Take a gander at your Saturday-night dinner: The seared steak, the braised kale and sweet potatoes, the fresh salad greens, even the IPA in your beer stein all have one vital thing in common. They all arrived at your table thanks to a tiny little speck of a seed.
Indeed, this life cycle of plant propagation and regeneration touches every single moment of our lives—not only our food, but also our air, water and soil quality. It is so ubiquitous, so pervasive that we tend to take the everyday miracle of germination and growth for granted.
We shouldn’t. In fact, some say we are on the verge of a catastrophic collapse of our food system, and it all hinges on those teensy energy packets called seeds.
Why? Because of the way that seeds are saved and shared. For thousands of years, farmers simply selected their best, open-pollinated seeds for next year’s crop, or experimented with naturally cross-pollinated hybrids. Today, however, few farmers save their seeds. Instead, a handful of corporations grow and distribute the vast majority of seeds in what filmmaker M. Sean Kaminsky calls a “Henry Ford model of agricultural production.”
As a result, seed diversity has plummeted. One study conducted by the Rural Advancement Foundation estimates that 93 percent of the seeds available to farmers in the 1900s are now extinct. And as diversity diminishes, the possibility of devastating losses from drought or disease grows.
Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, Iowa, is one of a handful of organizations tackling this problem.
In 1975, Diane Ott Whealy’s grandfather, on his deathbed, entrusted her with seeds that had been given to him by his own parents, who had carefully brought them to the United States from Bavaria. This gesture inspired Whealy and her husband, Kent, to launch Seed Savers Exchange. Today, the 890-acre farm is home to a collection of more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated plants, as well as more than 900 varieties of heritage apples.
The farm isn’t simply a seed repository, however. The core of its mission is the “exchange” in its title. To this end, Seed Savers has mobilized a membership of some 13,000 people who actively save and share their own seeds, and the farm serves as a laboratory and classroom to teach them best practices for successfully preserving their own seed.
Seed Savers also maintains an extensive online library of how-to instructables on seed saving and sharing. The organization places a special emphasis on the community aspects of seed preservation—community seed gardens, seed swaps, and local seed banks, for instance. A new book, The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving, is expanding this educational outreach.
For co-founder Diane Ott Whealy, these community-based educational efforts are a vital component in the struggle to improve our seed diversity and reverse the 100-year trend of mono-cropping. After all, it was, in part, the centralization of seed production and distribution that got us in trouble in the first place. Putting the process back in the hands of those who actually grow and eat the crops simply makes sense. “We can only preserve heirloom seeds through active stewardship,” Whealy explains. “If we don’t use them, if we don’t allow them to grown again, they become lost.”
Organic Valley is committed to building a just and sustainable food system and is proud to support Seed Savers Exchange in its efforts.