For the Liberation of Seeds and Humus

from –

For the Liberation of Seeds and Humus

We live in a beautiful area on the Iowa-Minnesota border. We are in the heads of valleys as they start to drain toward the Mississippi River. It is called the “driftless area.” The glaciers split and flowed around it so they didn’t grind everything flat as they did the rest of Iowa.

My wife’s great grandparents came from Bavaria in the 1870s and settled in the area around St. Lucas, Iowa. My wife’s grandfather would tell me stories about when they were courting. Her father was very stern and would really give her trouble if she came home in the horse-drawn sleigh and would sit too long outside. He could always tell the next morning how long they had been sitting there by the pile of frozen horse manure. Grandma and Grandpa Ott had a good life: They had nine children; he farmed with his father; they cleared 40 acres with World War I dynamite; he ran a sawmill; drove a cream route; he was a homestyle vet. Although it was a hard life, it was a really full life.

I met Grandma and Grandpa Ott 57 years after their marriage. Grandpa had leukemia but wanted to live out his days on the farm so we went back to make sure that happened. He was an incredible story teller–the orneriest old man I think I ever met.

My wife was carrying our first child when we first were back, so I asked him what it was like when they had kids. Grandpa told us a story about the old German midwives who would come by. I repeated the story to some folks the next day and one fellow just laughed at me and said, “You go back and ask that old man again.” He said the story around here is that Grandpa would always tell Grandma he called the doctor, but he wouldn’t and by the time she found out it was too late and he would deliver the baby himself and save the money. So the next time I saw him I said, “I heard you delivered all your kids yourself.” “It’s just like pulling a calf,” he replied, “But you know, the twins fooled me.”

These folks were really different than you or I. They worked harder than we can probably imagine; they were the farm folks who built this country. They were just as tough as nails. I’ve seen this old man sit in his rocking chair and sew up a cut on his own hand with needle and thread. Yet it always surprised me, rough as he was, he just loved flowers.

During the year we stayed with him he gave us the seeds of a couple garden varieties his parents had brought over from Bavaria. One of these was a little purple morning glory that has a red star in its throat. He also gave us seeds of a huge pink German tomato. We’ve grown this up to nine inches across. The German folks use it as a slicing tomato.

Diane’s grandfather didn’t make it through that winter. We knew if his seeds were to survive it was up to us. About that time we came across the writings of several geneticists who were trying to warn the public about the dangers that we were going to face if we continued to let the breeding material for the food crops of the future die out at such a rapid rate. Dr. Garrison Wilkes, professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, wrote:

The reason for alarm and concern about the loss of native strains is the irreplaceable nature of the genetic wealth. The only place genes can be stored is in living systems; either living branches such as the budwood of apple trees or in the living embryos of grain and vegetable seeds. The native varieties become extinct once they are dropped in favor of introduced seed. That extinction can take place in a single year if the seeds are cooked and eaten instead of saved for seed stock. Quite literally, the genetic heritage of a millennium in a particular valley can disappear in a single bowl of porridge.
Dr. Jack Harlan, retired professor of plant genetics, University of Illinois, concurred:
These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we can not imagine. In a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on these materials. The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and the public is unaware and unconcerned. Must we wait for disaster to be real before we are heard? Will people listen only after it is too late?
We were lucky to come across these writings when we were young and idealistic and wondering how we could make a difference in this world. We decided to see if we could find other people who were also keeping heirloom seeds. We found there is an tremendous heritage of this type of material in this country; that whenever farmers or gardeners immigrated they invariably brought the best of their seeds with them. It was a link with the old country and allowed them to enjoy the foods they knew well.

There are some areas very rich in these materials; usually its really “backwoods” areas; especially mountainous areas, “poverty pockets” if you will, where people don’t really have the money to buy seeds. These can be real treasure-troves of heirloom varieties. We’ve found isolation can be religious as well. Traditional people such as Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites are also keeping quite a few heirloom varieties within their communities. I’ve also been pleased that as trust has grown in Seed Savers, a lot of Native American people are starting to offer their seeds through the exchange. This has been really gratifying to me. Many Native Americans don’t share their seeds because they believe they are sacred–as well they should because seeds are the sparks of life that feed us all.

What Diane and I have done these past 21 years is to put together a network of some 8000 people who are now working to collect, maintain and distribute heirloom varieties. In 1986 Seed Savers purchased a farm near Decorah, Iowa. The collection of seeds we have now is sort of out of control. We have 17,000 varieties right now including over 4000 tomatoes, 700 peas, 700 lettuce, 120 watermelons, 600 potatoes….It is getting to the point where we have already seen almost everything coming into the collection from North America. We regrow about 2000 varieities a year for their seeds. Last summer we grew out our entire lettuce collection; four heads of each variety. We photographed each one so we would know what we have in the collection.

Most gardeners in this country don’t have a clue as to what their true heritage as gardeners really is; most have never seen this type of diversity and when we bring people into our garden and show them 2000 plant varieties and tell them it is because of gardeners just like themselves that all this material is still available then they really understand the problem and are willing to help.

In the past five years we’ve been doing quite a bit of collecting in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. When that material started flowing into the collection it was so different it was just amazing. Some of the tomato varieties have foliage that looks like a carrot. We have been getting into quite a few tomato varieties from Russia that are black. They have an enzyme under their skins that turns darker and darker with the sun and the heat.

We are keeping a large selection of garlics from Eastern Europe. The collection in Georgia has just been flattened by civil war. Nationalistic fighting is really taking a toll. For instance, the international potato collection in Peru had to be evacuated in small aircraft because Shining Path guerrillas were knocking off their staff.

We had a fellow from Azerbaijan over. He worked for the Institute of Genetics and Selection in Baku. He and other scientists had collected all over Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is in the Caucuses south of Russia. It is an incredibly rich country; it runs from 14,000 feet elevation on the west to sea level on the east; the whole country is in this monstrous mountain valley. The micro climates through it all would be the equivalent of southern Minnesota to northern Florida. It is so genetically rich it is just incredible. After they collected all over the country the scientists made the mistake of storing the material in an agricultural institute in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave engulfed in vicious fighting since 1991. The Armenians first used the agriculture station for their troop headquarters and before the Russians ran them out, they cut down the orchard collection so the Russians wouldn’t have it for food. Then the Russians occupied the station and all of the collection has been lost.

We are going to see more of this kind of thing in the years ahead. Who knows what will be left of the genetic resources of the former Yugoslavia when all the fighting is done? While we see the televised carnage on the evening news, what we don’t see is the silent erosion of the genetic material that is taking place in the background. These are varieties that might have helped save the world from famine.

N.I. Vavilov was probably the greatest plant collector the world has ever known. He started his first collecting expeditions in 1908 and before the second world war he had personally collected 165,000 seed varieties. Vavilov taught there were “genetic homelands” for different crops. Vavilov was one of the first ethno-botanists. He wasn’t concerned with just the seed; he also cared about the cultural context.

Vavilov was imprisoned right before World War II. He had come into conflict with Stalin over the flawed genetics of a pseudo-botanist named Lysenko.

During the 900 day siege of Leningrad 600,000 Russians died. People were reduced to eating rats and glue from furniture joints and wall paper; whatever they could find. During this time 14 scientists of the Vavilov Institute died of starvation at their desks rather than eat any of the tons of edible seed stored around them. They didn’t think they had the right to deprive the future of the genetic resources.

Seed Savers is funding collecting expeditions involving the scientists at the Vavilov Institute. While Seed Savers has been very successful in North America collecting heirlooms from a fragmented ethnic patchwork surrounded by mechanized agriculture, there are areas of the world much, much richer genetically. I started going to Russia in 1991 and I’ve made nine trips to Eastern Europe since then. The extent of genetic resources that still remains in the former Soviet bloc is pretty well dependent on the extent of Stalin’s collectivization efforts. In 1928 he began to sweep the Soviet Union clean of peasants and landowners. He starved millions to death in the Ukraine and shipped millions of others, mostly farmers, to Siberia and let them die of starvation there. After he swept the countryside clean he put huge collective farms in place; 50,000 acres; whole villages farmed them.

But there were places too rough for collective farms. In Romania only half the farms were collectivized; in Poland only a quarter. In the unaffected areas traditional agriculture goes back to the very beginning with all seeds still being produced by gardeners and farmers. When you have the type of situation with a really wet mountainous climate with thousands of microclimates, the genetic diversity is just dazzling. But what is happening right now is that agriculture technology is flooding into these areas, along with American, Japanese and Dutch seeds. The diversity is going to be gone so quickly it will be unbelievable.

We funded a woman who is head of the vegetable department at a Polish university. She was wonderful. For $1500 she collected for 30 days in the southern mountains, on the north side of the Carpathians. I know she was just living in her car and eating sausage. She would go into remote mountain villages and say, “I want you to introduce me to the old woman who still supplies you with the old seeds.” Invariably she’d find some elderly woman who had huge collections of vegetable and flower seed. But even in 1993 she was running into salesmen from Cargill selling rye and other agriculture seeds door-to-door in the most isolated places.

This last May we carried in about $20,000 in hundred dollar bills to fund three different collecting expeditions: the area around the Aural Sea, the Volga Valley and in Ukraine against the backside of the Carpathians.

Right now is a real critical time for all this material, whether you are talking about heirloom varieties in the U.S. with older people on the farms still maintaining seeds and all of the young people having moved to the cities; or whether you are talking about half way around the world where this material is going to be lost so quickly. This is all the material we are ever going to have to breed food crops for the future. Think of this as an evolutionary race with the plants in one lane and pests and diseases in another. When we dose the plants with massive amounts of pesticides we breed pesticide-resistant pests. We are going to need all the genetic resources we can possibly muster to overcome what we are going to face in the future. We really believe we are stewards of an incredible heritage and its going to be disastrous if all this material dies out in the next decade or so mainly because of short term economic considerations. We would really be pleased if any of you would like to join us to keep this material available.

Kent Whealy is the director of Seed Savers Exchange, a grassroots network of over 7000 gardeners, farmers, orchardists and plant collectors who maintain and distribute endangered vegetable and fruit varieties. Kent has spent eight years developing Heritage Farm, an educational facility near Decorah, Iowa that maintains and displays extensive collections of heirloom vegetables, apples, hardy grapes and rare live- stock. SSE’s genetic preservation projects are the model for similar projects and organizations in more than 30 countries. This article is taken from his keynote address at the Tilth Producers Annual Conference last November. Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road; Decorah, Iowa 52101.

Full HTML version of this article

Primal Seeds