Nestled along a narrow winding road off of Iowa’s Rt. 52, near the small town of Decorah and nearly swallowed by the surrounding endless acres of corn and wheat that typify modern industrial farming, sits a tiny respite from the ravages of today’s genetically-refined, fast-growing, fertilizer-and-pesticide-stoked crops. It is a place named, appropriately enough, Heritage Farm, home of the Seed Saver’s Exchange, the largest non-government owned seed bank in the nation.
It seems somewhat counterintuitive: a farm dedicated to collecting rather than growing seeds, but then most everything about Heritage Farm’s measly 890 acres runs contrary to today’s standard agricultural practices. Most people today don’t realize that behind the seeming abundance of food on our shelves is a potentially dangerous lack of variety. Everything from the peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes in the produce section, to the poultry and beef on the butcher shelves, are each developed from one or two high-yielding varieties of those respective vegetables or livestock. While this has allowed for mass production, it has also led to a diminishment of our food sources’ genetic makeup: a vast monoculture that is highly susceptible to disease precisely because it lacks the vigor that comes from genetic diversity. The folks at Seed Savers, however, have made it their responsibility to safeguard this diversity by preserving and distributing to its more than 12,000 (and growing) members the seeds of rare or “heirloom” crop varieties.
Seeds, for all their obvious significance, are all too easily dismissed. We consumers are wholly dependent upon what seeds make, yet we readily disregard and discard (as in spit, cut or throw out) the maker. We have, in effect, become disconnected from the things that give rise to our food. I remember the first time I attempted to plant a vegetable garden up at the country cabin to which my wife and I often retreat each spring and summer. There I was on my hands and knees, staring down in disbelief at the tiny black dots that I’d just tipped into my palm from a seed packet, thinking: “How in the world could these ever become lettuce?” Somehow, the very act of planting those tiny specks into the vast earth only underscored the depth of my remove from the necessary gradualness of growing things.
“Slow down,” those mute little seedlings seemed to demand of me. “Start from scratch, as we do, and take more responsibility for what you will eventually take!”
Such thoughts are precisely what motivated Diane Ott Whealy and her husband Kent to start Seed Savers 35 years ago. In 1975, Diane’s terminally ill grandfather, who’d grown up on a nearby farm, bequeathed to her the seedlings of two heirloom varieties: Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory and the German Pink Tomato, plants that his father had brought with him when he immigrated to America from Bavaria in the late 1800s. Nowadays at Heritage Farm, Grandpa Ott’s deep purple morning glory blossoms grace the entire side of the old red barn overlooking Diane’s private garden. His German Pink tomatoes, meanwhile, are but one of the nearly 4,000 heirloom tomato varieties in Seed Saver Exchange’s ever-growing collection. The Exchange currently keeps the seeds of over 25,000 rare heirloom vegetables stored in its various walk-in coolers, freezers, nurseries and root cellars. Most of these seeds were, like Grandpa Ott’s tomatoes, brought to this country by Exchange member’s ancestors who immigrated from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin and South America. The members donate these inherited seedlings to the Exchange, where they are both stored and propagated for further dissemination among other Exchange members, who have since passed along million or so samples of these rare seeds to gardeners in the U.S. and beyond. In short, Seed Savers has become a huge bank of biodiversity.
“Our whole collection is listed in here,” Diane Ott Whealy told me one recent July afternoon, showing me a copy of Seed Savers’ Yearbook in the farm’s new office and library compound. The book is as thick as an encyclopedia, page after page of exotic varieties of beans, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and the like, with detailed descriptions of their flavorful essences; and hundreds of fruit varieties, like antique apples. One, called “Sops of Wine,” is among the oldest apple varieties on earth, dating back to the Middle Ages, with a mild, aromatic, sub-acid flavor.
Equally inspiring are the personal histories behind each of the heirloom varieties listed in the catalog. A bean known as the “New Mexico Cave” is said to have descended from seeds found in a 1500-year-old “pine-pitch sealed clay pot” that archeologists found in New Mexico while searching for fossils. One variety of cherry tomato was collected by Seed Savers’ member Lila Towle from “a covered market outside Tallinn, Estonia.” A rare garlic called “Palestine,” with a mild flavor and late bite, was donated by Kahlad Hardan, “in whose family the garlic has been cultivated for many generations.” Seed Savers, one soon realizes, isn’t merely about preserving biodiversity. It also preserves and perpetuates the living pieces of various peoples’ pasts, thus achieving for them a kind of immortality.
Diane offered a quick tour of the facility’s storage coolers, featuring shelves of neatly-labeled, foil-lined seed packets: a living archive of future growth. We followed a winding path down to the old horse barn and Diane’s private garden: a glorious array of flowers and herbs growing from the same ground where she planted her first vegetable garden back in 1982, when Heritage Farm was first established. At the base of the barn door, a cement doorsill set that same year bears the handprints of Diane and Kent’s four children.
“They’re all grown and gone off on their own now,” Diane said wistfully. Her great-great Grandpa Ott’s deep purple Morning Glory blossoms gently bobbed on the breeze behind us, as though the man himself was there, both acknowledging and assuaging her sadness.
“I often wonder why kids have to leave,” Diane continued. “And then I look at this garden, and I think of the work we do here to grow and share the seeds we love, and I realize that letting them go is part of our responsibility as well.”
Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”