Nestled in the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, Seed Savers Exchange quietly pursues a mission with worldwide ramifications: preserving the genetic heritage of vegetables and flowers, a.k.a. saving seeds. Kent and Diane Whealy, founders of this nonprofit group, live a life that’s every gardener’s dream--raising thousands of different plant varieties season after season, so that they might safeguard the seed for another generation of gardeners.
Tracing a Family Tree
For Kent and Diane Whealy, seed saving is definitely in their blood. The whole concept of preserving historic plants originated with Diane’s grandfather, Baptist John Ott, who nurtured the couple’s first gardening attempts and, in 1971, passed to them two seeds that his parents had brought from Bavaria: a tomato and a morning glory.
Today, those two plants are well known in gardening circles across the country: ‘German Pink’ tomato and ‘Grandpa Ott’s morning glory. But these two botanical branches of the Whealy family tree are a mere drop in the proverbial seed bucket that is maintained at Heritage Farm.
Seeds from 18,000 plant varieties are stored in humidity- and temperature-controlled seed vaults at the farm. The seeds represent more than life: They embody the genetic diversity of plants native to regions all over the world.
Preserving a Heritage of Seeds
The mission at Seed Savers Exchange is simple. “We want to increase the genetic diversity that’s available to gardeners and farmers growing food for their families,” says Kent. It’s a straight- forward message that’s as close to home as the dinner plate.
“We have found that there is a tremendous heritage of heirloom garden plants in this country that was brought in by the original immigrants. Gardeners and farmers always brought the best of their seeds with them. We want to preserve those links to the Old Country,” Kent says. Preserving that heritage depends on a network of over 8,000 seed-saving gardeners, who are members of Seed Savers Exchange.
These patrons of the green-thumbed arts are more than mere gardening enthusiasts; they are dedicated seed savers who not only enjoy harvesting the fruits of their labors, but who also revel in the not-so-glamorous task of gathering and drying seeds. Annually, Seed Savers publishes a 500-page yearbook listing 1,000 members by name and address along with their personal seed offerings for that year. For a small shipping fee, members can request unusual and heirloom seeds from other members. And so the cycle of genetic preservation continues.
Seed Savers Extraordinaire
Diane and Kent Whealy, founders of Seed Savers Exchange, know firsthand the trials and tribulations of gardening, having raised up to 2,000 plant varieties each season at Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa. Their passion for gardening is evidenced by their willingness to talk tomatoes (or okra or cosmos or corn...) to any who will lend an ear. Their dedication to preserving the genetic diversity of the family farm has earned them a worldwide reputation as seedspeople. To visit Heritage Farm, call (319) 382-5990.
About Heritage Farm
The half-acre demonstration gardens at Heritage Farm shimmer with blooms and produce in midsummer. The heirloom and preserved varieties of flowers and vegetables reach their peak then, painting the landscape with living, glorious color. Just when the gardens are looking their best, Kent and Diane Whealy, founders of Seed Savers Exchange, host the annual member Campout Convention.
About 250 SSE members converge on the farm for the campout convention each summer on the next-to-last full weekend in July. The barn loft provides the perfect atmosphere for garden speakers, slide shows, and an old-fashioned barn dance. The convention also features garden and orchard tours, demonstrations, and workshops. Keynote speakers in the past have included noteworthy garden experts, such as Wendell Berry, Nancy Arrowsmith, Roger Swain, and Eliot Coleman.
While some members do camp out on the property at Heritage Farm, others bed down at local hotels. Attendance is limited to SSE members and their families. For more information, write and ask to have your name placed on the "Mailing List for Campout Convention."
Address letters to:
Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101