Anyone can grow and save seeds, whether in your backyard or a community garden, and the more people who grow, save and share seeds, the more people who participate, the better we can all protect biodiversity
John Torgrimson, Executive Director
Diane Ott Whealy and husband, Kent, founded the Seed Savers Exchange in 1975. It all started when Diane’s grandfather gave her the seeds of two plants that his parents had given him after they emigrated from Bavaria to Iowa. Diane realized that by saving the seeds she was not only preserving her family history but also preventing the varieties from becoming extinct. The young couple were deeply inspired by the act of seed saving and reached out to other farmers to see who else was saving seeds from their families. They invited those farmers to send them samples from their homes, and established a national network so that farmers could share seeds directly with each other.
Seed Savers Exchange has grown ever since and now looks after a collection of over 20,000 varieties. It runs an annual Yearbook, a gardener-to-gardener seed swap, which connects 13,000 members across America. The organization is based at Heritage Farm, a 900-acre farm in Winneshiek County, Iowa, where they store and replenish all the seeds in their collection, as well conserving hundreds of native plant varieties and rearing an Ancient White Park cattle herd.
Our mission is to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
The Seed Exchange
Seed Savers Exchange has developed in to a multifaceted non-profit organization and seed company, whose work encompasses conservation, education, and sales, however at the heart of their work lies the Seed Exchange, a gardener-to-gardener seed swap, the largest of its kind in the US. The seed swap takes place via the annual print Yearbook and more recently online. Members from across the country list information about seeds they have which they would like to share; members may request from each other and the seeds pass directly from member to member. In 2015, the Yearbook included over 23,000 listings.
Many of the varieties listed in the Yearbook make their way in to SSE’s Collection, where they will be preserved for future generations, but perhaps more importantly, the Exchange enables seed savers to connect with each other and share their seeds and the stories that go with them. It enables people to access seeds that they have never heard of before, that are not commercially available, and provides a means for people to share seeds that have been passed down their family for generations. By passing seeds freely amongst each other, members have increased the genetic diversity of specific varieties by growing them in new locations, and have saved many varieties from the brink of extinction. Some members develop reputations as seed saving stars, with collections of impressive size or variety, and attract hundreds of requests for their seeds each year. A growing number of members have used the Yearbook as a springboard to launch successful seed companies: Adaptive Seeds, Baker Creek Seeds and Victory Seeds all started their seed saving careers as Yearbook Exchange members.
U.S. Heirlooms: varieties that have a history of being grown and shared within a family or community in the U.S.
Since Diane and Kent started collecting seeds in the mid-1970s, Seed Savers Exchange has amassed a huge collection of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, know as the Preservation Collection, that are now maintained on their base at Heritage Farm. Here, they grow out over 1000 varieties every year to refresh the seed supply and to evaluate what they have. The Preservation Collection is managed by a team of experienced biologists and horticulturalists, and is subject to rigorous scientific examination, however it hasn’t always been this way.
During the 1990s and 2000s, the number of accessions in SEE’s collection increased rapidly as the reputation of the organization grew. They took on many accessions from new members but struggled to manage the growth; seeds were acquired without adequate information; crops were grown without significant distance between to maintain purity. This resulted in seed stocks that lacked uniformity and significant number of seeds hidden amongst their collection that would not grow true to type.
In response to the two-fold problem of an impure and unwieldy seed collection, SSE adopted an Accessions Policy in 2013 that laid out priorities for preservation. They defined their key priority as, ‘varieties with a history of use in the United States’, so excluding varieties that had only been introduced to America recently or had no history of being grown here. Since introducing the policy, their primary focus has been on three main types of heirloom: Exchange Heirlooms, varieties that have been listed and exchanged by Year Book members for at least 20 years; Historic Heirlooms, varieties that have predate 1950; and Modern Heirlooms; varieties that do not predate 1950 but have been grown in the US for at least 20 years. The Accessions Policy enabled the Preservation staff to make difficult decisions about which seeds to prioritise in the annual grow outs, and which could be let go from the collection.
Tor Janson is the Collection Curator and has the fascinating job of overseeing which varieties from the collection should be grown out each year. In order to create a schedule, he considers when each stock was last grown out, whether it needs replenishing and whether the seed fits with the accessions policy. For this purpose, Tor works closely with Seed Historian, Sarah Straate. Sarah uncovers historic information about varieties, including its original source, descriptions of the variety, traditional uses, and its chain of stewardship, that is, who grew that variety before it reached SSE’s Collection. She traces varieties through old seed catalogues, newspaper articles and, where possible, the photographs and letters of SSE members. It is rewarding work with countless small discoveries about the forgotten work of our seed saving ancestors, however it may not have been necessary, if SSE had been clearer about its objectives at an earlier stage and kept better records as they went along. By allowing the collection to grow rapidly, and without adequate care, the organization made things difficult for themselves and now spends a lot of time and energy trying to get things in order.
There are many lessons to learn from the ups and downs of SSE over the years, in particular, for community projects that are creating seed banks of their own. SSE has grown from a tiny grassroots organization, set up by two people with a passion, to be America’s leading collection of heirloom and open-pollinated sees. Collections curator, Tor Janson, encourages community groups to be well prepared; it won’t be long, he says, before something really special finds it way in to your collection and you need to be ready to look after it properly.
Heritage Farm, Iowa
SSE have learnt by 40 years of experience, and a significant amount of trial and error, how to manage to a large seed collection, of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, effectively and responsibly. Their experience in the field now places them in an excellent position to offer advice and support to seed savers across the country. They reach out to the public through publications, partnerships, and a busy programme of events. One of their biggest events of the year is the Annual Camp-out and Conference, which attracts hundreds of people to camp on the farm, to attend talks and workshops, and to immerse themselves in seedy business for three days. They also run a Seed School, which provides an opportunity for more in-depth learning about the practice of saving seeds, over the course of a weekend.
In order to support the growth of the community seed movement that has emerged in recent years, SSE has established the Community Seed Resource programme (CSRP). The programme provides tools and guidance to community groups interested in creating seed-focused events, exchanges, libraries and gardens. They offer community seed toolkits, including seeds, educational resources, and seed saving supplies to groups who apply. The programme has grown rapidly in to a network of over 350 groups, and Education Coordinator, Toby Cain, is under pressure to provide meaningful support to so many diverse organisations. In 2015, Toby suspended new applications to take time to consult with existing groups and work out how the programme can best support them in the future. There is great potential for the programme to connect groups with varying levels of skill and experience so that they can learn from each other, however this still needs to be developed. The fact that the network has grown so rapidly vouches for the organisation’s success at raising awareness of heirloom seeds, however at the same time, they need to be able to define their role in a quickly developing sector in order to continue to attract support.
Community seed toolkit with seeds, educational resources and handmade sieves
Since its foundation in 1975, SSE has been instrumental in raising awareness of heirloom varieties across America. It is appropriate that the term ‘heirloom’ was first introduced to the seed marketplace by one of SSE’s first members, Billy Haplar Junior, who had his own Seed Company long before SSE was established. He used ‘heirloom’ to describe varieties that had been developed and stewarded by a family or community, rather than by a commercial organisation. By focussing attention on the family history behind each seed, the use of the term ‘heirloom’, brought to the forefront stories of immigration and displacement, which are shared by so many of America’s communities. In this way, the growth of the Seed Savers Exchange, and other independent seed companies, has encouraged people to connect with their immigrant histories, and all of similar stories that have helped to build their nation. It encourages us all to understand how the efforts of individuals or small communities are carried over to our age, particularly in America, where displaced families often needed to fend for themselves.
The prevalence of seed stories in the SSE catalogue demonstrates the fascination the public have shown with these stories. As Tom Walhberg, SSE’s Sales Manager, explains, seeds with interesting or unusual stories nearly always sell better. Many other independent seed companies have followed suit and their catalogues are packed full of stories about where each seed originates and who has grown it in the past. There exists now a marketplace for heirloom seeds that did not exist ten years ago. People are starting to educate themselves about different kinds of seeds and take an interest in where their seed has come from. However there is a big difference between buying seeds to grow food and saving those seeds from year to year. SSE has been successful at working with people on both sides of this divide: by cultivating a marketplace, where open-pollinated, organically-produced seeds are in demand, whilst at the same time continuing to honour and promote the role of individual seed savers, who preserve a larger diversity of seeds than the marketplace will ever be able to catch up with.
More info: www.seedsavers.org/story