The Seed Savers Exchange: Heirlooms Preserved for the Future

In the rolling hills just north of Decorah sits an Iowa treasure. It comes to mind around this time each year because it 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 from the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE).

Founded by Diane and Kent Whealy in 1975, SSE has grown to receive international acclaim for its tireless efforts to preserve heirloom seed varieties. Heirloom seeds are simply those that have been passed down through generations, like heirloom jewelry. SSE is dedicated to saving these varieties because the world’s botanical diversity is under constant assault from all quarters. Genetically modified crops are spreading worldwide; pests and diseases are evolving rapidly to attack dwindling varieties of plants; multinational corporations are moving to have utility patents on particular varieties.

The United States Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, has declared that it is legal to claim utility patents on plants. The December 10, 2001, ruling states that the Plant PatentAct of 1930 and the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 are so broad that 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 genetic material from some other nearby, patented plant, you could be in violation of patent law and not even know it. If this trend were to continue to its logical end, it would mean a return to a world of land barons ands erfs, where farmers can only grow the food they are told to grow, with the corporate barons’ seeds, only to turn most of the profit back over to those same barons. Do you know the penalty for poaching the King’s deer? It’s kinda on the stiff side.

SSE’s approach has been to build a network of concerned gardeners and farmers around the world, set some guidelines for how to properly preserve 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, but if you become a member of the Exchange, you receive access to twice as many varieties of seeds, some 24,000 in all.Many other benefits of joining SSE’s 8,000 members are detailed at the website.

If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the Heritage Farm in Decorah. SSE operates this small farm that includes the gardens, a historic orchard, and a herd of Ancient White Park Cattle. These cattle roamed the British Isles before the time of Christ, and are described exactly 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 hanging to 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 American ideal, 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 children and keep the home also raise the food and cook the meals. To the degree that we can achieve that lofty goal, we have bettered ourselves and our world.