Diane Ott Whealy: Saving, Sharing and Protecting Seeds for the Future
This week on Rootstock Radio, we’re speaking with Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder and vice president of Seed Savers Exchange.
Seeds have become a hot button topic, from seed sovereignty (the right of farmers to save, use, exchange and sell their own seeds) to the availability of non-GMO and organically raised seeds. Open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of food crops are disappearing, so organizations like Seed Savers are on a mission to preserve them. And the only way to save these foods is for people to grow and eat them.
Listen in to hear a fantastic conversation with Diane about the specialness of seeds, why farmers should have the right to save seeds, and how Seed Savers Exchange is helping preserve some truly unique foods.
Want to learn more about saving your own seeds?
Check out the wealth of information, from beginner introductions to full webinars, on the Seed Savers Exchange YouTube channel.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Diane Ott Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange
Air date: September 21, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. Recently my good friend and colleague Anne O’Connor had the good fortune to interview Diane Ott Whealy, who is the cofounder and vice president of the Seed Savers Exchange. For those of you who don’t know the Seed Savers, they’re a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our cultural diversity through seeds. Please enjoy this interview.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Welcome, Diane Ott Whealy. So happy to have you here on Rootstock Radio. Thanks for joining us today.
DIANE OTT WHEALY: My pleasure to be here.
AOC: Diane, you are the cofounder of Seed Savers out of Decorah, Iowa. You know, this organization has been such a leading light for so many people in the seed-saving movement and seed sovereignty. It’s helped people understand how to create their gardens a different way. Can you tell us how this project began?
DOW: Well, we’re celebrating our fortieth anniversary this year, so we began forty years ago. I grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Iowa, and grew up five miles from my grandparents’ farm. And they were very memorable to me. My grandfather, I thought, was larger than life. He was a true generalist—he could do anything. I thought he could because he told me he could do anything. And my grandmother was a saint for living with him, number one, and raising nine children during the Depression, with a grocery list of flour, sugar, salt, pepper, coffee, vinegar, and a rosary in her pocket. But she raised her family off their land. They had a small dairy farm there as well. So their gardens were very important to their life, and I sensed that importance.
In our visits down there on summer evenings, the first thing we would do was go through the gardens and talk about how everything was growing, talk about seed saving. Seed saving at that part [time?] was also part of gardening, because my grandmother’s store-bought seeds, like store-bought anything, was a luxury. So they had their gardens, they saved their seeds, they canned a lot of produce. So the garden was very connected to their life because it was providing life for their family.
So we’d end up our garden walks on their porch. And my grandfather had morning glories growing on the east side, but he’d always have an opening every summer. It would either be a square or a triangle or a circle, and he’d use twine strings to train the morning glories up the side. So we would sit in the little morning glory room, and it was so cozy, and listening to my grandfather’s voice, which was loudest of all. And it was just such a strong memory that I had.
[I] came back later as an adult and asked my grandfather for… Kent Whealy and I were having our first garden. We lived about five miles from there. And we asked my grandfather if he could give us a sample of the morning glory seed, because that would be something I’d have to have in my first garden. And he went back, and I remember this: he went back into the back bedroom and came out with this little white cardboard pill box full of seeds. And he handed them to me, and he said, “Did you know my parents brought this seed over from Bavaria when they immigrated at the turn of the century?” And I had never heard that story before. But suddenly those morning glories were my link back to my ancestors. And what a gift that was! It brought my people that were my ancestors back in Bavaria to life with the seeds.
Unfortunately, later that winter, my grandfather passed away. And Kent and I thought, what a gift we had. If he hadn’t given us the seeds and the story, they would both have been lost.
And what was happening at that time, it was the early 1970s, farming was changing. Gardeners were more interested in the hybrid varieties of seed because they were newer, so they had to be better. There was a great consolidation in the seed industry; all the smaller seed companies were being bought out by the larger seed companies. And many farmers, like my grandfather, were moving off the land, and if there wasn’t someone there to pass their seeds on to, they’d be lost. And when you think about our culture, the immigrants who came into this country, they brought with them their best seeds because they didn’t know what they’d find here in this new world. So here is this treasure chest of valuable seed that they brought in, and as they passed away, if there was no one there to take it on, they would be lost as well.
So at that time we thought, well, maybe there were other people out there interested in saving these older varieties of seed. We placed a small ad in the Mother Earth News and other back-to-land magazines. And yes, people were out there, interested in the older varieties of seed. And before we knew it, they were sending us their varieties of seed for us to care-take as well. So it started with just a handful of seeds and the idea that someone needs to be saving and protecting these seeds before they’re lost, and other people who believed in our mission and vision as well.
AOC: Can you remember at all what that first ad—what prompted people to send you their seed?
DOW: I think that they were… I know one letter was particularly interesting. He said, “Thank you for appreciating the older varieties of seed. My granny saved her seeds but now nobody cares.” And he sent us some seeds of a string bean, which he said, “My granny said no bean is worth growing unless you have to string it first,” because the flavor was so much better in the string bean. As plant breeders started breeding for commercial purposes, a lot of the flavor was bred out of varieties as well.
But back to that first, you know, those people were our family. It was before social media, so all of our communication was through the mail. We called each other “our mailbox friends.” And not only did we get seeds from these folks, but we got their story. It was more of a family, like I said. We got to know these people; we got to know what ailments they had, we got to know their children. So the seeds were connected to the people. And that’s what we try to do now at Seed Savers today, is connecting the seeds with the people.
AOC: So you still have a form of people sending in seeds and stories both, right? Talk about that. What has it turned into today, forty years later?
DOW: Okay. Well, we first started, we had a handful of members and we decided, let’s see what seeds they have and what they’re willing to share with other gardeners. So in the beginning we had twelve members, and they sent us letters, and in the letters was incorporated the description of the seed that they were offering. So, like, “I’m having a great day, but here’s the seed that my grandfather brought over.” And then we got to hear the story. We published all those letters in our first yearbook because we only had nine or twelve members. But today we have 13,000 members.
AOC: Thirteen thousand members!
DOW: Yes, so we definitely have grown. And so we have to take care of their listings a little bit different—we can’t possibly print a whole letter. Not only that, most people are doing it online. We get most of our listings are online. I think that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen, was a small paper yearbook that we printed on a mimeograph machine in our back bedroom when we first started, and now it’s online and people are submitting their listings online.
But the thing that I like about that that I keep reminding people is you can’t send the seeds online; you still have to write a story, and you still have to request the seed from that other gardener. So that communication from gardener to gardener still continues on, even though we’ve grown to 14,000 [sic] members.
AOC: So can you talk a little bit more about what do you do at the Seed Savers Exchange, beyond this incredible exchange that you just spoke about? I know you do a lot of other things there.
DOW: Right, yeah. Before we knew it, not only were people exchanging seeds themselves through the mail, but they were also sending us their seed for safekeeping. So we became a seed bank. And because we work with heirloom varieties—they’re alive, unlike a piece of heirloom furniture that you can dust off and just keep from year to year, or a piece of jewelry you polish and that’s good. This is a living heirloom, so we have to keep the seed viable for our seed collection.
Today we have over 20,000 different varieties of seed. So the process to keep that seed alive is that we do germination testing on the seed each year. We luckily don’t have to grow out all 20,000 varieties in one year. It’s usually about a tenth of that collection. So as a seed does…we look at seed that we maybe have grown ten years ago and do germination testing. If it needs to be grown again, that’s what our gardens are. We do that at the gardens at Heritage Farm. We have 890 acres there that we do our gardening on.
We have to… Because the seed is open-pollinated, it would cross. Some seeds are easier to cross with others. So we do different techniques to keep our seed pure. So that depends upon how the seed is pollinated. If it’s wind-pollinated, like corn, we have to isolate from other varieties. If it’s insect-pollinated, we have to be cautious of that.
When you think about saving seeds, though, I always think the easiest seeds to save are the self-pollinating varieties because they will not cross with other varieties. And that’s my favorites: tomatoes, beans, lettuce, and peas. And there’s a handful of other varieties too. But that’s a really nice way to begin your adventure with heirloom gardening and seed saving, is to start with the easier types of seed to save. And we all like tomatoes.
AOC: I think that’s true, most everyone. My eight-year-old daughter will eat tomatoes like apples, and just about as frequently. So yeah, everybody loves tomatoes. And you have a tomato tasting that happens at the farm as well.
DOW: Yes, it’s a great chance to taste diversity. We talk about genetic diversity and the loss of genetic diversity, and it’s an abstract concept sometimes. But when you can see the tomatoes that we taste at our tasting… We have orange, red, yellow, striped, black, purple, every size and shape imaginable and all variations of those colors. So they can see the diversity in the tomatoes that we’re trying to save. And not only that, they get to taste it, because they all have different flavors as well. And each has their own story.
AOC: Great. And so there’s a similar thing happening at the farm with apples. We used to have many, many varieties of apples, and now we have fewer varieties. So that’s part of your work, is…
DOW: It is. It’s to bring awareness to the fact that we’ve lost genetic diversity, not only in seed crops but in the apple varieties. There were 20,000 different varieties at the turn of the century. Today there’s probably only 4,000 left. We have 1,000 historic apple trees at Heritage Farm.
Consumers drive the market, and what we have found, when the hybrid varieties were more popular they were more profitable, so the seed companies dropped the non-hybrid standard varieties. Then, when the consumers were demanding, they like Red Delicious apple and maybe Granny Smith. Well, then all of those thousands of other varieties fell out of favor—they weren’t profitable. The same thing happens with livestock and poultry. When you think about farmers wanting Holstein cows because they give the most milk, they’re the most productive, then the minor breeds like the Swiss and other breeds fall out of favor.
So our job is to help people become aware of diversity that we’re losing. And once it’s gone, it’s lost.
AOC: So that’s what I was going to ask you. So those 20,000 varieties of apples that we have 4,000 remaining, so the 16,000 other varieties of apples—gone.
DOW: They are. I mean, they’re documented as having existed. But no, unless somebody’s growing that tree and keeping that variety alive, it does disappear.
A real strong part of what Seed Savers does is that we are a seed bank. We do protect these seeds in a seed bank. But also we want the seeds growing again in people’s gardens, because that’s truly how the seed will survive. Growing in people’s gardens, the story is told again, and people really appreciating the older varieties. And if you’re talking about being a sustainable gardener, seed saving has to be part of it.
AOC: So let’s try to back up for just a minute and say, particularly for people who don’t understand why saving seeds is important. You just talked about one reason. You know, something else has been happening here recently, where big seed companies are saying, “Actually, you can’t save the seeds that you’re using from our company.” Can you talk about that, and what are your thoughts on it?
DOW: My thoughts are that it’s a huge problem that we all face, and it’s a serious problem because we’re talking about food security, and we’re single-sourcing our food from a few seed companies. And I think what Seed Savers can do is we offer a solution, a small solution for people that they can take on themselves. When you garden and you’re saving your own seeds, you are becoming self-sufficient and you have that security of having your own seed. When you start relying on seed companies for that seed, then you lose a little bit of your independence. So at Seed Savers, we’re maintaining seeds, and that’s what we do. We’re keeping all the pieces, so plant breeders might need, in the future... We don’t know what the climate’s going to be like, we don’t know what consumers are going to be like, what the soil… So we’re saving all the pieces so plant breeders can have that material to use for future breeding, which is food security.
AOC: So when you think about seed sovereignty today, food security, two things that are very, very linked, where would you say that we’re at on the spectrum? Are we gaining ground? Is there hope? Should we be very concerned about big companies saying, “These are our seeds and you can’t keep them”? Talk about where is that at.
DOW: Yeah, I think we always need to be aware of what the threats are, but we are very…we’re in control. I think we are. It’s up to us to maintain the diversity that we still have here that we’ve saved and that we’ve appreciated.
I do think it’s very hopeful. I mean, the one thing you can control is the food you eat, and we all have that ability. And I think hat’s a great…you know, that gives us a lot of power. And one person at a time, you know, can make a difference. We started Seed Savers with two seeds, and now we have 20,000. So I think just being strong and being committed to something good, like good seed, like good food, organic milk—I mean, it’s a whole thing that’s growing, and I do feel it. I grew up on an organic farm and then it turned into the chemical commercial farm, and now I see people wanting the small farms again. And it hasn’t been that many years.
AOC: It’s amazing how such a tiny little thing can give you so much.
DOW: You’d be amazed what one bean seed can do. I was just talking about that, all the beans that this produced. It’s a magical—it’s a miracle, really.
AOC: It really is, every time.
DOW: Every seed is a miracle. And we should never, to me, alter that miracle.
AOC: And so the garden that is now at Seed Savers Exchange that’s Diane’s Garden, that’s been your garden.
DOW: It has. When we first moved to the farm, I was so… We hadn’t always been land-based either, but as this collection grew, we knew it was living and it had to be regrown. And then we realized the best teacher of our work was actually when people could see the gardens growing, with all the diversity. So we decided to become land-based. So that’s when we moved out to Heritage Farm.
And so I thought I could finally have my small family garden again. And Kent said, “Well, we need all the good land for the seed production, but you can have the cow lot.” And I thought, well, that should be okay—you know, fertile ground. But it was gravel. So I started over twenty years ago with this little cow lot that was gravel, growing food. And then as we became more public, all of a sudden my little garden became a public garden. So then I started focusing more on keeping it weeded and making it presentable. And it evolved into this magical place right now, because I allow things to grow.
And when you look at my garden, sometimes there is like a drought around, but every plant there has decided that’s where it wants to live, and it does well there. So it’s a very healthy spot. This year particularly, it’s like over-my-head tall. I don’t know what happened. But I think they’ve all found their perfect place to grow. I do a lot with self-seeding annuals, so that’s a garden that really replants itself, but you have to be a garden editor and pick and choose what you want where. So it’s quite a process. But it also produces food. Everything in that garden has a purpose. Whether it’s a pollinator, food for the pollinators or food for the table, it all has a purpose.
AOC: Yes, I remember I was there earlier this summer and saw one of the plants that had obviously been a volunteer and come back, and you let it stay there and grow. And it’s a really delightful garden now.
DOW: Yeah, it is. It’s nice to know that nature has a plan, and we just need to give it a little space.
AOC: So forty years is a very beautiful, long time. What’s your look to the future?
DOW: Hopeful, as I mentioned. I think that we’ve put something into place that will…we’ve added a lot of beauty to many people’s gardens by giving them the choice of heirloom varieties. And I just look for us to do what we do but do it the best, the very best that we can. I don’t think we need to ch—I mean, we’ve got, we’ll still be collecting more seeds; we get new seeds in all the time.
Someone asked if there was ever a golden moment in the forty years, and I thought it might be now. It really might be now, because we’ve put together this beautiful place; we have a seed collection; we’re the largest nongovernmental seed organization in the country; we have escalated our work to where we’re really taking care of our seeds and storing them properly, doing all the science. We have all the science now that we need to really do a great job of preserving.
But then I thought, well, if the golden age means contentment, no. We won’t ever reach that elusive moment because we’ll always be looking to do something better. We’ll be looking for new seeds to come into the collection, meeting new people. So it’s like Seed Savers is a living organism. It’s just going to keep growing. And that’s the beauty of the forty years, was to watch it grow and get bigger, but also kept its integrity. And we paid attention to our members and what they wanted and how we can… It’s a big family. It started out with maybe a half dozen; now we have thousands of people. And we do feel connected to them all, because we’re all there because we love seeds.
AOC: And you take the safety of these seeds very seriously. So talk about the underground climate-controlled bunker, and talk about the backup.
DOW: Well, to be a true steward of this collection, we don’t want to keep it all in one place. Don’t store your eggs in one basket. So we do have our seed bank in northeast Iowa, and we have a cool storage that’s 50 degrees, 50 percent humidity. And then we have frozen storage offsite, so in case there was a fire in the main building they would all be backed up. And I might say we have three packs of everything there, more if we can. And then we have a duplicate collection at Fort Collins, which is the National Seed Storage Laboratory. And then recently we have had three shipments over to Svalbard, the underground seed storage lab off the coast of Norway.
And a lot of documentation—of course, we have to keep track of everything. So now we have a person on staff who’s a historian, a seed historian, trying to gather all the stories. When we first started collecting seeds, people sent us seeds in letters, and the seeds were put in the seed bank and the letters were put somewhere else. And now we’re trying to connect them all, and time is very crucial because a lot of these gardeners are elderly and passing on. So we have a full-time person and we’re adding another person to help to gather these stories before they’re lost.
AOC: So does it ever happen now that a seed emerges that is a surprise?
DOW: It does. It certainly happened about twenty years ago. We were in northern Missouri, and we did a television show, and at the end of the show—this is the common question: Has there been a variety that’s lost that you can’t find anymore? And we said, well, there was—there was a variety that we read about in all the old seed catalogs called Moon and Stars Watermelon. And it was a green melon that had yellow moon and stars designs on it, and the leaf was also green with yellow moon and stars designs. And we thought, you know, that would be such an amazing fruit to find again. So we said yes, there was this Moon and Stars Watermelon that we’d been trying to find.
And a couple days later an elderly gentleman called us and said, “I have that watermelon. I’ve been growing that—my daddy grew it and I grow it.” So it was in Macon, Missouri, so we drove over there with our children. And we had a wonderful lunch—this lady was so pleased and happy that somebody was interested in these varieties of watermelon again. So we had a great lunch, we filled our car up with watermelons and drove back to our homestead, and we thought we had a pot of gold. And we started eating a lot of watermelon, but we had to save the seed.
And then we sent the seed to all of our members to increase, and then they offered it the next year in the catalog. And now we see it back, introduced in many commercial catalogs. I’ve seen it on a menu before. So I know it’s because of us, that we found that seed, because that would be something that would have truly been lost. And what a loss for us, not to have a Moon and Stars Watermelon.
AOC: Wow, what a fantastic story. That’s very heartening, right, when something like that happens and you can sort of reestablish a seed and a variety. So if somebody listening right now has something that they have a story attached to and they think that they should make sure you have it, what should they do?
DOW: They should contact Seed Savers Exchange. We have, if you go on SeedSavers.org, there’s all the resources there and people, the appropriate person to talk to at Seed Savers. But generally, you know, we would welcome it with open arms and take care of it. If it’s something, you know, we might already have it in our collection, but we don’t know. So…
AOC: Nice. And you have another exciting project that was just completed: the book. Can you talk about that?
DOW: The book, yes. Well, you know, our ancestors saved seeds, and they didn’t have degrees or fancy equipment. So seed saving is not difficult. But you do need to have the right information. We’ve had a book called Seed to Seed, which we produced about twenty-five years ago. We were just desperate to get some information out so that people could start saving their seeds and saving it properly. People were sending us seeds that weren’t hand-pollinated, or whatever. So we wanted people to have the information. Seed to Seed was produced.
But now we’ve updated that. It’s a beautiful book called The Seed Garden, and it has color photos, which Seed to Seed didn’t. And it’s just a beautiful book. It breaks it down into simple steps so that anybody can become a seed saver. But you can do as much or as little as you want. But it’s just a wonderful introduction to seed saving that’s not intimidating. It’s just a beautiful way to start that tradition in your garden.
AOC: If people want to find you and get more information or visit, how do they do that?
DOW: Well, all the information is online at SeedSavers.org. Our visitor center there is open from March until the snow flies, probably late December, and that’s open seven days a week, and all the gardens are open for people to wander through. There’s someone always in the visitor center to answer questions. If they want a catalog they can request that online. The orchard is open as well for people to go through.
It’s just a wonderful destination because we’re saving diversity in so many ways, not only in our gardens and orchard but the landscape. We have a trout stream, we have native white pines and huge oak trees. So it’s kind of a…it’s the most diverse farm, I think, in Iowa for sure, maybe in the country. If you wanted to see diversity in action, come to Seed Savers Heritage Farm.
AOC: It really is a stunningly beautiful place. It’s a wonderful trip and a great place to spend the day and to really understand both the form and the function. It’s so beautiful, and yet it produces food and helps sustain life. Thank you so much for being here with us on Rootstock Radio, Diane.
DOW: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to introduce people to our work.
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