Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of the world-renowned Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, has published her first book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, and will launch its release at an author event hosted by Agora Arts Saturday, June 25, from 2 to 4 p.m. (For an interview with the author, see below).
Gathering is, at heart, the story of many remarkable individuals-true heroes of the land, including Merle Van Doren, preserver of the evocatively named Moon and Stars watermelon; Dan and Eli Zook, two Amish brothers who lovingly handcrafted many of SSE’s buildings; and Ole O. Lomen, aka Apple Lomen, whose 1898 orchard boasted 100 varieties of the fruit. And, of course, Ott Whealy herself, whose passion and perseverance helped what is now a major organization take root and flourish.
“To us,” she writes, “seeds were always connected to people-people whose stories, no less than good soil and spring rains, brought those seeds to life.”
Diane Ott Whealy publishes book: a Seed Savers memoir
Talking Points: Gathering – Memoir of a Seed Saver
An interview with Diane Ott Whealy
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. It was important for me to communicate to a new generation of gardeners and staff who work here that an organization succeeds because there are people who have lived it, dreamt it, and built it with an eye toward the future. This is not only my story, but also the story of Seed Savers Exchange.
Q. What inspired you to write Gathering?
A. I have always wanted to write. In the fall of 2008, George DeVault, the executive director at that time, and I were talking about “the good old days” of Heritage Farm and Seed Savers Exchange. I began to reminisce about how much had happened over the years and the many folks who helped create the fine organization we are today. What an adventure! He listened to the narrative of my childhood, my grandparents, of homesteading, raising a family and eventually building the nonprofit into what it is today. And when I was finished, he told me to clear my schedule and start writing and I never looked back.
Q. Is there a message in your memoir that you want to convey to your readers ?
A. The fact that amateurs can accomplish great things by starting small, keeping things focused, and being willing to make sacrifices while celebrating the gradual progress being made. A dream must be something you feel passionate about if you expect to inspire others to join in your effort.
Q. How did you come up with the title?
A. Gathering is the simple, beautiful thread that ties this story together. It’s about the gathering of people, seeds and stories. It simply had to be the title.
Q. Who is your book for?
A. The book is for people who want to grow something, whether it’s a seed, a family, a business or a dream of any size.
Q. In recent years, the word “heirloom” is used to describe many vegetables, especially tomatoes, but when you began your work was heirloom seed a common term?
A. More than thirty years ago, when Seed Savers Exchange started, no one knew what an heirloom was. We were pioneers in the heirloom movement which today is an integral part of any serious conversation about genetic biodiversity.
This was a movement that grew out of the backyard garden and its creative evolution continues to be played there today. In the chapter “Cover Stories” I wrote about a mid-1980s preservation garden illustrated by the photos of David Cavagnaro -a collage of diverse colorful tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and eggplant. These images remain captivating to this day. As heirlooms have gained in popularity some of these odd looking purple tomatoes do not look all that strange to us now. SSE was ahead of its time. The fact that heirlooms have become players in the Slow Food movement attests to their quality taste and variety, indeed there is a tomato for every kind of cuisine, a bean for every pot.
These days everyone wants to talk about heirlooms because of their taste and variety but the story is more important than what meets the eyes or taste buds, it is about preserving our heritage for future generations.
Q. How did SSE began?
A. It started over 35 years ago with two seeds handed down to me from my grandparents and it grew from there, I am speaking about Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and the German Pink tomato.
I was not a trained botanist, but knew instinctively to respect the seeds, stories, recipes and memories. I knew that the loss of this genetic diversity could never be recreated. Family heirlooms were important and saving seed was the right way of communicating with the past and passing it on the future.
Q. What is the current state of Seed Savers Exchange?
A. Seed Savers Exchange has become one of the most important vehicles in this country for the storage and distribution of heirloom and other open-pollinated seeds. We connect gardeners from around the world with each other. Our 2011 Yearbook offers more than 13,000 varieties of seeds and plants grown by our members and offered to other members. We have approximately 13,000 members, and thousands of visitors come to Heritage Farm each summer to walk through our gardens. We offer 600 varieties of seeds for sale to the public through our catalog-these sales support our non-profit mission and educate the general public about heirloom gardening, saving seeds and producing healthy safe food.
Q. The last chapter is titled, A Roosters Step. What does that mean?
A. My German grandparents were an integral part of my life growing up in Northeast Iowa. They peppered their conversation with many quaint sayings. One was “a rooster step.” Each day a rooster step gets longer after the first day of winter. The rooster step referred to the extra second of daylight which soon turned into minutes. The process was a slow one and nearly imperceptible. By the end of January it might stay light till 5:15 p.m. and by Summer Solstice, the longest day of summer, the days were a thousand rooster steps longer.
The story of Seed Savers Exchange is analogous to rooster steps-small focused accomplishments over a lifetime, day after day, year after year, added together created the organization that we have today.
Q. How does it feel to be part of an important movement in America and indeed the world?
A. I am thrilled that SSE has made a difference. We have not saved the world, but we’ve saved much that is precious. When Grandpa Ott handed us his morning glory seed, which is still the cornerstone of the Exchange, we were not sure of the support that we would find from others. What we did know is that if we had not treasured it, the seed would have died with him. It was up to us to keep it alive.
Seed Savers Exchange has become the connection that links likeminded gardeners together. Watching this grassroots movement grow into the respected organization it is today has been the most satisfying aspect of our work.
Seed Savers Exchange has been a labor of love for both Kent (co-founder Kent Whealy) and me. I remain grateful for the leadership he provided in launching and developing SSE into the organization it is today. Seed Savers is a wonderful achievement, it was our dream and we worked hard to bring about its success.
Q. When was the first time that you became aware of the fact that you were doing something important?
A.When I walked to the mailbox in Missouri in 1977 and found 30 letters. This flurry came in response to a small article in a newspaper back East. Soon our family’s roll top desk was inundated with seeds and letters. So began our organization.
Q. Now that you are involved with a professional organization do you miss the times when things were more casual and everything was still at the level of a dream?
A. As with every parent’s dream, I have wanted the organization to grow. Back in the day, it was just Kent and I and a very small staff. I opened every letter, read most of them and felt I knew the needs and personality of our membership. I was involved with all other aspects of the organization from handling the finances, fulfilling seed orders, working in the gift shops and gardens. I was involved in all decisions and plans for the future. I do miss that level of intimacy with every aspect of our operation, but of course that level of involvement is not sustainable.
Q. You have many seed collections, which ones are your favorite ones? Do you feel as strongly about flowers as you do about vegetables?
A. I love my self-seeding annual flowers, the way they take care of themselves. These flowers are not bred to order as newer breeds are. For instance, some are bred to be a certain size to fit in pots or on borders. Sometimes the scent is bred out as well. The old fashioned annuals add natural beauty to a garden, and the fragrant flowers attract useful pollinators and repel the not so desirable insects.
I don’t like to play favorites but certain flowers like Grandpa Ott’s morning glory has a special place in my heart. It is the seed that grew into a world class organization. I also feel the same way about certain vegetables. German Pink tomatoes always remind me of my childhood when mom would serve plates of sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar. Then there is a rainbow of colors in the peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce and everything between Rat Tailed radish and Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry. All are very self-sufficient and capable of producing food in addition to being beautiful in my garden. The resiliency of all this seed is magical and I never tire from watching the garden in action.
Q. Do you feel that your area has been affected by climate change? Have you personally experienced the unpredictability of the weather in growing your produce from seed?
A. Heirloom or open-pollinated seeds have diverse genetic makeup. When seed is planted in the same region year after year the seed naturally adapts to local climate, pests and diseases. For example, the German Pink tomato has been grown in northeast Iowa by my family for nearly a century. Over that period of time this plant has thrived through many challenges from pests and climate changes.. Our policy at SSE is to grow seed from storage on a rotational basis so that it is given a chance to adapt to a changing climate. We are a seed bank, but the best way to preserve our seed heritage is by having our seeds grow in gardens throughout the country.
Q. If you had to do it over again would you still have chosen to move to Iowa?
A. We were looking for paradise and indeed we found it at Heritage Farm. This is still true twenty odd years later as I look out my window at the fertile valley surrounded with lime stone bluffs, trout streams, and white pines. Of course we are a bit off the beaten path, but this has not been a problem for our members and visitors who, like us, don’t mind following a path less traveled.
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