Between the Rows: The significance of saving seeds

  • The Seed Savers Exchange’s evaluation garden in Decorah, Iowa. For the Recorder/PAT LEUCHTMAN

  • Lee Buttala, president and executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The Seed Savers Exchange’s evaluation garden in Decorah, Iowa. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • A crop of beets grows in the garden of Seed Savers Exchange, which grows vegetables to evaluate seeds. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Seed evaluator Steffan Mirsky, in the evaluation garden of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. For The Recorder/Pat Leuchtman


For the Recorder
Friday, June 15, 2018

In 1975, Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy accepted seeds of her grandfather’s morning glory, appropriately named “Grandpa Ott’s” morning glory, and “German Pink” tomato seeds. Thus, the Seed Savers Exchange began.

It was the Whealys’ intent to form a network of gardeners who would take these seeds and thousands of others, sharing them and keeping them growing. The Seed Savers Exchange began in Missouri, but the Heritage Farm and Orchard now exists on 890 acres in Decorah, Iowa. There, they have room for acres of seed gardens, heritage orchards and a visitors center.

I remember those early days of the Seed Savers Exchange and the newsprint catalogs that went out annually, where gardeners could offer their heirloom seeds to other gardeners for a modest cost. The gardeners weren’t trying to make money. They just wanted to share the seeds their families had been growing for generations.

It was at the visitors center with its arrays of heritage seeds, garden gifts and ranks of seedling plants that I met with Lee Buttala, who is now the president and executive director. He greeted us and took my husband and I through the work of the Seed Savers Exchange.

“Back before the Whealys, our farms were not very diverse here in the Midwest. The Whealys really brought about a big change,” Buttala said. There were also changes in agricultural practice and farm size. “These heirloom plants connect us to our history. We gather the stories of our families, and it is important to have and keep those stories.”

There are other reasons to keep these heritage crops growing. While some enjoy the hobby of saving and sharing seed, the truth is that we need to maintain a strong biodiversity of seeds. Over the past century, we have lost 75 percent of the world’s edible plant varieties. It is important that we maintain a large pool of diverse seeds because our world is always changing. The changing climate affects which crops will grow where.

The concern is global. The United States Department of Agriculture’s research department has a seed bank that collects food seeds from companies and countries around the world. The governments of the dry areas of Africa and Southeast Asia created the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) seed bank. In 2008, the Norwegians built the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is used by countries around the world including the U.S. The Seed Savers Exchange has its own seed bank, but has also put seeds in the USDA and Svalbard seed banks. Seed saving is now recognized as a vital need.

Buttala explained that while there is the ex-situ way of preserving seeds into vaults, “We want people to grow seeds and share them. We also want to see how seeds adapt to different environments to see how stable the genetics are. We are among the people around the world who are working for food/seed diversity.

“We do our work, collecting seed, preserving seed, sending seed out into the world, and protecting it in case of disaster,” he continued. “Our focus is collecting and preserving open pollinated seed grown in the U.S. and we are still taking new accessions. We want to make sure that seeds will be on hand if there is disaster.”

Before Buttala sent us out to meet with Steffan Mirsky, he left me with a thought to ponder. “It is significant that we don’t know who owns these heirloom seeds. But in fact, seeds belong to no one — and they belong to everyone. Seeds are unique, but replicable.”

As I think about how many plant varieties are now patented, this seemed an important reminder about access to seeds.

Mirsky, the assistant curator, was finishing up his work for the day in the Evaluation Garden. He majored in cell and molecular biology at the University of Washington and spent the next two years as a “WWOOFer” with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in Australia and New Zealand, working on 36 different farms.

“That experience made me want to be working in agriculture. I love the work that I do here,” he said.

Mirsky was documenting his evaluation of celery.

“There are about 15 categories that I look at beginning with color, which varieties are self-blanching, leaf shape, stalk shape and more. This all gets entered in a database. Other plants like beans have to have many more aspects evaluated because there are so many types of beans,” he said.

Mirsky is responsible for collection management. He decides which varieties of the celery, or any other plant, to grow-out. He needs to eliminate varieties that are doubles, and identify those that are off-types. The plants chosen for grow-out are checked the following year to make sure.

“It is not about better or worse plants, it is about finding plants that are off type to keep the variety pure,” he said.

The gardening day was drawing to a close, but we left with seeds for the “German Pink” tomato, “Sensation” cosmos mixture and “Sultan’s Green Crescent” pole beans, which will be tested in my strawbale garden. I’ll keep you posted!

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.