1981 Harvest Tucson

By Kent Whealy

“I’m Kent Whealy and I direct an organization of vegetable gardeners known as the Seed Savers Exchange that maintains and also exchanges heirloom vegetable varieties. I’ll be telling you more about the organization tomorrow, but what I really want to talk to you about today is some work that I have become very interested in recently.”

“During this last year I have turned my attention to the preservation of vegetable varieties that are currently being dropped from commercial availability. Each year hundreds of vegetable varieties are dropped from seed catalogs not because they aren’t delicious and unique, but because it is only profitable for large seed companies to stock the varieties which sell the most. Also the tremendous amount of consolidation going on within the seed industry right now has escalated these losses tremendously. Multinational agrichemical conglomerates are buying out family owned seed companies at a tremendous rate and proceeding to drop their collections of standard varieties in favor of more profitable hybrids and patented varieties. In many cases the deleted varieties represent the life’s work of several generations within these families and are extremely well adapted to local weather and pests and diseases.”

“During the first half of this century, most deleted varieties had been superseded by superior ones. But most often that hasn’t been the case during the last 20 years. Far from being obsolete or inferior, the varieties being dropped today are literally the cream of our vegetable crops. Each is the result of millions of years of natural selection, thousands of years of human selection and usually almost a decade of intensive and costly plant breeding and testing. Only the very best make it to the catalogs and each is unique and irreplaceable. But they are being allowed to die out, due to the economics of the situation, with no systematic effort being made by government agencies or lay organizations to keep them alive or store them. We must stop this short-sighted destruction.”

“I am presently working on a computerized inventory of all non-hybrid vegetable varieties that are currently available in the United States and Canada. The Inventory includes variety name, the range of the days to maturity that are represented, a complete description of the variety and a list of all its known sources. I will update this Inventory each year.”

“The Inventory will be valuable in many ways. This will be the first time that we will be able to clearly assess what is being dropped and how quickly. It will be valuable to gardeners in two very specific ways. Many gardeners will buy up varieties if they know that they are in danger of being dropped. Most times, however, they don’t know that a favorite variety is in danger until it simply doesn’t show up in their catalog one year and they are unable to find another source for it. But most gardeners only deal with three or four companies and the Inventory will cover somewhere around 130 companies. The Inventory will also let gardeners search through everything that is available to find varieties that are specifically suited to their climates and problems.”

“The Inventory’s most important value is that it will clearly show which varieties are the rarest and in the most danger before they are dropped. I believe that we should place in frozen storage all varieties that are available from only one or two sources. I estimate this would be less than 1/3 of the approximately 3,500 non-hybrid vegetable varieties that are still available commercially. I would like to meet with anyone who wants to work with me in accomplishing this.”

“I am a vegetable gardener and I believe that the standard varieties that are available today are the best home garden varieties that we will see. The vast majority of the vegetable breeding being done today is for commercial application and such varieties are seldom suited to the needs of the home gardener. This….. (holding up the Vegetable Variety Inventory)…..is the vegetable gardener’s heritage. We are the stewards of this irreplaceable and sacred wealth with which we have been blessed. This Inventory will either be the vehicle for the preservation of these varieties or it will be a very clear window through which we will watch them disappear.”

(From a speech the second day) – “Yesterday was only the second time that I’ve ever spoken before any group, much less a group that’s half scientists, and to tell you the truth I was terrified. But all that has just faded away. It is really heartwarming to see the cooperation and understanding that is being displayed here.”

“…..In the early 70’s, my wife and I were living in the extreme NE corner of Iowa. Diane’s elderly grandfather was teaching us to garden and he gave me three heirloom varieties that his family had brought over from Bavaria five generations earlier. Well the old man didn’t make it through that Winter and I realized that if his seeds were to survive, it was up to me. I began to wonder just how many varieties died out that way each year…..About that same time I was lucky enough to come across the writings of Dr. Garrison Wilkes and Dr. Jack Harlan, which have had a great influence on me…..”

“…..at that point I had no idea how prevalent heirloom vegetable varieties might be. I knew the ones I had were excellent…..So I started writing letters to gardening magazines and by the end of the first year I had contacted and traded seeds with six other heirloom seed savers. One of the six – Lina Sisco – died the next spring, but by then three of us were growing the Bird Egg Bean that her grandmother had brought to Missouri in the 1880’s…..so that’s how the Seed Savers Exchange started and the more energy I poured into it the more it grew…..during the last six years approximately 800 different Members have offered an estimated 2,000 heirloom and unusual vegetable varieties to over 15,000 interested gardeners who have made an estimated 150,000 plantings of vegetable varieties that aren’t in any seed catalog and in many cases were on the edge of extinction. Even I can’t imagine the impact that this kind of an exchange is having…..”

“If I had to pick out the one thing that I enjoy most about my work, it would be helping folks find lost varieties…..It really makes me feel good when I receive warm letters from gardeners thanking me for helping them locate vegetable varieties for which they’ve been searching for up to forty years…..”

“Searching out heirloom vegetable varieties in isolated areas and ethnic communities across our country is an area in which laymen can make a very valuable contribution…..it is often essential to approach such folks on an equal basis, as a fellow gardener who is interested in seeing their treasures live on…..Yesterday I told you that there are currently about 3,500 vegetable varieties commercially available in the U. S. and Canada. From what I have seen there could easily also be that many excellent heirloom vegetable varieties being kept by backyard gardeners. So if we can keep the commercial varieties alive through these rough times, and if we can locate and make the heirloom varieties available to gardeners, we may be able to double the amount of diversity available to backyard gardeners…..just try to imagine what it would cost to develope that many varieties…..But it’s already there…..and all we have to do is save it…..”