On a Northeast Iowa farm and in backyards across the nation, Seed Savers Exchange preserves heirloom varietals and their stories for future generations.
In 1975, Diane Ott Whealy received a gift from her grandfather: the seeds of the German Pink tomato and Grandpa Ott’s morning glory. Whealy wrote a letter to Mother Earth News, asking if anyone else wanted to share the responsibility of preserving cultural heritage by growing and saving seeds. Thirty people responded. The group met in Missouri and exchanged about 100 different varieties, and Seed Savers Exchange was born.
Seed Savers is now the largest seed-saving organization in America, with 13,000 members. Heirloom seeds’ role in human history is at the heart of the nonprofit’s mission. They refer to the process of acquiring new seeds as “accession,” a museum term for adding new work to the collection. The first consideration in the accession process is whether the seeds have a story, according to Head of Preservation Tim Johnson. Varieties must be from before 1950, with evidence of being shared by a family or community through several generations.
In the ‘80s, Seed Savers moved from Missouri to the 890-acre Heritage Farm in Winneshiek County, Iowa. “This physical site is just the headquarters of our work and really our work is carried out through our members,” fundraising coordinator Cindy Goodner said. Seed Savers facilitates home gardeners’ exploration of heirloom varieties and their history, and encourages them to save and share seed. Tubers, bulbs, seeds and cuttings are preserved both at Heritage Farm and in members’ backyards, and then distributed nationwide.
Members have access to many more seed varieties than non-members through a direct member-to-member exchange. Seed listings are now available online, or in print in the nearly 700-page ‘Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook.’ Members can include stories, recipes, photos and video with their listings to flesh out the seeds’ history. Bonnie Riggan of Calico Farms in Iowa City has had luck with the exchange, requesting seeds for padron peppers from a member in Colorado to recreate tapas she’d tasted in Spain.
Members receive a 10% discount on purchases and free or reduced admission to Seed Savers events. Heritage Farm hosts an annual conference in July (14-16 in 2017). Speakers address seed saving practices, current events and garden education. The conference also includes cooking demonstrations, camping, live music, a face-to-face seed swap and lots of food.
Cindy Cary of Solon is a new member, and grows about 200 varieties of heirloom peppers and tomatoes which she sells at the Iowa City Farmers Market. She buys about 1/4 of her seed from Seed Savers because they offer varieties that are popular with her customers, but she doesn’t save her own, she says, because “I want true seeds, and I don’t have the space to separate them.”
Making sure seeds don’t accidentally cross can be a challenge. It helps that Heritage Farm is in the “driftless area” of Iowa, with rugged topography missed by the glaciers’ smoothing slide. Limestone bluffs are natural barriers to cross-pollination by commodity crops that blanket the surrounding landscape.
The Evaluation Department does regular “lot checks,” growing out two generations of about 500 varieties to make certain that the varieties are true and haven’t accidentally crossed, said Heidi Hackman, visitor center supervisor and former farm manager. Seeds are kept frozen as long as possible, and only grown out when their viability starts to decline, Johnson said. Many little gardens are scattered throughout the farm, and the distance keeps them from crossing. More susceptible varieties are planted in 20 x 50 foot cages into which pollinators are released.
Seed Savers donates seed through their Community Seed Resource Program to kickstart seed libraries, a relatively new concept (the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library was the first, founded in 2000). Patrons check out seed, plant it, and save seed from that crop to return to the library, or meet and share directly at seed swaps. Returns are not required, allowing them to be exempt from commercial regulations.
The Coralville Community Food Pantry’s seed library began with Seed Savers seed. The North Liberty Community Pantry (NLCP) has a seed library as well, and both encourage new gardeners through education and access to free seed. The North Liberty location is one of many that partners with the public library, housing their collection in an old card catalog. They also have a community garden which donates its produce, and hosts workshops like container gardening.
“The word community is in our name,” said Kaila Rome of the NLCP. “It takes a village to help a family, and it takes a community to grow food for a community.”
Seed banks became popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, when more productive and consistent new hybrids began replacing heirloom varieties and concerns arose about the loss of biodiversity. Johnson said that Seed Savers is not really a seed bank, because their primary focus is not to preserve genetic material, but to share it along with its history.
The vault at Heritage Farm houses over 20,000 varieties, and adds about 50 more each year. Some varieties are also held at an additional location — The USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resources in Fort Collins, Colorado has backup of about 1/4 of the collection.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway has backup of about 3,000 varieties, so deeply buried beneath the permafrost that even if it lost power, the seeds would be safe for hundreds of years before temperatures would rise enough to render them unviable. Nicknamed the ‘Doomsday Vault’, it’s built to withstand nuclear war and contains the genetic material (over 430,000 specimens) to potentially rebuild Earth’s food supply in case of disaster.
Iraq and Afghanistan’s seed vaults were destroyed in this century’s wars, so when concerns arose about the seed bank in Aleppo, 110,000 samples were brought to Svalbard to preserve a piece of Syrian cultural heritage. Other seed companies like Baker’s Creek seek out seeds from high-conflict zones, but Seed Savers does not. Phytosanitation laws make it difficult to transfer seed between countries, and there are ethical factors as well, Johnson said.
“There’s a lot of concern in the world about the exploitation of genetic resources, the global South being taken advantage of by industrialized countries,” Johnson said. “Our focus is on the United States.”
Eric Menzel, owner of Salt Fork Farms and Kitchen in Solon, plants Seed Savers’ root vegetables and lettuces, favors heirloom tomatoes in his restaurant and has experimented with saving seed himself. Salt Fork has cut back on heirloom seed over the years because while heirlooms may offer better flavor, inconsistent yield, quality and shelf life can make them difficult to depend on as the primary source of produce for a restaurant.
Shanti Sellz, who farms near Mt. Pleasant as Muddy Miss Farms, said that it can be hard to sell heirlooms to grocery stores because “there’s an expectation for uniformity and size and consistency and that’s how you keep your contracts. With heirloom crops, they’re wild, and so there’s a lot more variability.”
However, Sellz said that the unusual produce she can grow from heirloom seed sets her apart as a market grower and gives her an edge when selling to local chefs.
Purple pod pole beans, Yugoslavian red lettuce, miniature white cucumbers and speckled Roman and striped German tomatoes grown at Calico Farms keep customers coming back, Riggan said, because the local nature of her customer base allows her to sell more delicate varieties that are not available in grocery stores.
Goodner said since some heirlooms may be less suitable for retail, gardeners have a chance to taste something novel, which is part of the appeal. “By sharing our heirloom seeds, that’s a way to expose backyard gardeners to something they will never find in a grocery store just because our tomatoes are too delicate to be shipped,” Goodner said.
Sellz, who is also Johnson County’s Local Food Planning Specialist and a member of Seed Savers, said that if you know how to save your own seed, it’s actually more cost-effective than purchasing it. Heirlooms have a place in every culture whether or not they are labeled as such, Sellz said, and she does not view them as a niche product.
Clear Lake farmer Chris Peterson, former president of the Iowa Farmers’ Union, said that even small, diversified family farms are now called “niche” or “alternative”, whereas 25-30 years ago they were mainstream. Peterson said that seed saving organizations are valuable because they provide a counterpoint to mainstream agriculture. He said that the agricultural system has been restructured to focus on short-term yields without long-term sustainability, which is dangerous.
“We have hog factories coming up hand over fist, we have every speck of dirt in Iowa planted with row crops … 50 percent of Iowa’s topsoil is gone. Not having the ability to feed ourselves is a train wreck,” Peterson said. “We’d better have a plan B. When it comes to food and water, people die.”
Peterson was part of a lawsuit in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that challenged the “company store mentality” of corporate seed giants like Monsanto, who Peterson accused of monopolizing the market and overcharging farmers for highly engineered seeds required to make their living.
Highly productive hybrid seeds produce high yields, which lead to falling crop prices. Low prices require higher yields to make a profit, necessitating another purchase of highly productive seed. Farmers can’t save hybrid seeds because the next generation is not productive. Some even contain “terminator genes” to deliberately render them unviable. It’s also against the law to save Monsanto seed, because it’s patented. Monsanto has sued small farmers for saving it, even when it occurs by accidental cross-pollination.
To maximize profits in this competitive market, many farmers plant every inch of available land with commodity crops each year. This contributes to loss of topsoil. Depleted soil demands extra fertilizer to make crops grow. New pesticide-resistant seeds increase yields, but contributed to a five-fold increase in pesticide use in agriculture between 1960-2008 according to the USDA; 39 percent of this pesticide was used on corn alone. Fertilizer and pesticide are more likely to run off into Iowa’s water when natural barriers at the edge of a field are removed to make room for more crops. Runoff flows through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen in fertilizer creates algae blooms. Blooms reduce oxygen in the water, suffocating aquatic life in the Gulf’s rapidly expanding “dead zone.”
There is also a cost to public health when such a high proportion of the American diet is made up of Monsanto’s GMO hybrid corn and soy, and it’s evident in the obesity epidemic, Peterson said. “They’re feeding the world, I guess. I just hope we survive.”
Kaila Rome of NLCP said she hopes that by sharing seed and encouraging first-time gardeners, the seed library will empower people to take control of their nutrition by putting a wider variety of produce on their plates.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Biodiversity underpins to food security, sustainable livelihoods, ecosystem resilience, coping strategies for climate change, adequate nutritional requirements, insurance for the future and the management of biological processes needed for sustainable agricultural production.” According to the USDA, over 75 percent of Iowa farmland is planted with corn and soybeans.
“There’s been a huge loss in genetic diversity in the last 100 years and some say as much as 95 percent of all genetic material has been lost in the last 50 years. So what we’re trying to do at Seed Savers Exchange is just save these heirloom varieties to keep them around for future generations,” Goodner said. Seed Savers also works with heritage livestock breeders nationwide to preserve multiple breeds of poultry and cattle.
Riggan said that Seed Savers’ work is important to her in part because “as things evolve, it’s possible that some varieties that we are using extensively today may not be available; they may not be resistant to pests or diseases. Having access to other sorts of varieties in the future might save our food supply.”
Johnson emphasized that Seed Savers’ goal is not to capture a broad range of genetic diversity, but said that the preservation of heirloom varieties has a role to play in the revival of more natural methods of agriculture. “These are varieties that have been bred and selected for organic culture,” Johnson said. Maintaining a good pool of germplasm is a concern for domesticated crops, he said, and there’s interest in working with wild crop relatives because they may have developed pest and disease resistance. “We never know what variety is gonna have that trait that we really really need,” Johnson said.
Seed Savers offers about 600 varieties in their annual seed catalog, which comes out in December. They can’t offer the full 20,000 because the seeds must go through the lot check process to make sure they are true before they can be listed in the catalog, and they can only grow out so many varieties at a time. Goodner said she’s excited about a new addition to the catalog called Ocelia, a medium-hot Italian pepper variety donated by a family in Des Moines.
Curling up with the catalog on a snowy day to dream about summer’s tomatoes is a tradition for many Iowans, but if you’d rather look through seed packets in person they can be found at New Pioneer Co-ops, Bark and Bloom and Peck’s Garden Center in Cedar Rapids, Whole Health Natural Foods in Marion, Lenoch & Cilek Ace Hardware, Iowa City Landscaping, and North Dodge Hy-Vee in Iowa City.
Johnson said not to be afraid to try saving seed at home, and recommends starting with familiar plants. Lettuce is easy, because it’s self-pollinating so it’s usually true to type. Let it bolt and flower and save those seeds, or dry some peas over the winter and plant them in the spring. The Seed Garden, a 2015 book from Seed Savers, has tips for getting started.
“You have so little to lose by messing up. It can add so much value to your garden experience. Get in there and get your hands dirty and just start where you are,” Johnson said.
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