Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds, based in Decorah, Iowa. Seed Savers Exchange was one of the original signers of the Safe Seed Pledge in 1999. Learn more at www.seedsavers.org.
John Torgrimson is Executive Director of Seed Savers Exchange.
GeneWatch: Today Seed Savers is both a grassroots organization and a giant in preserving North American crop genetics. How has the organization evolved since it was founded in 1975?
John Torgrimson: Seed Savers was started in 1975 when Diane Ott Whealy and her husband Kent received two varieties from Diane's grandfather. One was a morning glory, now known as "Grandpa Ott's" morning glory, and one was the German Pink tomato, and he told them the seeds had come from Bavaria with Diane's great-grandfather. Both Kent and Diane were quite taken with the responsibility that they now had, and they thought: "Are there other people in the United States who have similar responsibility?" They put a letter to the editor in Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening and all of the sudden people started corresponding with them. But I don't think they had any vision that Seed Savers would grow to where it is today.
Those are our humble beginnings, but pretty much the same thought process is in place today: the need to protect heirloom varieties and open-pollinated varieties, but also to ensure that they are being distributed and shared, and that people are growing them.
We approach our preservation work in two ways. One is that we're very much about participatory preservation; we have 13,000 members worldwide, and we have an internal exchange called our "yearbook," where members grow and list varieties that they want to share with other members. Right now our 2013 yearbook has about 700 members offering about 19,000 different varieties. This kind of participatory preservation is how we started.
Secondary to that is the ex situ seed bank that we maintain. We have a seed bank on site where we maintain more than 20,000 varieties of seed. We back it up at the USDA seed bank in Fort Collins, and we are now also distributing some of our seeds to Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
It seems that today, gardeners and certainly farmers are much less likely to collect and save their seeds. How did that come about?
Prior to World War II, most farmers would take their best seed from the harvest and carry it over for the next spring. That changed dramatically with the onset of hybrids after World War II, in the 1950s and beyond. Farmers started looking for better yields and increased sugar content, for example, in corn. That really changed how farming was done in America, and continues today with genetically engineered seeds being the predominant crops grown in the United States.
A hundred years ago, almost every community of reasonable size had their own seed company. In Decorah, Iowa, which was about 800 people, there was Adams Seed Company. Like many seed companies, they focused their attention on varieties that were being grown regionally. Over time, there was a consolidation of these seed companies, and post-1950, the demand for these regional products started to decline, and we started to lose those seed companies.
Part of our mission has been to not just get seeds that have been passed on generationally in families, but also to find seeds that were grown commercially and are no longer in the marketplace. So part of our collection is family heirlooms, part of it is former commercial open-pollinated varieties, and we also have some varieties from expeditions to other continents.
Say a gardener goes to buy seeds off the rack at the nearest hardware store. How many of those are likely to be open-pollinated today?
There's actually a tremendous demand for heirloom varieties now. Even Burpee's, which has traditionally been a seed company that specializes in hybrids, is now, I've been told, selling over 400 varieties of heirloom seeds. You've got several seed companies that have built their business plans solely around heirloom seeds. Baker Creek, out of Mansfield, Missouri, is a good example.
That market continues to grow as gardeners start to look at the kind of varieties they want to grow in their garden. And quite frankly, I don't have anything against hybrids-I've grown hybrids in my own garden. It really depends what the gardener is looking for. I grow about six types of tomatoes, for example. They're all heirloom now, but if I have a problem with a pest or disease, I might get a hybrid that deals with that particular problem.
The point is that gardeners, for the most part, are growing varieties in their garden for things like taste-there's nothing better than a vine-ripened heirloom tomato, compared to what you might buy in a grocery store. And there's the proliferation of farmer's markets and CSAs-they put heirlooms on a pedestal, and heirlooms can command a better price because of their taste.
When people talk about the importance of crop diversity, the Irish potato famine, where late blight wiped out the country's potatoes, comes up a lot. Is there anything else that you mention when somebody asks: "Why is this work important?"
In the Irish potato famine, the "lumper" potato was the only variety of potato that was grown in Ireland at the time. That speaks strongly in itself for the need for diversity. The adaptability of seeds to regional conditions is extremely important. Certain types of heirloom or open-pollinated varieties, if grown for many years in a particular area and seeds are saved, will become adapted to the climate conditions, the soil type, even the area's pests.
But there are many reasons diversity is important, whether we're talking about the diversity of crops being grown, or the amount of genetic diversity within a crop type. Take last year's drought for example-some plants perform better given the conditions. Last season we noticed late-pollinating corn fared better because it benefited from late and much needed rains. But the point is you will never be able to predict all the traits that will benefit your crops-that's why diversity is so important.
What's the process of collecting a new variety at Seed Savers-do people just send you seeds and ask if you could include it in the collection?
Any varieties sent to SSE must meet our accession policy. Varieties are documented as they come in to ensure a thorough history and horticultural understanding. Someone might donate seed and say something like "my great-aunt Molly used to grow this back in Indiana in the 1800s," and usually there's some documentation that accompanies the seeds; but we also know that there are many varieties that are synonyms. In other words, you may call it "Aunt Molly's tomato," but its roots go back to a tomato in a seed catalog being distributed in the 1850s. Right now we're actually going through a review of our collection. We have a seed historian on staff whose job is to look at the providence of the varieties in our collection and trace the documentation, so we can better classify them for what we do-so we can clearly classify what it is, where it originated, and what its traits are.
Going forward a little bit, we know that there will be modern heirlooms that will be developed. The "Green Zebra" tomato, which was created by Tom Wagner, is a good example. The Green Zebra is probably about 37 years old, and its genetics come from four different tomato plants. If you grow a Green Zebra today and keep the seed for next year, you're going to get another Green Zebra. So we would classify that as a "modern heirloom," something that is post-1950 and is part of the American gardening heritage.
Is there a crop equivalent to the passenger pigeon or the dodo-something that could have been saved but disappeared?
I can't think of something specifically, but we certainly know that it has happened. I'll give you a different example though, of seeds that we rescued. Back in the 1970s, a Swiss chard called Five Color Silverbeet disappeared from the American market. We located this variety being grown in Australia, by a group called Digger's Club, and we worked with them to reintroduce it to the American market. You can go to any heirloom seed catalog today and you will find Five Color Silverbeet.
Here's another specific example. We have a historic apple orchard with 550 varieties of pre-1900 apples. Our orchard manager, Dan Bussey-he's working on a book-he has identified more than 20,000 named varieties of apples that existed in the United States from the 1620s to the year 2000. As of the year 2000, he has identified about 4,000 varieties that continue to be grown. That would mean we've lost about 16,000 varieties of apples-they could have been applesauce apples, cider apples, winter storage apples ... and all of that came to America, where our conditions make us just about a perfect nursery for growing apples. Now, of those 4,000 apple varieties that remain, most of them are not commercially available.
Photos: Seed Savers Exchange