Decorah, Ia. – Much to Diane Ott Whealy’s delight, bluebirds have returned to her garden at Heritage Farm for another spring.
“It’s so good to see them again,” she said gleefully of the bluebirds as they fluttered against a bright, cloudless blue sky. “Every year, they have to fight it out with the sparrows.”
Ott Whealy might seem to be choosing sides here. She’s not. She is simply rooting for a future that will not be diminished by the disappearance of either species from the air above her garden.
This deep concern about what could be lost in the future placed Ott Whealy and her former husband on a trail-blazing path more than 35 years ago, eventually leading to the preservation of hundreds of different plant seed varieties and the mainstream popularization of the term “heirloom plant.”
A soft-spoken woman of 61, Ott Whealy is co-founder and current vice-president for education of the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange – one of the largest nongovernmental, nonprofit seed banks in the country.
The Iowa native is also the author of a new book, “Gathering: The Memoir of a Seed Saver,” which is being released this week. Regarded by some as the mother of the heirloom plant movement, Ott Whealy writes breezily about how in the mid-1970s, as Missouri homesteaders, she and Kent Whealy had already begun living their “modest dream of saving seed with like-minded people.”
A mother of five, Ott Whealy helped provide a guiding hand over more than three decades for SSE, as it is often called. By the end of the 1990s, the seed bank enjoyed celebrity status, especially among gardeners and farmers on the east and west coasts. Ott Whealy writes jauntily about a 1999 visit by Martha Stewart and her production team.
“That was a fun time in our life,” Ott Whealy said. “We were traveling and we had the kids on the farm and we had a lot of visitors.”
Today, Ott Whealy is the only family member who remains connected in an official capacity to the nonprofit. Ott Whealy and Kent, who now lives in Michigan, were divorced in 2004. Ott Whealy does not dwell much on the divorce in “Gatherings.” Since Seed Savers survived the break up and has flourished, by all accounts, over the past few years, the divorce was more consequential on a personal level than a public level, she said.
“We’re not the first people to get the divorced and we won’t be the last,” she said, adding that she is happy today that Seed Savers “was stronger than a soap opera thing.”
About four years ago, after spending most of her life living on a farm, Ott Whealy moved to a house in downtown Decorah, which is about six miles south of Heritage Farm.
She is enjoying the new chapter in her life in more urban surroundings, she said.
“People are adaptable. I’ve always tried to look for the best of a situation and I’ve found many positives to living in town,” she said, mentioning that she now owns a bicycle and that it is much easier for her to entertain and socialize.
Still, hardly a day passes that Ott Whealy does not tend to her garden, which lies about 100 yards behind the visitors center at Heritage Farms.
“If I did not have my garden to get lost in, I would not be as content as I am now,” Ott Whealy said.
She calls the garden her “wild child” because it consists of mostly self-seeding annuals. She confessed in an interview that it is almost impossible for her to get near her garden “without going in to pull weeds.”
In the weeks and months ahead, she will miss the garden, she said, as she travels to do “ambassador work” for Seed Savers and to promote her book.
It has been only in the past few years, Ott Whealy said, that the nonprofit company has beefed up its marketing campaigns.
“I think you can believe that everybody in the country knows what we’re doing up here, but they don’t,” she said.
When Ott Whealy travels to tell the story of what they are doing up there, she begins by speaking of how the first spark of inspiration came from old morning glory and tomato seeds entrusted to her by her immigrant grandfather, Michael Ott of St. Lucas, Ia., and of her concern about what was happening in the world of gardening and farming.
“We were reading articles that described the dangers of losing genetic diversity,” Ott Whealy writes in her memoir. “We began to see that the introduction of commercial farming had severely diminished the diversity found in food crops.”
“Kent and I had a handful of seeds, a story and a warning.”
The couple also had 29 other gardeners from the United States and Canada in 1975 who had responded to letters Kent had written to various “back-to-the-land magazines – Countryside, Mother Earth News, Landward Ho – in an attempt to discover others who were saving heirloom seed,” she writes.
A year later they printed a no-frills, 17-page booklet, “True Seed Exchange,” on a “hand-cranked mimeograph machine set up in the back bedroom of Great-Aunt Hazel’s house.”
Whealy’s book plows forward from this point. She discusses how from these humble beginnings Seed Savers Exchange became what it is today – the organization that many credit for helping give root to the heirloom plant movement, which has blossomed in 35 years from a fringe-group preoccupation to a mainstream fascination, if not obsession.
The New York Times has over the past decade or so mentioned or written about Seed Savers Exchange more than 70 times, said SSE executive director John Torgrimson. With 13,000 dues-paying members and a $5 million budget sustained mostly by seed sale revenues, Torgrimson said, Seed Savers Exchange is looked at by many avid gardeners and produce farmers as the leaders of a crusade to preserve the nation’s gardening heritage and genetic diversity.
“They were the pioneers and what they went on to do right here in Iowa is save hundreds of plants from extinction,” said Drake University’s Matt Russell, executive director of the Des Moines area Buy Fresh-Buy Local campaign.
For the record, Kent Whealy applied the word “heirloom” to plants in a speech he gave in 1981, according to the website tomatofest.com. He had asked permission to use the term from John Withee, a Massachusetts seed collector who had used it on the cover of his bean catalog.
Withee told Whealy that he had taken the term from Prof. William Hepler at the University of New Hampshire, who first used the word “heirloom” to describe some beans that friends had given him back in the 1940s.
Hundreds of avid gardeners and produce farmers all over the country rely on Seed Saver Exchange for their heirloom plants, Russell said.
At Blue Gate Farm, in Marion County, Ia., Jill Beebout and her husband Sean Skeehan grow mostly heirloom vegetables and herbs. They have a farm membership to Seed Savers Exchange.
“They have a variety of plants that you really just can’t find anywhere else,” Beebout said of Seed Savers, adding that her farm grows the company’s heirloom tomatoes, peppers and greens, which are sold seasonally at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market.
The farmers who plant heirloom vegetables appreciate them because they tend to be different from most industrialized produce. Standard commercial vegetables are typically selectively bred, or genetically modified, for appearance, shelf life or uniformity that would ensure they are easier to pack and ship, Beebout said.
Heirloom vegetables, on the other hand, come from seeds that “were saved over time by individuals or handed down by families for certain characteristics that generally included taste.”
In “Gathering,” Ott Whealy writes with alacrity when discussing gardens and growing.
“I grew up knowing that you harvested horseradish only in months with an ‘r’ in them and that every day gets ‘a rooster step’ longer after the shortest day of the year,” she writes in her first chapter, “Going Down to Grandpa’s.”
“My life has always been connected to growing things, for food, for beauty, and telling stories about them. So it was natural that I grew to adulthood fascinated by and comfortable with people, seeds and the environment.”
Ott Whealy emphasized in a recent interview that Seed Savers is more a shared grass roots movement than something for which two people deserve accolades. Yes, she and her husband toiled mightily to keep their vision and dream alive, but her book lavishes praise on scores of “noble guardians of our seed heritage,” who made astonishingly nurturing contributions along way, especially in the early days.
All these years later, while she was instrumental in making SSE an heirloom seed powerhouse, Ott Whealy will admit that she is astounded as she looks around the grounds of the northeast Iowa farm they bought in 1986 and subsequently named Heritage Farm.
Set on 890 acres, with a stream that is home to native brook trout, the farm that serves as SSE’s headquarters conducts grow-outs of seeds of mostly heirloom vegetables, herbs, flowers and plants in more than 30 gardens.
The Seed Savers Historic Orchard is home to hundreds of pre-1900 apple trees. More than 100 White Park cattle, a threatened breed of livestock, graze in the pastures at Heritage Farms.
In 2006, a visitors center was built. Even though the farm is “off the beaten track” in rural Iowa, as Ott Whealy puts it, about 20,000 guests per year find their way there.
“So much of what has happened far exceeds any dream we ever had,” Ott Whealy said as she sat on a bench under a clear blue Iowa sky while about a dozen visitors browsed the hundreds of seed packets that are for sale at the center. Executive director Torgrimson described as Ott Whealy as “Midwest reticent” about calling attention to herself, but she said she wants readers to appreciate one message of her book – “the fact that amateurs can accomplish great things by starting small, keeping focused and being willing to make sacrifices.”
She writes near the end of “Gathering” that, despite the gulf between her and her husband, they felt as though SSE was still their own – even when it became clear the company would have to move forward without either of them running day-to-day operations.
“The organization was not ours. It was its own entity,” she writes. “It was not about what we sacrificed to make it all work. It was about the mission that led us to create SSE in the first place: To save seeds.”
Because Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit, it is able to focus on preserving all types of plants regardless of whether they would be commercially viable.
“We save the good, the bad and the ugly,” Ott Whealy said proudly, admitting that not every one of SSE’s heirloom vegetables is going to taste remarkably better than standard commercial varieties available at any supermarket.
Still, every seed that has been saved represents one less variety of plant that will disappear.
“We have not saved the world,” Ott Whealy said. “But we have saved much that is precious.”
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