Seed Savers Exchange was founded in Missouri in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane's grandfather entrusted to them the seeds of two garden plants, ‘Grandpa Ott's’ morning glory and ‘German Pink’ tomato. These seeds, brought by Grandpa Ott's parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870s, became the first two varieties in the collection. Diane and Kent went on to form a network of gardeners interested in preserving heirloom varieties and sharing seeds. Today, with 13,000 members and 20,000 plant varieties, Seed Savers Exchange makes its home on 890 scenic acres in Winneshiek County, Iowa, at Heritage Farm.
We need seeds
We rely on plant materials for clothing, for shelter, for transportation. We admire beautiful places because of the plants that grow there: the north woods, the savannah, the swamp, the desert.
Most importantly, we eat plants. Plants determine the cuisine of a region. Plants keep people alive.
Did You Know?
Plants make up over 80% of the human diet.
The abundance of plant varieties (and animal varieties, and even the diversity among micro-organisms, for that matter) is encompassed in the word biodiversity.
How does Seed Savers Exchange care for seeds?
Seed Savers Exchange conserves biodiversity by maintaining a collection of over 20,000 different varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated plants, varieties with the ability to regenerate themselves year after year. These seeds (and tissue cultures or other plant materials, depending on how a plant reproduces) have the power to withstand unforeseen pestilence and plant disease, climate change, and limited habitat, and to stop dinnertime boredom forever.
Why do seeds need saving?
In the last century or so, the world has lost 75% of its edible plant varieties. That might be hard to perceive when many of us have enough food on our plates, but consider this: According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, only five cereal grains make up 60% of our calories. A system that depends so heavily on so few crops is quite fragile. Think of the Irish Potato Famine – the use of only one variety of potato led to a catastrophe. In 1845, the introduction of a new fungus wiped out the primary source of food in Ireland, leading to the death or emigration of some one and a half million people.
Industrial agriculture and the chemicals and machines that it employs have required that farmers and, more often, scientists breed for uniformity in plants and animals. In the United States in particular, genetically engineered plant varieties have had a devastating impact on biodiversity. According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, since their commercial introduction in 1996, use of genetically engineered (GE) crops by US farmers has increased steadily. In fact, in 2013, 170 million acres of GE crops were planted in the US, seeds that are patented and cannot be saved and planted again next year. That’s roughly half of all American cropland.
It’s no wonder, then, that stewards of seed and heritage varieties are scarce. With no one to teach his or her neighbors and children about the importance of these plants, the art of saving seed dies out, and with it, we lose the precious varieties these mentors safeguarded.
“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.”
- Diane Ott Whealy, Co-Founder of Seed Savers Exchange