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Seed Savers Exchange: Cultivating a Future

Seed Savers Exchange’s headquarters at Heritage Farm showcases 890 acres filled with gardens, trails, cattle, greenhouses, and much more. One a recent visit through snowy weather to their Decorah, Iowa farm, Jesse Durst (Willy West seed-buyer) and I quickly discovered that Seed Savers is not a typical farm, nor seed business, in any way.

To begin with, Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit member-supported organization. Their mission is to “save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations, by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.” This sounds like a staggering task, yet Seed Savers, as the largest NGO seed bank in the world, proves itself as a major force within the seed-saving movement. Two of their immense ongoing endeavors include their commercial enterprise, and their collection and preservation membership project. Through the commercial end, one can purchase seeds through their colorful catalog or neatly on display at Willy Street Co-op. The preservation project calls upon a community of members who swap, perpetuate, and maintain heirloom breeds. Both of these major facets of Seed Savers showcase the organization’s dedication to greatly increase the genetic diversity available to gardeners and farmers.

It Always Starts with Seeds
The story of how Seed Savers Exchange came to be begins with German Pink tomato seed and Grandpa Ott’s morning glory seed. Both varieties were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents when they immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria in the 1870s. Grandpa Ott gave these seeds to his granddaughter, Diane Ott Whealy, and Kent Whealy to preserve. They decided to put an ad in Mother Earth News, looking for folks who would be interested in saving and exchanging seeds with them. The year was 1975, and the letters and seeds began to trickle in. This exchange evolved into a membership community, and those seed-saving members now number over 13,000 and live all around the globe. (Willy West Store Manager Mike Byrne was one of the first people to be part of this exchange.)
The staff at Seed Savers has since swelled to accommodate the organization’s rapid growth. There are currently about 65 people on staff, and the cycles of labor reflect the seasonality of both the agriculture and seed-selling industries. Employees are at their busiest when the gardens demand the most attention in the summer and the seed-selling business is at its peak in the winter. The organization as a whole strives to create balance in this work, putting intention into structuring positions so they are able to be sustained with year-round work. In this February visit, we observed folks cataloging seed, taking tissue cultures of potatoes, refining and updating the seed database, testing seed germination rates, and even finishing the previous season’s seed cleaning and storage. Other staff members were very busy with taking orders, providing customer service, and extensive packaging and shipping tasks.

Packets of Possibilities
Next time you’re at Willy Street Co-op, stop by the Seed Savers rack. Now, imagine what it would be like if those tiny seeds were packed by hand. Amazingly enough, Seed Savers only acquired a seed-packing machine about a year ago, and they still do pack many varieties without mechanization. This is no small task, considering the 545 Seed Savers Exchange seed rack locations, as well as their considerable catalog business. And, as a packager of both organic and non-organic seeds, Seed Savers takes great pains to keep equipment and packaging separated. They are inspected multiple times per year by USDA organic certifiers, since they are not only an organic farm but also an organic packaging facility.

In order to produce the large amounts of seed needed for the commercial wing of the organization, Seed Savers grows out some of their own seed at Heritage Farm, and contracts with other growers for the remainder. Some of the seeds cannot be grown on-site due to the length of season. Limited greenhouse space also prevents Seed Savers from adequately growing out all the biennials needed for commercial sales. This seed-selling enterprise generates revenue that supports their mission to protect and preserve heirloom seeds, while making them accessible to gardeners and farmers.

The Solution Side of the Issue
When asked what the current biggest threat to seed-saving is, Megan Buckingham, Education and Events Coordinator, acknowledged that a lot of members and customers are concerned about genetically modified seeds and foods. However, “We see things from a really positive standpoint,” she says. “It’s terrifying for people to realize they don’t have control over their food, and there are a lot of ways to gain that control. People are wanting to do something proactive, wanting to engage in a solution, to be part of a movement that is creating its own solution.”

For Seed Savers Exchange, the largest concern is furthering its mission. The loss of individual gardeners who are working to save seed, along with losses within the membership community, would be significant setbacks in the seed-preservation movement. But how easy is it to save seed anyway? This is a complicated question. “You don’t have to be a scientist, but you do have to be attentive to the basic scientific underpinnings about how plants work if you’re going to try to save seed,” Megan states.

Luckily for the folks at Heritage Farm, 890 acres in the Driftless area of northeast Iowa is a highly favorable environment for this undertaking. The space proves beneficial when gardens require rotation, and isolation needs to be simulated. The knowledgeable horticulturists utilize a variety of methods to keep open-pollinated seeds pure. Some involve isolation tents, which are essentially screen cages placed over plants, that prevent insects from crossing self-pollinated crops. Other preservation techniques include introducing pollinators, such as honeybees, into the isolated environment. There are also hand-pollination methods, which literally involve using a paintbrush to transfer pollen to stigma.

Education about seeds and heirloom preservation is also provided by Seed Savers Exchange. Throughout the year, there are a number of workshops available, along with their annual autumn harvest festival. Their mid-summer conference and camp-out this year will feature the internationally renowned scientist and food sovereignty advocate Vandana Shiva. Details regarding any of these educational opportunities can be found on their website at Visitors are also welcome at Heritage Farm throughout the week, from April to October. With advanced arrangement, guided tours are available, and staff often host field trips for local schools in the spring and fall.

Beyond the many organic preservation gardens at Heritage Farm, visitors can walk on trails leading around the farm, where they might pass through the white pine forest, or find themselves in the historic orchard. This is one of the most diverse public orchards in the U.S., preserving and maintaining hundreds of varieties of pre-1900 apple trees. The walk might also lead past the Ancient White Park cattle, a breed that is listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s “Threatened List.” The farm is also home to heritage poultry, including various breeds of ducks, geese, chickens, and turkeys. The mission of Seed Savers is furthered by helping to preserve these heritage breeds.

At the heart of Seed Savers Exchange is a network of thousands, members diligently making rare heirloom varieties available to others. Last year, members offered 13,571 unique varieties of seeds to one another, which is a testament to the decades of devoted efforts by Seed Savers Exchange. To join, members pay a yearly fee, (which is currently $40), and receive four publications throughout the year, as well as a 10% discount when purchasing commercial seeds. The most comprehensive publication is the Yearbook, which actually resembles a phone book. Members can list their own seeds (for sale/exchange) in the Yearbook, and purchase listed seeds from one another. Currently, about 700 members list their seeds, and Seed Savers has created guidelines for selling prices. Heritage Farm currently lists in the Yearbook as well, although not all of the varieties grown on-site are offered yet. The Yearbook specifically lists varieties of produce. Seed Savers also supports the Flower and Herb Exchange, which offers a separate Yearbook, featuring old-time varieties of unusual or heirloom herbsand flowers. This membership is separate from Seed Savers, currently about $10 per year.

The membership model of Seed Savers Exchange demonstrates the cooperative elements of the seed-saving movement, as empowered individual growers are making important decisions every year to preserve and protect the future of seeds. Seed Savers has helped to create a national and international awareness about heirloom seed varieties and the need to conserve these precious resources.

Willy Street Co-op is pleased to offer these precious packets of potential. “It’s an exercise in humbleness this time of year,” Megan says. Many of us find ourselves patiently dreaming or eagerly anticipating our seasonal plans, as the snow melts, the ground thaws, and spring emerges.

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