“Participatory conservation is very important to our work. It’s not enough for us to have a seed bank and keep these seeds in a Fort Knox-like setting. We want these seeds to grow and be maintained in different gardens around the country and world. The more you grow and save open pollinated seeds in your own garden, the more adaptability those varieties will show in your own growing conditions.” John Torgrimson, Executive Director, Seed Savers Exchange

'German Pink' tomato. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
‘German Pink’ tomato. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

The year was 1975. Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy wanted to save two heirloom seeds – ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory and ‘German Pink’ tomato – brought over by Diane’s great-grandparents when they immigrated to Iowa from Bavaria in the 1870s.

Today, the Seed Savers Exchange they co-founded has grown into a well-respected network of passionate gardeners interested in preserving heirloom varieties and sharing seeds.

With 13,000 members and nearly 30,000 plant varieties, Seed Savers Exchange makes its home at the scenic 890-acre Heritage Farm in the bluff country of northeast Iowa – just outside the city of Decorah.

Grandpa Otts Morning Glory. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
Grandpa Otts Morning Glory. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

There are rolling hills, stoney bluffs, beautiful rivers and streams, as well as multiple gardens.

Right before the start of spring, I had the chance to speak with Seed Savers Exchange’s executive director John Torgrimson. Here is what he had to say:

Q) Why should the general public care about heirlooms and genetic diversity in our foods?

John Torgrimson: In the case of heirlooms, these seeds are living things. Heirlooms are open-pollinated seeds that grow true-to-type to the parent plants, so the seeds can be collected and grown again. All heirlooms started out as hybrids that different breeders created, unless they were accidentally created by nature. But most plant breeders created a particular heirloom variety, because they were trying to solve a problem. For example, Tom Wagner of Everett, Washington bred the Green Zebra tomato in the 1980s. He took the lines of four tomatoes to create a small green canning tomato that wouldn’t crack.

Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

The reason we should care about conserving heirlooms and genetic diversity is that we don’t know what type of conditions we’ll be dealing with a hundred years from now. So, it’s important that we save this genetic diversity. Maybe there’s a particular variety that’s not very popular now, but it could solve future problems that we can’t even imagine today. It could be overly wet conditions. Or, it could be extra long or short growing seasons. So, it’s really about maintaining diversity and genetic heritage.

At Seed Savers Exchange, our gene bank has nearly 30,000 varieties. We have 6,000 varieties of tomatoes and 4,000 varieties of beans. Is every tomato or bean a wonderful, great tasting variety? Probably not, yet at some time in history someone felt strong enough to create it, and we think it’s important to save that variety for future generations.

Or, it could be an accident in the garden, and the gardener thinks, ‘I like how this variety evolved. That aggressive bee brought pollen from another plant to create a new line. I’m going to try and maintain that variety.’ So, you could say that some heirlooms are accidental.

John Torgrimson. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
John Torgrimson. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

Heirloom seeds have often traveled to America from other parts of the world, and people have saved these heirloom seeds for generations.

Q) How has genetic diversity decreased in recent decades? Can you offer specific examples of diversity loss in different foods?

John Torgrimson: The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation did a survey in 1903, which was compared to another survey taken in 1983. They found the number of varieties offered by seed companies had declined substantially.

For example, there was white celery grown around Kalamazoo, Michigan called Kalamazoo Celery. In 1903 there were 58 seed companies selling that celery, and it was one of the top-ten celeries sold in the United States. Now we can’t find that celery anywhere and we think it is extinct. In fact, we are asking our members in our magazine if anyone has  it.

So, seed companies do a good job of getting seeds into the supply chain, but they don’t do a very good job of maintaining and protecting genetic diversity.  Seed Savers Exchange, on the other hand, is concerned about all varieties – for their genetics, not just their marketability. We’re also concerned about old seed trade varieties, which we want to make certain don’t get lost and become unavailable. We want to keep those genetics around, either to reintroduce back into the marketplace or because those genetics may be useful in the future.

Since the early 1600s there have been 20,000 different varieties of apples documented in North America. Today, we think there are a little more than 4,000 varieties remaining. Seed Savers Exchange has about 1,000 varieties of apple trees, or about 25 percent of the apple varieties of North America growing here.  Most of our varieties are pre-1900. We also have built a new orchard that’s focused around Midwestern varieties, and also around functionality, such as ciders, pies, winter storage, apple sauce… so gardeners can learn which types were considered best for certain functions.

If you go to a grocery store, you’ll probably have access to about 10 apple varieties.

The Seed Savers Exchange catalog helps distribute these old varieties. Last year we provided 40 types of grafted apples. We sold about 1,400 apple trees to people in 48 states, who are helping to preserve these varieties by planting them in their gardens. This year we’re offering 20 varieties. These heirloom trees are basically the same as what we’re trying to do with seeds – get them back into orchards as well as the marketplace.

The best way for these varieties to be conserved is to have them growing in gardens across the country.

Q) How does Seed Savers Exchange support heritage foods and genetic diversity with its work? What are some reasons you’ve grown so quickly?

Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

John Torgrimson: I think our popularity can be attributed to people’s concern about these heritage varieties getting lost. We once received an envelope with some seeds in it, which was addressed to “Tomatoes, Decorah, Iowa.” They didn’t even have our mailing address or name on the envelope. But we got it! That’s the kind of interest this project has generated over the years.

Part of our job is to preserve seed varieties that have been lost in the marketplace. We have about 600 heirloom varieties that we offer in our catalog, and 52 of these varieties are exclusively offered by Seed Savers Exchange. So, we are talking about a tenth of our catalog offerings are not being sold anywhere else.  But we do this with the hope that other seed companies will begin offering these varieties themselves.

For instance, we introduced Five Color Silverbeet, a Swiss chard. This chard was lost in the American marketplace. We found it in Australia, and reintroduced it in the United States. Now many seed companies are selling this chard.

Our mission is not just about selling seeds, it’s about preserving seeds that are rare or have fallen out of the normal marketplace. We are getting heirlooms out there so other seed companies can see the commercial value of these plants.

We’re also working with chefs and Slow Foods on its Ark of Taste program to build awareness of various heirlooms. Taste is a big factor among heirlooms. Read a past post about Ark of Taste.

Last year, we did a taste test of 82 different types of lettuce with our staff and volunteers.  One favorite was Tennis Ball, which Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello, primarily as a canning lettuce. Today it’s more common to pick lettuce fresh for salads.

We publish an annual Yearbook that lists different seeds available that our members are offering – this year more than 16,000 varieties are being exchanged amongst themselves. The one requirement is that the seeds be open pollinated.

Q) Why did you develop the Community Seed Resource Program? What do you hope to achieve?

John Torgrimson: We started the Community Seed Resource Program three years ago with Seed Matters, funded by the Clif Bar Foundation. We provide resources and best practices of seed saving skills to more than 250 different organizations and community gardens. Most of them are seed libraries, including public libraries offering seeds for exchange.  We want to increase these participatory seed collections – whether they are personal or organizational. They all play a role in increasing seed diversity.

Q) Your co-founder Diane Ott Whealy said, “We can only preserve heirloom seeds through active stewardship. If we don’t use them, if we don’t allow them to grow again, they become lost.” Would you elaborate on this idea a bit?

John Torgrimson: Participatory conservation is very important to our work. It’s not enough for us to have a Seed Bank and keep these seeds in a Fort Knox-like setting. We want these seeds to grow and be maintained in different gardens around the country and world. The more you grow and save open pollinated seeds in your own garden, the more adaptability those varieties will show in your own growing conditions.

The fact that we have 13,000 members involved in Seed Savers Exchange means that there are all kinds of sharing and saving going on. We call that participatory preservation.

Q) Seed Savers Exchange has been called “the nation’s largest seed swap.” How does your work support more formalized seed bank organizations? What type of knowledge sharing is conducted? Are you working with Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

Seed storage photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
Seed storage photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

John Torgrimson: Seed Savers Exchange backs up its collection in two places: 1) The USDA Seed Bank in Fort Collins, Colorado, called the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation; 2) We also have made nine seed deposits in Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

Read our past posts on Svalbard and seed vaults.

We’re making our extensive data collection available to portals reaching other seed banks. This includes the Genesys portal managed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.  We hope to link up with the USDA’s GRIN, Germplasm Resources Information Network in the near future.  This helps us share our seed collection with other seed banks around the world.

What is it like to support biodiversity in a state, where there is so much monocultural, conventional agriculture nearby?

John Torgrimson: We’re a bit like the Garden of Eden here at Seed Savers Exchange, but we mainly focus on our own work.

We do take precautions with our collection, however. Squash can easily cross-pollinate, so we grow all of our squash in isolation tents. If we’re planting corn to regenerate our collection, we usually start our planting after conventional farm corn has been sown. Corn is wind-pollinated, so we hand pollinate all our corn to help control any potential contamination. We do GMO testing on all corn that we sell in our catalog.

Mainly, home gardeners are our target, although we’ll partner with farmers around the country to grow seeds for us. Not everything grows well in Decorah, Iowa. We do have customers who are small farmers and have a CSA.

Which biodiversity issues keep you up at night? Where do you see the key priorities concerning genetic diversity?

John Torgrimson: We’re a gene bank, and we’re concerned with protecting this important collection and that’s a 24/7 job.  I worry about situations such as if the electricity goes off, will the backup generator kick in? Things like that.

North Valley garden at Heritage Farm. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.
North Valley garden at Heritage Farm. Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

I also worry about genetic diversity. When you think that the Kalamazoo Celery was one of the nation’s most popular, and now we can’t find any of it anywhere, it makes you worry what other foods will be lost. There’s not a lot of breeding around open-pollinated seed varieties any more. Most seed production is based around agriculture, because that’s where the money is.  So, I would like to see more open-pollinated seed breeding going on.

About two years ago, there was a drought and we noticed a tall corn variety named John Beecham that did very well.  A lot of the conventional corn was drying up and suffering, while this heirloom did great in dry conditions.  That tells us that the genetics from this corn could possibly be used to create a variety that adapts better to those conditions. So, we definitely want to keep the genetics of this drought tolerant corn. That’s why this evaluation work is so important. Without this knowledge, this corn would be just another one of 800 varieties of corn we have in our collection. Now we know it grows well in a drought.

How can individuals play an important role in supporting these types of heirloom foods and more rare plants?

John Torgrimson: First, become a gardener. Develop your own little collection. Start saving seeds of different varieties, such as The Seed Gardentomatoes. Begin with a few varieties that you really like. Seed Savers Exchange has a new book called The Seed Garden – the Art and Practice of Seed Saving, which is a collaboration with Organic Seed Alliance. The book covers how to save seeds from about 70 different crop types, from simple to complex.

Two hundred years ago, every farmer knew how to save seeds. Today we’ve lost that skill. Tools like this book help farmers and gardeners regain these valuable skills.

I personally save squash, tomatoes, lettuce and beans. These are just foods we grow every year, and it’s relatively easy to save these seeds. It’s our family’s little seed collection. Others can do the same thing.

Seed Savers Exchange has a dynamic model that is not just about saving seeds, it is about ensuring these seeds are being grown around the country and shared with relatives and friends. Regardless of what happens to us, these seeds are going to keep growing. That’s why participatory conservation is so important.

Editor’s Note: The American Horticultural Society recently named The Seed Garden among its AHS 2016 Book Award recipients. Learn more about the winning books and the selection committee.

For more on genetic diversity, don’t miss our interview with author Simran Sethi about how taste can save the foods we love.