Preserving old varieties

  • Environment
  • Tuesday, 30 Jul 2013

One group saves seeds to safeguard the genetic diversity in food crops.

IN the extreme north-east corner of Iowa in the United States, on a grassy hillside ringed by meadows, limestone outcroppings and prismatic trout streams, an underground bunker safeguards America’s food heritage.

Inside the surprisingly small 3m by 4.5m freezer vault at Seed Savers Exchange, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves are packed tight with white cardboard trays full of moisture-proof, foil-lined packets. The packets, labelled with long sequences of numbers and letters, hold the seeds of more than 25,000 varieties of old-time vegetables and plants.

This treasure trove of heirloom edibles is a living testament to the rich diversity of foods North Americans used to eat. But Seed Savers Exchange is more than just a repository. The non-profit organisation is the largest seed bank in the nation that makes its seeds available to the public, with the goal of reintroducing these nearly lost foods to backyard gardens, commercial farms and ultimately, the American diet.

“We are the safety valve. Before World War II, every farmer saved seeds. Today, patented seeds and hybrids make it impossible for farmers to save seeds,” executive director John Torgrimson says.

He says Seed Savers Exchange is also the backbone to the heirloom seed movement. “There’s a good chance that a restaurant in New York is able to offer heirloom tomatoes on its menu because we’ve been doing this work for 34 years.”

It all started with the seeds of two plants from Bavaria. Diane Ott Whealy grew up on a farm near Festina, Iowa. Her paternal grandparents also had a farm nearby. Shortly before her grandfather died in 1974, he entrusted Ott Whealy and her husband, Kent, with seeds for two beloved plants that he had always grown: a large pink tomato and a red-throated purple morning glory. Her grandfather’s father had brought the seeds for both plants to the United States when he emigrated from Dreuschendorf, Germany.

The Whealys realised they were the last people in the family to have the seeds, and that got them thinking about the loss of genetic diversity in food crops nationwide. They wrote letters to Mother Earth News and other back-to-the-land magazines to try to find other people who were also saving heirloom seeds. In 1975, the couple started True Seed Exchange out of their remote homestead in Princeton, Missouri. That first year, they printed a directory of gardeners who had seeds to share and sold it to 29 people who sent in 25 cents and a large envelope.

Seed Savers Exchange maintains a potato collection in tissue culture by growing tiny plants in test tubes to avoid virus and bacteria contamination.
Seed Savers Exchange maintains a potato collection in tissue culture by growing tiny plants in test tubes to avoid virus and bacteria contamination.

True Seed Exchange became Seed Savers Exchange in 1979 and moved to Decorah in 1986. Today, Heritage Farm, as the headquarters is known, employs 50 people who work in the organisation’s research lab, trial gardens, greenhouses, visitors centre and retail seed operation and generates US$5mil (RM16mil) per year.

“We started doing this before heirlooms were fashionable,” she said. “We knew in our hearts it was the right thing to do.”

Ott Whealy says it took a long time for the public to realise it needs the seeds her organisation has worked so hard to find and distribute, but that only sweetens the gratification she feels now. Kent Whealy left Seed Savers Exchange shortly after the couple divorced in 2004, but Ott Whealy remains vice-president and spiritual centre of the organisation.

Seeds for sale

Seed Savers Exchange is best known for its on-line and mail order catalogue, which offers 600 varieties of heirloom vegetables and plants. The catalogue is hugely popular among gardeners who devour its beautiful colour photographs and especially the descriptions, which are essentially little stories about the history of each plant and the people who saved its seeds.

As charming and profitable as the catalogue is (seed sales bring in about 70% of the organisation’s annual revenues), the heart and soul of the organisation, the “exchange” part of Seed Savers Exchange, is the members-only yearbook, a listing that allows seed savers to connect with each other to trade, give away or buy and sell seeds. Currently, the organisation counts 13,000 members in all 50 states and 40 countries. The 2013 yearbook lists 12,495 different varieties of heirloom vegetables and plants offered by 694 member growers. It includes 4,749 varieties of tomatoes, 875 types of peppers and 1,553 beans. The organisation also provides monthly web seminars at that teach techniques for gathering and storing seeds.

“We did not just save the seeds,” Ott Whealy said. “We gave people back the knowledge on how to save the seeds that had been lost.”

Okra seeds are grown at Heritage Farm to document their germination rates.
Germinating okra seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange has specific criteria for including a vegetable or plant in the preservation collection. The first is botanical: the seed has to be open-pollinated, meaning, unlike hybrids, if you save the seeds and plant them, you will get the same plant. The rest are cultural.

“We have to have the provenance. We know it was in a seed catalogue in 1898 or we know it was handed down generationally within a specific family,” says Torgrimson.

Most heirloom varieties are pre-1950, before hybrids (which do not come true from seed) exploded onto the scene. But there are exceptions: the Green Zebra tomato was bred by a Seed Savers Exchange member in 1983. It started as a cross between two other tomatoes, but the breeder was able to stabilise the plant so that it now grows true from its seed.

Seed science

Maintaining the 25,000 varieties in the preservation collection is accomplished by a combination of work done in the lab and in the field. On a Wednesday morning in late May, five technicians are doing different kinds of detective work inside the lab. One counts seedlings of two okra varieties poking up through potting mix in a plastic grow tray to determine the germination rate. All seeds in the collection are tested for germination rate once every 10 years. Any variety found to have a low germination rate gets put on a list to be planted in test fields to produce more seed as a safeguard.

In another room, a member of the evaluation team looks for genetic markers to tell if an heirloom pepper plant is still true to type. Nearby, a tissue technician deposits a tiny slip of potato vine into a small test tube with a rubber stopper. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and garlic can’t be stored as seed, so they are preserved as plant material in refrigerated storage containers. More than 700 varieties of potatoes are currently being preserved. At computer stations, a seed historian studies scanned pages of 60-year-old seed catalogues, hunting for a mention of a particular seed, while an inventory technician reviews documentation submitted with a sample of heirloom seeds someone mailed in.

Their level of scientific research sets Seed Savers Exchange apart from other seed banks, says David Dierig, manager of the US Department of Agriculture’s seed bank in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Seed Savers Exchange backs up its collection. The government seed bank is interested in the genetic profile of plants and serves mainly plant breeders and researchers looking to find or develop plants with increased resistance to, say, pests or drought.

Grant Olson plants lupine in Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, the headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange.
Grant Olson plants lupine in Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, the headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange

“Seed Savers Exchange is documenting the provenance and cultural significance of plants. We are not set up to go out and find those stories. They are performing an important and unique function,” Dierig said.

Most of the seeds in the Seed Savers Exchange preservation collection are food plants, but some flowers are included as well. “If you want to grow food in your backyard nowadays, you also need to grow flowers to attract the pollinators. That didn’t used to be the case, when farms and yards were surrounded by flowering trees and fields of wildflowers,” explains Ott Whealy.

Another non-food aspect of Seed Savers Exchange is its collection of heritage livestock breeds. Behind a split rail fence on a hill, above a trout stream that flows through the farm, several white cattle with black ears and lyre-shaped horns stand munching the lime-green grass. These are ancient White Park cattle. They originated some 2,000 years ago in the British Isles. Today, the herd at Heritage Farm is one of only two breeding herds in the US.

The farm is also home to heritage pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens. The animals are a big hit with the 15,000 visitors that come to see the farm and hike its 13km of trails each year. But the animals are there for more than scenery. An integrated agricultural system is a tenet of the organic farming practised at Heritage Farm. Chickens running through lettuce beds eat bugs and fertilise the soil, and pigs turned out to roam in orchards loosen the soil and eat fallen fruit that otherwise would rot and attract bugs and mould.

Maintaining tradition

It’s not even noon, but Dan Bussey’s tanned face is dewy with sweat as he moves quickly down a furrow of freshly turned soil as black as coffee grounds. Bussey manages Heritage Farm’s apple orchards. This morning, he is racing to plant grafted apple seedlings in a new orchard that will showcase more than 400 classic Midwest-specific apple varieties, many of them pre-1900 varieties. The trees will be grouped by specific uses they were historically grown for: apples for pie, for cider, for fresh eating, for storage and for applesauce.

A restored old barn on Heritage Farm.
A restored old barn on Heritage Farm.

Bussey hopes reviving old apple varieties will help propel and spread a resurgence in craft cider and apple brandy making. He hopes to offer heirloom apple trees in the catalogue within a year. Apple grafting workshops are also planned, because, while retail sales support important preservation work, the ultimate goal at Seed Savers Exchange remains true to the Whealys’ original vision: to give people back control over their land and food by teaching them how to save their own seeds and propagate their own trees. – The Kansas City Star/McClatchy Tribune Information Services

Related story:

Library of seeds

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