Seed Savers Exchange
These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on these materials. The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner and the public is unaware and unconcerned.
—Jack Harlan, retired professor of plant genetics, University of Illinois at Urbana
Two-thirds of the people on Earth live on what they’re able to grow. In the US, 43 million families now grow part of their own food. At the same time, there is increasing concern about the loss of the world’s native seed strains.
The only place genes can be stored is in living systems - either in the living branches, such as in budwooded apple trees, or in the living embryos of grains and vegetable seeds. Native varieties rapidly become extinct once they’re dropped in favor of introduced hybrid seed. That extinction can take place in a single year if the seeds are cooked and eaten instead of being saved as seed stock. Quite literally, the genetic heritage of a millennium in a particular valley can disappear in a single bowl of porridge.
Because the US and Canada are nations of immigrants, today’s gardeners are blessed with an immense cornucopia of food crops. Gardeners and farmers from every corner of the world invariably brought their best seeds when their families immigrated. Seeds provided living remembrances of their former lives and assured continued enjoyment of foods from the Old Country.
Millions of immigrants came through Ellis Island with seeds hidden under the bands of their hats, in the linings of their suitcases, and sewn into the hems of dresses. You can bet there are seeds carried in today by refugees and immigrants from Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Laos and Cambodia. We are truly blessed with the best seeds from every corner of the world. Much of this tremendous heritage has never been systematically collected.
This vast, almost unknown genetic treasure is quietly being maintained by elderly gardeners and farmers in isolated rural areas and ethnic enclaves all over North America. Often these living heirlooms have been grown on the same family farm by different generations for up to 150 years. Plants grown in the same location for that long gradually develop resistance to local diseases and insects, and become well adapted to specific climates and soil conditions.
Today, because of continuing deterioration of rural economies, young people are abandoning the land, leaving elderly gardeners with no one willing to maintain their seeds. As this older generation passes away, these outstanding strains will become extinct unless dedicated gardeners are willing to continue planting their unique seeds.
When my wife Diane and I founded Seed Savers in 1975, we immediately started trying to find other people who were keeping heirloom varieties when they immigrated. Our twin goals were to do everything we could to reverse genetic erosion and to dramatically increase the diversity that was available to gardeners and farmers who were growing healthy food for their families.
Every January, Seed Savers publishes a yearbook that lists all the seeds being maintained by our members. In 1975, that network consisted of 29 people offering a few dozen varieties through a six-page newsletter. Today, the network has grown to 1,000 members who offer 12,000 rare varieties of vegetables and fruits through a 460-page yearbook sent out to more than 8,000 gardeners.
Seed Savers members have used the organization’s publications to distribute an estimated 750,000 samples of rare seeds that have never been in commercial catalogs and were often on the verge of extinction. In 1981, many of our members expressed concern that many of their favorite varieties were being dropped from seed catalogs. In response, I spent three years compiling the first edition of the Garden Seed Inventory, a comprehensive survey of the US and Canadian mail-order seed industry.
Revenue from the sales of these books has been used to purchase hundreds of varieties that were about to be dropped from commercial availability.
Widespread losses of these commercial varieties in the US and Canada are mainly a consequence of economic consolidation. Large agro-chemical conglomerates have been buying out small family-owned seed companies. As a result, many rare collections of regionally adapted garden seeds (sometimes representing the life’s work of several generations of a farming family) have been dropped in favor of fairly generic varieties that will appeal to the new owner’s nationwide mass-market.
The worst losses occurred a decade ago. Of the 230 companies that we inventoried in 1984, 54 had gone out of business or been taken over by 1987. From 1981 to 1994, we lost 84 percent of all the non-hybrid vegetables that are available in this country.
Some rays of hope are starting to emanate from the garden seed industry. The success of Seed Savers’ efforts to popularize heirloom varieties is reflected in the vast numbers of heirloom and regionally adapted varieties that have recently been re-introduced. In the three years following publication of the third edition of the Seed Savers’ Catalog in 1991, nearly 1,800 rediscovered old varieties were introduced.
Our statistics also show that more than half of those heritage seeds were introduced by only 21 companies, so these gains are extremely fragile. They could be lost very quickly with just the failure of a few companies. Two decades of effort by Seed Savers to raise national awareness of the dangers of genetic erosion are finally starting to have an impact.
Seed Savers’ efforts didn’t really gain national attention until 1986, when we purchased the 170-acre Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa. Heritage Farm became a sanctuary where we could permanently maintain and display endangered collections of vegetables, apples, grapes and cattle.
Today, Heritage Farm is home to nine large organic preservation gardens with a total collection of 19,000 heirloom varieties - including some that supposedly came over on the Mayflower. We’ve acquired about 200 varieties of grapes from the 5,000 varieties collected and maintained by Elmer Swenson, an 85-year old Minnesota grape-breeder. We’ve also developed a historic orchard where 700 different kinds of 19th century apples are on display.
At the turn of the century, there were 7,000 named varieties of apples in this country, but today, when we go into the USDA collections and the large private collections, all we can find are about 700. Heritage Farm has all 700.
In 1994, we started construction on a $600,000 expansion that includes an office complex, a greenhouse, a large root cellar, and an underground seed vault. In basement drying chambers, entire rooms full of seed can be taken down to optimum moisture level and heat-sealed into foil packets. The seed packets are kept in humidity-controlled, refrigerated vaults. We keep back-up samples frozen in underground vaults.
Heritage Farm provides a safe haven for Seed Savers’ huge collection of North American heirloom seeds and for endangered collections from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The seed collections now contain 18,000 varieties, including 3,500 beans, 4,000 tomatoes, 800 lettuces, 200 garlics and 1,200 peppers.
Much of this material could never be re-collected because it has come from Seed Savers members who have since passed away and from areas in countries that are now involved in civil strife.
The seed bank in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia was completely flattened by civil war. The Azerbaijani seed bank was destroyed during the war with Armenia. Much of this material, now lost in these home countries, only survives at seed banks in other countries - and at Heritage Farm.
In 1992, I began developing Seed Savers International, a network of plant collectors in genetically rich eastern countries who are rescuing traditional crops in immediate danger of extinction. In five years, I made 10 trips to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to establish working relationships with the scientists at Gottersleben in eastern Germany and the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg.
Nikolai Vavilov, one of my heroes, was probably the best plant collector the world has ever known. He started collecting in 1908. By the time World War II rolled around, he had collected 165,000 varieties of plants and seeds. After Vavilov got into a dispute with Lysenko, Stalin’s chief genetic scientist, he was thrown into prison where he died in 1943. He was buried in an unmarked prison grave.
During the 900-day German siege of Leningrad, 600,000 Russians died of starvation. They were reduced to eating rats, consuming the glue in the joints of chairs, and even devouring corpses.
Five of Vavilov’s coworkers, each one a leading scientist in his field, died at their desks rather than eat the tons of edible seeds that were around them. They chose to die because they didn’t believe that they had the right to deprive the future of those irreplaceable genetic treasures.
Since Heritage Farm has grown probably 3,000 different varieties of tomatoes, nearly everything that was coming into our collections had begun to seem familiar. But when the flow of material started coming in from Eastern Europe and Russia, much of it was completely new. Black tomatoes from Russia! Tomatoes with foliage that looks like carrot tops! Short-season melons and watermelons from southern Siberia!
It used to bother me that I hadn’t started this work 50 years earlier when this country had so much more available. But I’ve grown to believe that there couldn’t be a more incredibly exciting time to be working than right now - when so much can be accomplished so quickly.
Many of the most remote areas of the former communist world are opening up like creaky treasure chests. Even China is starting to open up.
Rural regions like the Appalachians, the Smokies and the Ozarks - where people, lacking the money to buy seeds, have continued to trade heirloom seeds over the backyard garden fence - are real treasure troves of heirloom varieties.
Traditional people like the Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers and Hutterites maintain a large number of these heritage crops. Native Americans are gradually starting to participate in Seed Savers as trust has built in the organization. That’s very rare because most Native Americans are usually reluctant to share their seeds, believing that their seeds are sacred. And well they should, because seeds are the sparks of life that feed us all.
There’s never been a more exciting time to be a gardener. Centuries of history are available for the choosing: pre-Columbian seeds that were grown by Native American tribes; varieties grown by Thomas Jefferson; seeds that were carried by the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears.
But the irony is that much of this incredible genetic richness is very close to dying out. If it is to be saved, it’s really up to us.
We’re just hitting our stride. We’ve already changed the way North Americans garden. Before this is over, we will have created the most intense wave of horticultural interest that the US has seen since the golden age of gardening a century ago. This is true stewardship, and I hope that many of you will join us.
Kent Whealy is director and co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization of 8,000 gardeners, orchardists and plant collectors. He recently founded Seed Savers International to rescue traditional food crops abroad.
© 1999 Collective Heritage Institute [901 W. San Mateo Road, Suite L, Santa Fe, NM 87505, (877) 246-6337 (toll free), http://www.bioneers.org]. To obtain certified organic heritage herbs, vegetables and flowers for your own garden, contact Seeds of Change [3209 Richards Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505, (505) 438-8080, http://www.seedsofchange.com] and request a catalog filled with seed selections and useful tools for the home gardener.
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