It started with 29 like-minded gardeners exchanging a few seeds. Now, it’s the largest NONGOVERNMENTAL SEED BANK in the country and has 13,000 members worldwide. 

Almost a hundred years ago, Phebe Vinson of Waverly, Neb., left home and married. In her wedding picture, she had short, dark hair and wore a simple white dress offset by a dark pendant. Jesse, the lucky groom, sported a suit with a high-collared, starched shirt and a wide tie. They made a striking couple.

Diane Ott Whealy
Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
As Phebe gathered up her belongings to set up housekeeping in her new home, her mother presented her with a wedding gift that had been passed down by her own mother: a handful of lima beans.

Years later, in 1987, Phebe sent seeds of the same variety to Seed Savers Exchange in northeastern Iowa with a handwritten donation letter that read in shaky script: “I am sending some of the brown lima beans that are descended from some my mother used to raise. … As my family do [sic] not raise their beans and such, I hate to see them just lapse away. I am 87 years old, (88 - July 2), so can’t expect too many more years. My mother came from a German mixed with French family. I do not know if the beans came from there. But mama was careful to raise some. Respectfully, Phebe Vinson.”

“Phebe Vinson Heirloom” limas are just one of about 26,000 varieties of seeds and plants kept on the 890-acre Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) Heritage Farm in the hill country near Decorah, Iowa. The brainchild of Kent and ­Diane Ott Whealy, the nonprofit SSE began in 1975 at their rural home in Princeton, Mo., with the modest goal, as Diane describes in her memoir, Gathering, “of saving seed with like-minded people … twenty-nine gardeners from all over the United States and Canada sent 25 cents and a large envelope to the True Seed Exchange; in return, they received a six-page publication listing seed that other gardeners were willing to share.”

In her book, she also details the American tradition of saving seeds and explains how, during her grandparents’ time, visiting neighbors and relatives often resulted in leaving “someone’s house with an envelope of seeds or a water-soaked handkerchief rolled around a ‘slip’ from a houseplant.”

Diane began her collection with her Grandfather Ott’s morning glory and German pink tomato seeds. The goal of the exchange, first and foremost, was to protect the integrity of the seeds. “We were reading articles that described the dangers of losing genetic diversity. We began to see that the introduction of commercial farming had severely diminished the diversity found in food crops,” she says. As the years passed, the Whealys changed the name from True Seed Exchange to Seed Savers Exchange, and in 1986 the couple moved the enterprise to Iowa. Though the Whealys later divorced and Kent left the business, Diane continued as co-founder and vice president.