Seed Savers Exchange uses bar-code scanning to archive its seeds.
Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
Today, SSE is the largest nongovernmental seed bank in the United States. It has 13,000 members from all 50 states and 40 countries; membership provides access to a thick ­annual yearbook that offers around 20,000 listings, of which 13,000 are unique to the SSE collection. This encompasses more than 5,000 varieties of tomatoes, 900 varieties of peppers, 400 varieties of squash and 1,500 varieties of beans — including Phebe Vinson’s heirloom limas. The yearbook is an invaluable networking resource. For example, a member living in southern Arizona who wants a variety of corn that can withstand a desert climate can use the yearbook to find other members who have grown successful varieties in similar climates, as well as a description of those varieties’ characteristics.

Dornith Doherty
The seed bank’s storage facility is a climate-controlled underground freezer vault — a popular location for staff during hot Midwestern summer months — and the collection is backed up at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo. To fund its nonprofit mission, SSE generates more than $2 million in revenue through seed sales to the general public and through membership fees.

In addition to its preservation efforts, this money pays the more than 50 full-time SSE employees, including perhaps the nation’s only seed historian — she tracks down the provenance of donated seeds such as those that once arrived in an envelope addressed simply as “Tomatoes, Decorah, Iowa.” There’s also a full-time librarian on staff; a collection curator; seed-bank, public-programs and facilities managers; and information-technology,­ communications, marketing and development personnel. An orchardist oversees the more than 550 pre-1900 American apple varieties that grow on a bluff above the farm and sport names like Minkler Molasses, Knobbed Russet and Fameuse. The farm, with its eight miles of hiking trails and the lovely Amish-built Lillian Goldman Visitors Center, is also one of only two breeding sites in the U.S. for Ancient White Park Cattle.

At the center of the farm is SSE’s iconic image: a restored red barn that, at the moment, is encased in Whealy’s grandfather’s purple climbing morning glories. In front of the barn is Diane’s Display Garden, planted with her daughters on Mother’s Day 1988. In late summer, the garden is a Monet-like landscape of vegetables paired with flowers.

The farm’s location was chosen with the idea that it could be a visual showplace as well as a means for preserving seeds. “Seed Savers is so much about beauty. I feel it’s so important, especially now, with the lack of natural places for insects and birds,” ­Diane says as we walk the grounds. Then she adds, “We also needed to be in a place that was separated with hills and trees — to keep pesticide and pollen drift at bay.”

The mission of SSE is “to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food-crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.” Heirlooms are generally those varieties that were grown before 1950, the approximate start of the Green Revolution, when widespread use of modern ­agricultural practices such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and high-yield crop ­varieties led to an increase in food quantities and calories per acre worldwide.