By Adam Calder, Produce Manager
This article was originally published in our April 2011 Field Journal

Seed Savers Exchange Seeds are available for sale at the Co-op!

Using a mixture of science, technology and thousands of hours of labor, the employees of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA, provide Iowa and the nation with a source for heirloom gardening seeds and transplants.

A nonprofit and member supported organization, Seed Savers was founded in 1975 by Dianne Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy to support and build a network around collecting, conserving, and sharing heirloom seeds. The business has grown to include nearly 900 acres of certified organic farmland, a herd of rare ancient white cattle, an heirloom apple orchard, heirloom grape vines and a catalog of over 25,000 different plants.

According to Trisha Hageman, Seed Inventory Manager, Seed Savers Exchange is organized into two parts; the commercial part which includes selling seeds wholesale and direct to consumers and the preservation part which includes saving seeds of endangered plants for generations to come.

“The seed house itself is where more of the commercial end of Seed Savers happens,” Hageman said. “We have the commercial and the preservation side. The commercial side sells the seed packets whether it’s to your local grocery store, farmers’ market people or home gardeners. The seed house makes the money so we can do the preserving.”

The seed house is where the seeds are cleaned, dried, packed and gathered for distribution. All of the seed packets used to be hand packed. However, due to growing demand for the seeds, a seed packing machine recently became one of the many pieces of advanced technology used to increase efficiency.

“They used to be all done by hand, but we were fortunate enough in the last year to purchase this Seedpack 2000,” Hageman said. “By having this machine it allows us to continue to grow without growing out of our space. It’s calibrated by the weight of the seed, so you can speed it up and slow it down depending on how much seed you need in a packet. The packets are printed right here with the lot information, the amount of seeds in a packet and whether it’s organic or non organic. It also does the gluing, the folding and presses it together right here. Depending on the size and weight of the seed we can sometimes put out 1,500 packets in forty-five minutes.”

Near the room housing the Seedpack 2000 is a large climate controlled walk-in storage cooler where seeds are stored prior to packing and shipping.

“All 600 varieties of seeds that are in our catalog are stored in here.” Hageman said. “This cooler is jam packed. We might have a supply of a hard to grow variety of seeds for ten years. That’s why we want to make sure this storage facility is top notch for what it does.”

Seed Savers Exchange offers a mix of organic and conventional seeds as it is difficult to find organic options for all of the specimens in their collection.

“We do sell both organic and conventional seeds, but what’s grown at Seed Savers is all organic. We do still sometimes buy conventional seeds from a different seed company or some of our conventional growers. Not all of our growers are organic.”

Another factor that contributes to a lack of a 100% organic catalog is the spatial requirements and buffer zones needed for organic farming.

“Isolation of everything is not possible,” Hageman said. “We do have growers, some from in the United States and some from different countries. If something needs a longer growing season we’ll try to send it somewhere more south.”

Aaron Burmeister, who works in the collections department, explained further how the commercial aspect of Seed Savers Exchange fuels the preservation aspect of the group.

“Any profit they realize is called project related revenue. It goes to support the work of preservation that we do here. We’re trying to preserve, maintain, and distribute heirloom plants. Our focus really is vegetables. We do have flowers, herbs and other types of things. We have an orchard as well as grapes.”

Burmeister said they are quite serious about preserving their samples for as long as possible, and they have many avenues in which they pursue that goal. On site are several small climate controlled coolers and freezers that can keep a seed viable for decades.

“Here we’re actually storing things for 20 to 30 years before we grow them out again,” Burmeister said. “There are very specific requirements we need to meet in order for the seeds to respond well to that sort of long term storage.”

Seeds are also sent to and stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in northern Norway, near the Arctic Circle. This program is sponsored by the Norwegian government in conjunction with several international organizations that are also dedicated to biodiversity preservation.

“We are the largest American non-governmental depositor in that program. We send a large package once a year,” Burmeister said.

Not only are seeds stored for decades, but living tissue cultures are also kept alive year after year to preserve things like potatoes. Patty Storlie, who also works in collections, said the tissue cultures are nurtured and cared for to ensure the survivability of plants that don’t readily produce seeds.

“We grow our potatoes and sweet potatoes in test tubes here,” Storlie said. “We grow them in a defined medium, a semi solid agar developed in the fifties. As the plant grows it will exhaust the nutrients in this medium. We take a branch point, make a cutting, put that into a fresh tube and then it will propagate itself from the apical node. It’s less labor intensive and less costly than growing them out in the field every year because potatoes don’t replicate from seed reliably. They are one of the plant species like garlic that need to be maintained [by propagating the current plant]. Each individual tube is sub cultured every six months to a year. This collection has been maintained this way for about 15 years and there are about 600 different potato varieties, out of thousands. I think maybe twenty are grown commercially.”

All of these aspects of Seed Savers Exchange combine to form an organization that is working toward maintaining and revitalizing a bio-diverse world for generations to come. When you buy a packet of their seeds, you are holding onto a piece of a unique genetic heritage. You are helping to ensure a tomorrow that is not void of all of the color, beauty and splendor that comes from a backyard garden.