SSE's South Farm.
Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
Heirlooms are “open-pollinated,” meaning that a variety is pollinated only by its own pollen variety and by natural means (wind and insects) — with resulting plants that look like the parent. According to Tim Johnson, SSE seed-bank manager and head of preservation, this can occur an infinite number of times. “This process can be repeated over many generations or growing seasons, and the plants should remain true to type. In contrast, hybrid varieties or commercially available hybrid seeds are produced by intentionally crossing two inbred varieties. The resulting seed produces plants that are very uniform, but if seed is saved from these ... the second generation will be heterogeneous due to segregation and recombination of genes.”

Dornith Doherty
Open-pollination also means no one can really own the seed, in contrast to, say, soybeans. The St. Louis–based Monsanto agriculture company controls some 90 percent of all the commercial soybeans grown in America, and the Supreme Court recently decided against an Indiana farmer who grew seeds obtained from a grain elevator instead of buying new seeds from Monsanto.

John Torgrimson, SSE’s president and executive director, points to the thick yearbook of seed varieties in front of him. “All of the varieties in this book are in the public domain,” he says. “You can’t own them. I can’t own them. Monsanto can’t own them.

“Our purpose here is to collect, maintain and distribute heirloom, open-pollinated varieties. In that sense, we’re unique as a seed bank in that we don’t just sit on these things. We want to make sure others are using them. The cultural background on these seeds is really important as well ­because we start getting into their applied use. Why was it important that they saved them? Why was it so important for immigrants to bring these to the New World?”

The cultural stories behind American seed-saving are just as integral to SSE’s mission as the science. Lifetime Member No. 1 lives on an organic farm a few valleys over. Photographer, writer, SSE board member and veteran seed saver David Cavagnaro moved his family to Iowa from Northern California in 1986 to help the Whealys plant their initial preservation garden on a rented 5-acre bottomland field along the Upper Iowa River. At the time, the garden contained much of SSE’s collection. Cavagnaro never left, and for eight years he maintained the preservation garden — a somewhat astonishing experience of seeing a cross-­section of the world’s heritage foods literally growing at his feet.

“What really struck me was the incredible history of our food crops,” Cavagnaro says, “and the long-ago origins, and the many ways in which these food crops have been moved around the world and improved and selected. We have this legacy because of the work of millions of backyard gardeners and small farmers throughout the ages.

“It’s a totally populist movement. This is a bottom-up thing. There is no geneticist involved. This is the result of ordinary folks growing stuff, selecting things they loved and passing them on. The spirit of Seed Savers is born out of a spirit that is as old as the hills. It’s as old as humanity. It’s as old as agriculture, and it’s a story that never ends.”