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Preserving farming’s old genetics

By Staff | Jan 8, 2010

This is Seed Savers primary garden area in Decorah. Seed Savers is a non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares heirloom fruits, vegetables and livestock genetics.

DECORAH – With winter in full swing and the calendar reading January 2010, many gardeners are taking comfort in the pages of seed catalogs that fill their mailboxes. For Iowans considering a garden seed supplier with “a cause,” the Seed Saver’s Exchange may be one to study.

Seed Savers is a non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds. The company is run from its 890-acre Heritage Farm near Decorah.

Founded in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, Diane Whealy’s terminallyill grandfather gave them the seed of two of his cherished garden plants brought to St. Lucas from Bavaria by his parents in 1870.

These plants, the German pink tomato, plus grandfather Ott’s morning glory seeds were the first of the now estimated 1 million samples of rare garden seeds which have been distributed by seed saver members in the last 35 years.

Seed Saver’s Exchange boasts that it is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the U.S., maintaining more than 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties.

Ancient White Park cattle graze the pastures in Decorah at Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm. It is a rare breed of beef.

Most of these heritage seeds have been brought to this country by members’ ancestors from all parts of the world.

“The genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate,” said contact John Torgrimson, Seed Saver’s media contact. “The vegetables and fruits currently being lost are the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selection in diverse ecological niches around the world.

“Each variety is genetically unique and has developed resistance to the diseases and pests with which it evolved. Plant breeders use the old varieties to breed resistance into modern crops that are constantly being attacked by rapidly evolving diseases and pests.

“Without these infusions of genetic diversity, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations.”

SSE defines heirloom seeds as any plant which has been passed down within families of gardeners from generation to generation.

More than just a seed company, the grounds of SSE hold 23 acres of “Preservation Gardens,” all of which are certified organic.

All of the gardens are open to the public for viewing throughout the growing season.

The ground’s “Historic Orchard” holds 700 of 8,000 different apple varieties known to have existed in 1900. “Many of these old varieties have been lost forever,” said Torgrimson. The orchard also contains many old varieties of grapes.

Grazing the pastures of the Heritage Farm are Ancient White Park cattle. With only 800 of this rare breed living in the world today, 200 are now browsing at Heritage Farm.

The Lillian Goldman Visitors Center offers a variety of gardening workshops and events throughout the year. It also offers informational and video exhibits, and a gift shop.

Seed Saver’s offers a catalog (both in print and online) to purchase both heirloom and non-heirloom garden seed and plants. One need not be a member to order.

Those interested in seed-sharing, pay a membership fee to have their seed listed in an annual yearbook. The yearbook is annually distributed to members showing the types of seed available from members all across the country.

Members can then contact other members to find new varieties.

SSE’s Web site contains information on the proper way to save seed and also has books they recommend to help you get started.

Seed Savers Heritage Farm is located at 3074 North Winn Road, Decorah. From the junction of Iowa Highway 9 and U.S. Highway 52, drive 5.5 miles north on Highway 52, then turn right on North Winn Road, drive one mile and look for the visitor parking sign on the right. They are currently closed to the public during the winter, but will open again on April 5.

For more information visit www.seedsavers.org.

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