Two years ago I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle. A fascinating and humorous account of her family’s year long experiment growing and raising their own food, it makes even the blackest thumb dream of turning green. At the back of the book was a short list of resources and on that list was an organization called Seed Savers Exchange located in Decorah, Iowa. Curious as to what type of seed organization was located in my part of the country I hopped online and quickly got lost in the gorgeous photographs and unique descriptions of over 13,000 different varieties of heirloom vegetables and flowers available to order and plant. I ordered a few packets of tomato and lettuce seeds and watched as they grew. The beauty and flavor of heirloom vegetables got underneath my skin and before I knew it I became a member of Seed Savers (only $40 a year) and even gave a membership to my Dad for Christmas. (Dozens of varieties are available for anyone to order online but by becoming a member you get access to the full 13,000.) Fast forward two years later and I was driving across Iowa with Mr. B and my parents en route to the weekend long Seed Savers Exchange Annual Camp Out.

Perfect Rows at Seed Savers Exchange

Nestled in a bucolic green valley with red barns and white farmhouses, the Seed Savers Exchange headquarters is a storybook farm come to life. Teams of interns and staff spent days, weeks, (months even!) preparing the grounds for the weekend. We kept looking at each other and exclaiming in awe “There are no weeds!”. After battling monster weeds all summer in my own garden I can’t imagine the amount of work it took to keep the acres of heirloom plants weed free.

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Heritage Poultry at Seed Savers Exchange
Heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys help keep the bugs down!

We spent two days sleeping under the stars and attending classes on everything from 100 square foot gardening to hoop houses (think giant movable greenhouses) to raising rare White Park cattle. Founder Diana Ott-Whealy told the story of how 35 years ago she started saving seeds with a morning glory and a German pink tomato passed on to her from her terminally ill grandfather, whose parents originally brought the seeds into the U.S. from Bavaria in the 1870′s. Over the years like minded seed saving souls found each other through newspaper ads and then a simple newsletter which circulated among avid gardeners. As Americans became aware of the need to seek out and support heirloom seeds the non-profit organization grew in size and scope. Today Seed Savers Exchange permanently maintains over 25,000 varieties of endangered vegetables on an 890 acre farm. They are the largest non-governmental seed bank in the U.S.

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A behind the scenes tour of the seed bank and shipping facilities revealed an organized and clean set up with organic and non-organic seeds clearly marked and separated.

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Local chefs gave cooking demonstrations and provided an ongoing feast with vegetables grown right on the farm and meat raised nearby.

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We met people from all over the country passionate about maintaining seed diversity against the growing tide of monoculture. Since Seed Savers was founded in 1975 the global seed industry has rapidly consolidated into a few large players who control the genetics and availability of seed used in large agricultural applications. The importance of supporting organizations that preserve and promote genetic diversity within our food supply has never been more important than it is today. I am not of the belief that monoculture is morally wrong and will not espouse the evils of one type of farming over another. Monoculture is a method by which a lot of food is produced cheaply, for better and for worse. However, I do believe that it is difficult if not impossible to predict the changing nature of our planet and to accurately forecast the long term impact of genetic modification. Maintaining genetic diversity that is not ‘owned’ by any one person or company is simply good stewardship and is a wise way to protect our food supply for future generations. Even if diversity is not a priority for you, the wide variety of produce and flavors you will never find in a grocery store is a delight for any gardener or food lover. I am proud to support organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange and to play a small part in keeping food diversity alive through our garden each year.

This post reflects my own opinion, expense, and experience. It was not paid for, sponsored, or otherwise supported by Seed Savers Exchange or any other company.

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