.
While garden vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and cabbage are the calling card of the Seed Savers, these crops are not the aspects of agriculture they are working to preserve. The ground also hosts an apple orchard, described by the Seed Saver's as the "American Heirloom" fruit. According to Seed Savers, the goal is to preserve pre-1900 apple varieties and minimize the "genetic erosion" of the fruit.
Even livestock have become an object of affinity at the farm. Ancient White Park cattle are on display and Seed Savers is one of the few places in the world where they can be found. According to the Exchange's website, the breed thrived in the British Isles for thousands of years, but their numbers have dwindled to around 800 globally.
This idea of preservation and stopping "genetic erosion" is a driving factor behind the group's efforts. Whether it is fruits, vegetables herbs or even cattle, Seed Savers wants to make sure the bounty and variety is not lost.
"If it were up to 10 seed companies to provide all the seeds we'd all be planting the same couple of tomatoes, but because of all these people sharing we are able preserve all this variety," Carmody said.
Beyond the seed saving and heirloom preservation, the Exchange also works at providing non-profit and community opportunities. From tomato tasting events to workshops to guest lecturers, Seed Savers aims to provide resources and education for individuals interested in preserving a unique level of heritage through gardening and sharing.