Friday, June 18, 2010


One of Al Cooper’s garden favorites is a bi-colored heirloom tomato known as “Georgia Streak”, with some specimens reaching nearly two pounds in weight.

Just months before his death in 1972, Baptist Ott presented an unusual gift to his granddaughter Diane Whealy and her husband Kent: three tightly-lidded glass jars containing garden seeds which had come from Bavaria, four generations before. It took a while for Diane and Kent to realize the value of the old-time morning glory, tomato and bean seeds which were the legacy of forbearers now long gone, and for which they now had the sole responsibility of carrying on. At about the same time as they were relocating from Missouri to the farming country of northeastern Iowa for family reasons, the Whealys began their search for other “long-forgotten” family seed gems among friends, relatives and perfect strangers, seeds often discovered slumbering in dusty attics and back rooms around the country. They had no idea they were embarking on a mission that would become their life’s work.
On a 57-acre farm near Decorah, Iowa, the Whealys established “Heritage Farm”, headquarters for the non-profit organization they founded in 1975. With humble beginnings, “Seed Savers Exchange” took on the task of gathering open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds from volunteer donors from across the nation, and eventually, around the world. What they learned from extensive research was that more than eighty percent of garden vegetable varieties once widely available from seed companies in a 1902 inventory, were no longer in existence, and another 25,000 were endangered. With the proliferation of hybridization, and the promise of higher profits, plant breeders were on their way to losing a connection with the very gene pool from which the future of bio-diversity must depend. One need only examine the Irish potato famine of the mid-1800s, and the near-catastrophic corn blight that decimated U.S. feed corn production in the 1970s to be reminded of the dangers implicit in “monoculture”, and the narrowing of highly-hybridized food varieties.
While some types of vegetable seeds have a long storage life (I am germinating tomato and bean seeds which have been in my collection since 1983), most plant seeds need to be sown and reinvigorated every three years to retain their viability. In contrast the 2000-year-old seeds of a Judean date palm sprouted successfully in 2005 !
Each year since its founding, SSE has published a catalogue of seed varieties in the inventory available in their expanding seed bank, the 2010 issue offering a listing of 20,407 different varieties, making the Decorah collection the country’s largest non-governmental repository. Joining hands with similar efforts in Europe, SSE recently contributed a sizeable sampling of their collection to be held in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
Each July, SSE members come to Decorah from far and wide to participate in an event which has become a fabled tradition at Heritage Farm. Visiting and exchanging ideas with one another, they get to have a hands-on relationship with the acres of fruit, vegetables, and even heirloom livestock. There is something very vitalizing about walking between grow-beds overflowing with Mortgage-Lifter, and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes, Moon and Stars watermelons, Pennsylvania-Dutch Crookneck squash, Perfection Drumhead Savoy cabbage, and Scarlet Runner beans dating back to the days of the Revolution. And for me, biting into an Esopus Spitzenberg, a Wolf River, or Cox Orange Pippin apple is enough to bring tears to my eyes !
I can’t help but believe that if Baptist Ott could look back over his shoulder, he would be proud to see what has come from those three jars of cherished seeds he left in the custody of his granddaughter.

Heirloom leaf lettuce plants flourish among rows of venerable pole beans, whose Vertical growing habits have endeared them to space-conscious gardeners.

Nestled in the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa farm country, “Heritage Farm” is home to Seed Savers’ Exchange and acres of a living seed history. “Caged” grow beds protect certain varieties from unintended cross pollination. The red barns in the background display the craftsmanship of local Amish artisans.

America’s love affair with maise corn reaches back into early history. Native Americans of long ago valued varieties of popping corn as much as we do today.

Temperature and humidity-controlled storage facilities house part of the collection of the tens of thousands of vegetable varieties carefully catalogued and kept viable by SSE staff and volunteers at the Decorah repository.

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