Very few people in Iowa have had a greater impact on the movement to protect real food than Diane Ott Whealy. Co-founder of Decorah’s Seed Savers Exchange, she is the author of a new memoir detailing a life obsessed with seeds and soil, farm and family.
In Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, Ott Whealy takes the reader gently by the hand and retraces a journey that began when her great-grandparents emigrated from Deuschendorf, Germany, and settled outside the tiny immigrant enclave of St. Lucas, in northeast Iowa. Two seeds that they carried with them on that journey became the motivation for a life’s work in preserving and protecting heirloom seed varieties. They were what became known as the German Pink Tomato, and Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories.
Those morning glories are grown every year along the south face of the historic, well-preserved post-and-beam barn that is the center of Heritage Farm; the 890-acre spread a few miles north of Decorah that Seed Savers Exchange now calls home. They are not alone there though, for on that spread they now grow out 10 percent of their massive seed inventory each year to protect and replenish the stock of many thousands of heirloom varieties. The farm is also home to the historic orchard of over 700 apple varieties and 100 grapes, as well as a small-but-growing herd of endangered Ancient White Park cattle.
Ott Whealy’s pride and joy there, though, is the Preservation Garden for which Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories are the backdrop. Her “little slice of heaven” displays many of the organization’s most popular varieties of herbs, vegetables and flowers, but more importantly it stands as a testament to her lifelong commitment to a cause.
That cause is important, as Monsanto and other global conglomerates work feverishly to patent various forms of seeds, not with “plant patents” as has been done for centuries, but with “utility patents,” the same kind used, for example, for Microsoft Windows. This gives them ownership not just of the seed but of all its progeny, thus making the ancient art/science of seed saving illegal. To the degree that they accomplish this, we all become serfs in a land baron’s fiefdom.
Gathering introduces us to how Seed Savers started as a dream on a small farm in Missouri, shows us how it went from there back to the author’s ancestral home in the driftless region of Iowa, and how it has spread across the world through a contributing membership that numbers in the thousands.
Ott Whealy’s story goes step-by-step, chronologically through the long journey that her grandfather had started for her, through the finding of friends and kindred spirits who would contribute, for example, 1,185 different samples of beans all in one UPS shipment. Two years later, legendary Rodale seed saver John Withee sent the rest of his collection. Soon after that, a friend who worked in a Florida hospital would send 3000 half-pint glass infant formula bottles with airtight lids. Seemed a shame to hide these beautiful bean seeds in opaque plastic.
She also tells of her introduction to another hero of Iowa agriculture (there are several in the book) named Glenn Drowns, who’s Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus is now doing for poultry and fowl what SSE is doing for plants.
More recently, Seed Savers Exchange has sent a total of 1,660 open pollinated varieties to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway since it opened in February 2008.
This decision was not without its controversy, as some decried it as a violation of Seed Savers mission because of the involvement of some of the same genetic manipulation firms that are endangering the free exchange of heirloom varieties. The board of directors of Seed Savers Exchange, though, is steadfast in its belief that contributing to Svalbard makes their stock safer rather than jeopardizing it, because all its seeds remain the property of SSE and cannot be distributed to third parties.
Iowa and the world owe Ott Whealy and SSE a deep debt of gratitude for work that may one day literally save all humanity. Her memoir is a stirring account of why that is so.
Chef Kurt Michael Friese is the founder of Slow Food Iowa City, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors. He is chef and owner, with his wife Kim McWane Friese, of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay for 13 years. Owner and publisher of Edible Iowa River Valley, Friese is a freelance food writer and photographer as well, with regular columns in local, regional and national newspapers, magazines, and online. His book, A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland, was published in 2008, and his most recent book is Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail.