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.