The Seed Savers Exchange, May 04 | Heirlooms Preserved for the Future

In the rollng hills just north of Decorahsits an Iowa treasure. It comes to mind around this time each year becauseit is time for our annual shopping spree—time to buy the seeds. My wife,Kim, and I may pour over a dozen catalogs, but we always end up buying fromthe Seed Savers Exchange (SSE).

Founded by Diane and Kent Whealy in 1975, SSE has grown to receive internationalacclaim for its tireless efforts to preserve heirloom seed varieties. Heirloomseeds are simply those that have been passed down through generations, likeheirloom jewelry. SSE is dedicated to saving these varieties because the world’sbotanical diversity is under constant assault from all quarters. Geneticallymodified crops are spreading worldwide; pests and diseases are evolving rapidlyto attack dwindling varieties of plants; multinational corporations are movingto have utility patents on particular varieties.

The United States Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision authored by JusticeClarence Thomas, has declared that it is legal to claim utility patentson plants. The December 10, 2001, ruling states that the Plant PatentAct of 1930 and the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 are so broadthat they can cover any type of plant that is “new, distinct, uniform,and stable.” In fact, companies such as the plaintiff in this case,Pioneer Hy-Bred, can claim utility patent on any seed it breeds, makingit illegal not just for you to propagate and sell that seed, but evenfor a farmer to save seeds of patented plants from the previous seasonto plant next season.

When you consider that your garden could be cross-pollinated with geneticmaterial from some other nearby, patented plant, you could be in violationof patent law and not even know it. If this trend were to continue toits logical end, it would mean a return to a world of land barons andserfs, where farmers can only grow the food they are told to grow, withthe corporate barons’ seeds, only to turn most of the profit backover to those same barons. Do you know the penalty for poaching the King’sdeer? It’s kinda on the stiff side.

SSE’s approach has been to build a network of concerned gardenersand farmers around the world, set some guidelines for how to properlypreserve seeds with their genetic makeup intact, and then carefully catalog,store, and distribute these seeds. They are careful never to use all ofany particular seed, always saving some in order to make more.

Anyone can buy seeds from SSE, through their print catalog or their website(, but if you become a member of the Exchange, youreceive access to twice as many varieties of seeds, some 24,000 in all.Many other benefits of joining SSE’s 8,000 members are detailedat the website.

If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the HeritageFarm in Decorah. SSE operates this small farm that includes the gardens,a historic orchard, and a herd of Ancient White Park Cattle. These cattleroamed the British Isles before the time of Christ, and are describedexactly in ancient Celtic lore. Only about 800 are left in the world,and 80 of those are at the Heritage Farm. Visit in July or August to seethe gardens in full splendor, or to see the 300 varieties of garlic hangingto dry. In September or October, stop in to see and taste the best ofthe orchard’s 700 19th century apple varieties.

In these days of global corporations writing agriculture and energy policy,it is vital that we draw a line in the soil. True independence, the Americanideal, cannot be achieved at the whim of some distant board of directors.The great circle of life does not turn through Monsanto headquarters.Freedom is only achieved when the same loving hands that raise childrenand keep the home also raise the food and cook the meals. To the degreethat we can achieve that lofty goal, we have bettered ourselves and ourworld.

Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotayand serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Governors. He lives with hiswife Kim in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments may be directedto