1986 Speech to the NPGRB Fort Collins

Kent Whealy · Speech to the National Plant Genetic Resources Board, Fort Collins, Colorado · October 9, 1986

My name is Kent Whealy and I am the Director of a grass-roots network of backyard vegetable gardeners known as the Seed Savers Exchange. I have been working for the last 12 years to build this network of gardeners who are either keeping or interested in the preservation of older food crops. I appreciate the fact that you have invited me to speak to the National Plant Genetic Resources Board. I stand before you today with a great amount of respect, realizing full well that many of you have spent your entire professional careers working with and promoting genetic preservation.

I come to you not as a scientist or plant breeder, but as a backyard gardener. I grew up in one of the 40 million families in the U.S. who grow part of their own food, so the love of gardening was instilled in me as a child. Much later, about 15 years ago, I was entrusted with some family heirloom seeds. My wife’s grandfather gave me the seed of three garden plants that his family had brought over from Bavaria four generations before. Well, the old fellow passed away that winter and I realized that if his seeds were to survive, it was up to me. I wondered how many other gardeners in this country might be keeping seeds that their families brought with them when they immigrated. And I also wondered how often, when elderly gardeners pass away, the seeds which they had bred up and selected for a lifetime might sit in a jar in a shed somewhere until they died too. So I decided to try to locate other gardeners who were also keeping heirloom seeds.

About that same time I was lucky enough to come across the writings of Dr. Jack Harlan, recently retired Professor of Plant Genetics at the University of Illinois, and Dr. Garrison Wilkes, Professor of Genetics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, who recently returned from CIMMYT near Mexico City where he spent his sabbatical reorganizing the world corn collections. Like many of you, these two scientists have been trying for decades to warn the public about the dangers of genetic erosion. But it is hard to motivate the public even in situations where they can see that they are in danger. And problems involving genetic erosion are so abstract that it seems to almost make them invisible. So I think that the Seed Savers Exchange, in which I have been able to educate and motivate nearly 1,000 laymen to work together on projects involving genetic diversity, is actually a major accomplishment.

During these past 12 years I’ve discovered that heirloom vegetable varieties aren’t common, but they are also not all that rare. Whenever people immigrated to the United States, the gardeners and farmers among them invariably brought seeds with them. This has provided our country with a wealth of food crops that could never have been duplicated by foreign plant exploration and introduction. And this heritage of seeds that have always just been traded over the garden fence, has provided the raw material for a centuries-old tradition of backyard plant breeding which produced a vast wealth of garden varieties that fill the commercial seed catalogs to this day.

The Seed Savers Exchange has focused on trying to locate gardeners who are keeping seeds of vegetable varieties that are family heirlooms, traditional Indian crops, garden varieties of the Mennonite and Amish, varieties that have been dropped from all catalogs, outstanding foreign varieties – essentially any vegetable seeds that are not available commercially here in the U. S. We have found that whenever we go into an area where people are really isolated, we often find a real treasure-trove of seeds. That isolation can take various forms. Often it is geographical. The rugged backwoods areas of the Ozarks and the Smokies and the Appalachians and the mountains of the Blue Ridge are extremely rich in heirloom varieties. Poverty in these areas keeps many people saving their own seed. Isolation can also be religious and ever so slowly we are starting to see among our members more Mennonite, Amish, Dunkard and Hutterite gardeners. And as trust has built in the Seed Savers Exchange, we are also beginning to gain more Indian members. I am particularly pleased with this because many Indian peoples are often very reluctant to share their seeds. They believe that their seeds are sacred, and well they should because seeds are the sparks of life that feed us all.

I have been quite successful in locating gardeners who are keeping heirloom seeds and have organized them into an annual seed exchange. We publish a Winter Yearbook each January, and 1986 was our eleventh year. This is a copy of The 1986 Winter Yearbook. It’s 250 pages long, contains the names and addresses of our 630 members, lists of the seeds each has to trade, and lists of varieties they are trying to locate. This publication has grown to the point where our members are now offering about 4,000 different strains through each yearbook. During these past 11 years, our members have made seed available for an estimated 300,000 plantings of varieties that were usually not available from any commercial source and many of which were literally on the edge of extinction. It is difficult even for me to imagine the impact that this type of an exchange is having. And the material we have been able to locate thus far represents really just the tip of the iceberg. Even with 630 members that’s an average of only about a dozen per state. Try to imagine what is still out there, at least for the time being. As a gardener I find our successes quite exciting, because it is quite possible that the efforts of our small dedicated group may double the diversity available to backyard gardeners.

This unique heritage of seeds has never been systematically collected on a large scale in this country. Almost all government plant exploration focuses on foreign collecting. One of the most lasting contributions to be made by the Seed Savers Exchange may be the fielding of several hundred local plant explorers. Many breeders are becoming quite excited about what we have already uncovered, because it is material that they have never seen before, much less been able to work with. We have distributed material to several state breeding programs, such as Dr. Fred Bliss’ bean breeding program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Many of the older varieties have characteristics which may be useful in modern breeding programs. For instance, some of Dr. Bliss’ work involves breeding upright bean plants that are about 24” tall that can be machine harvested. A lot of the older varieties have really rank stems, so they have been able to incorporate that characteristic from our material into their breeding in an architectural application.

That should give you a fairly good idea of how the Seed Savers Exchange is working to save this unique heritage of heirloom vegetables. About five years ago I also became concerned about another group of endangered vegetable seeds, and those are the commercial varieties which are currently being dropped from seed catalogs. Many of my members were coming to me quite saddened because some of their favorite varieties were being dropped and they knew of no alternate sources. As consolidation within the seed industry increased, it seemed that these losses were escalating. But no overall view of the seed industry existed which would let us see if those varieties had really been dropped completely. It seemed to me that the only way to get a true picture of what was going on would be to inventory the entire U.S. and Canadian seed industry.

In the spring of 1981 I started trying to obtain every mail-order catalog, no matter how small or obscure. That summer I purchased computer equipment and spent the next three years compiling an inventory of 239 seed catalogs from the U.S. and Canada. It was published as a 448-page book entitled The Garden Seed Inventory which lists nearly 6,000 non-hybrid varieties that are still being offered in the U.S. and Canada. Each listing includes the variety name, range of days to maturity, a list of all its known sources, and the plant’s description. The Inventory’s greatest value is that it shows which varieties are in the most danger before they are dropped completely. It shows all of the alternative sources for each variety so that gardeners and preservation projects are able to buy up these endangered commercial varieties while sources still exist and then permanently maintain them.

The Garden Seed Inventory has made it possible for the first time to accurately assess which varieties are being dropped and how quickly. As it grew towards completion it became increasingly more fascinating and more frightening. Fascinating because, when viewing the entire garden seed industry in detail, the diversity and quality and number of garden varieties now being offered commercially is almost beyond belief. But it was also quite frightening because, it is now apparent that over 48% of all non-hybrid garden seeds are available from only one source out of 239 companies. (Now when I say that, I don’t mean from one “particular” company. I mean that those varieties are down to being offered by one “random” company out of 239 possible sources.) And if you add in the varieties that are down to being offered by just two sources, that figure goes up to right at 60%

Although the study hasn’t been going long enough to draw any really firm conclusions, it appears that each year we are losing about 5% of everything that is commercially available. But that figure doesn’t really reflect the overall decrease in availability. Many of the varieties, which are now available from one or two sources, were available from six or more sources when I began this study in 1981. And most of those companies dropped these varieties during the last two or three years. In other words, it appears that the sources of supply for these seeds have already disappeared. Although many of these varieties have not yet been dropped completely, they will be as soon as those few companies sell out their remaining supply of the seeds. An almost unbelievable amount of loss is possible within the next few years. Hopefully an immediate and systematic effort can still rescue most of these endangered varieties.

There has been only one other complete U.S. inventory of commercially available food plants. In 1903 the USDA published a book entitled American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902 by W. W. Tracy, Jr. It included variety names and sources, but no descriptions. This earlier inventory has been studied in depth and then compared to printouts of what is being kept here in the National Seed Storage Lab. Only three percent of everything available commercially in 1902 still survives today in this government collection. It’s depressing to see the huge lists of garden varieties available at the turn of the century and realize that almost all of them have been lost forever. Imagine the tremendous amount of unique material that would still be available for breeders to work with today, if that earlier USDA inventory had been updated annually and if endangered varieties had been systematically procured and maintained. During the first half of this century many of the varieties being dropped had been superseded by superior ones, but I don’t think that has really been the case over the last 20 years or so. I feel that most of the losses that are occurring right now are due solely to economic conditions. And, looking at this situation from a gardener’s viewpoint, the varieties currently being dropped from commercial availability along with the heirloom varieties may well be the best garden varieties that we will ever see, because so much of today’s breeding focuses entirely on commercial applications.

At this point, even with a tool like The Garden Seed Inventory, we are just picking up the remaining pieces, but we must at least do that and do it quickly. I intend to update this inventory every couple of years. We are using profits from the book to buy up endangered varieties and I have developed a Growers Network of several hundred gardeners who are adopting many of these varieties for permanent maintenance. I know that some people working at the various Plant Introduction Stations are using the Inventory to purchase these endangered varieties while sources still exist. That is an easy and even relatively inexpensive way to improve existing collections. A good example of material that is available right now, but probably won’t be for long, are the Chinese Cabbages. There is a tremendous amount of Oriental material currently flowing into this country. But most of it is coming through just a few small specialty companies and in many cases these varieties are only listed for a single year.

The Central Seed Collection [base collection] that I am personally keeping for the Seed Savers Exchange now numbers in excess of 5,000 varieties. About a third of these are endangered commercial varieties that we have been buying up these last couple of years using The Garden Seed Inventory. The remainder of these are seeds which our members have sent to me, most of which have never been available commercially. Only about 20% have been permanently “adopted” by our Growers Network, so each of these last two summers we have rented five acres of rich bottomland and grown out up to 2,000 varieties. This has included about 300 beans and tomatoes and squash, as well as over 100 varieties each summer of potatoes, corns, muskmelons, watermelons, peppers, and also smaller amounts of peas, lettuce, and many other crops. All of the corns and all of the cucurbits were hand-pollinated. We also have been caging all of the peppers after reading some new studies from New Mexico which reported that, under some conditions, populations of peppers can cross as much as 80%. Our garden projects have been funded these last two summers by Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

The thing that has impressed me the most about these gardens was the effect that they had on people who came to view them. When we take a tour out into a garden where there are 2,000 different varieties growing, the excitement that it generates in those gardeners is amazing. Time and again we’d see people walk into that garden, their mouths would fall open, and then they’d start looking and just couldn’t stop. We can all talk about the loss of genetic diversity until we’re blue in the face, but it’s so abstract that most people fail to even recognize it as a threat. But if we take those same people into that garden, show them hundreds of unique varieties, and tell them that most would be extinct except for our protecting them – then they understand. And I don’t think that anything that we can do will ever take the place of “showing” people genetic diversity. And I urge all of you to think about using tours of government growouts and facilities as a tool for both education and public relations.

The Seed Savers Exchange is currently in the process of buying a small farm near Decorah, Iowa which we intend to set up as an exemplary Preservation Farm. There we will continue to grow our huge gardens and also hope to build a system of special greenhouses and large underground root cellars. We also intend to plant large apple orchards of older historic varieties, hoping to focus on some that might fall through the cracks as existing collections are transferred into the new clonal repositories. Several years from now we hope to also add at least a token representation of rare poultry and minor livestock breeds as a way of supporting organizations that focus on preservation in those areas. We hope that young people will come during the summer to learn and to work in the gardens as apprentices. Eventually I hope to see a network of such Preservation Farms, each maintaining plant materials in different climates and sharing data via computers.

Well, that’s a brief description of what the Seed Savers Exchange is all about. Our main focus has always been and will continue to be heirloom vegetable varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation within certain families. This is a heritage of garden seeds that hasn’t been collected, at least not extensively. And I think that this is the area where the Seed Savers Exchange can make the greatest contribution to government collections. As we continue to grow this material out, I would like to get an increase of anything that interests you into government collections. Not only will this provide frozen backup for our efforts, but we are such a small organization that it is beyond our capabilities to distribute material to breeders. That is a regular part of your activities, so just getting some of this material into government collections would accomplish that for us.

We are presently trying to develop lists of descriptors and also common photographic techniques for all of our members to use. We have been using descriptor lists from IBPGR, from your Crop Advisory Committees, and even PVP descriptors as models. But it is a real problem trying to develop a list of less than 20 descriptors that will give us a good amount of data and yet simple enough to be used by an 80-year-old grandmother in her backyard. We have developed lists so far for tomatoes and beans. I realize that it will take sitting down with a sympathetic professional to develop the set of descriptors for each individual crop. I imagine that some of you could point me towards people, possibly in the CACs, who would be willing to help us develop those lists of descriptors. What’s actually happening right now is that the Seed Savers Exchange is becoming a huge network of nearly 700 trial gardens. And that has a tremendous potential value as people grow out this material and report on how well it’s doing in different parts of the country.

During these last twelve years, I have put together a network of over 1,000 growers, instilled in them a deep concern for the loss of genetic diversity, and developed programs that have all of them working on a grass-roots level to prevent its loss. They are an incredibly diverse group, which includes: university breeders and researchers; elderly backyard gardeners and hobbyists; amateur plant explorers maintaining hundreds of varieties; rooftop gardeners in New York City growing on heirloom tomato; traditional peoples – Mennonites in the Northeast and Indians in the Southwest – who are still growing their people’s seeds; and farm families of every ethnic background. This incredible diversity among our members has inherent strengths and weaknesses. Its greatest advantage, besides just the strength of our numbers, is that the collections all of these people are keeping are extremely decentralized which helps prevent catastrophic loss. Its greatest disadvantage lies in having no sure way to ascertain the skill levels of growers that I may possibly never meet.

But as I travel this country meeting the larger growers within our organization, it quickly becomes apparent where the real talent lies. There are half a dozen young collectors in this country who are keeping truly magnificent collections and are personally growing out up to 1,000 varieties each season. Many of them are already growing out a substantial number of government varieties each summer and returning seed to government facilities. These are highly motivated young people who love working with their specialties, but often have to endure tremendous hardships due to a complete lack of financial assistance and also a lack of time because they cannot yet afford to be full time growers. I have often wondered if it might not be possible for government programs to use the best of our growers to help regenerate government seed stocks. I know that it costs the government programs a substantial amount to contract out this renewal. The figure that I heard here yesterday was an average of about $75 per accession. We grew out 2,000 accessions last year for a total cost of under $5,000 using volunteer help. This year we have grown larger plantings of about 1,200 accessions for a total cost of under $9,000 and that was using paid help. It just seems to me that a little bit of support might yield huge benefits for all concerned.

I know that your initial concern would involve determining the level of competency of these growers. But computer technology has now progressed to the point that a lot of the data is now taken in the garden on handheld computer pods. By incorporating benchmark varieties into our growers’ plantings that are also being grown by your technicians, you could evaluate our growers’ skill levels and even monitor them during the season. You could bring some of these growers into the PI stations for workshops and train them. During a period of budget cutting that is crippling your ability to regenerate your collections, our networks of growers are a resource that you can not afford to ignore.

Several scientists that I have talked to recently are also quite concerned that there seem to be no young breeders coming up through the ranks to fill positions in the public sector. The real talent is being syphoned off to high-paying private industry positions. Many of the truly great breeders whose work is almost legendary – Charlie Rick comes immediately to mind – are approaching retirement or are already semi –retired. When they are gone, it will create a void that will be extremely hard to fill. I would be willing to bet that several of the people who are currently deeply involved in our organization may eventually make a substantial contribution towards filling that void. And your encouragement and support and even training over the next few years could produce substantial results over the long run.

The Seed Savers Exchange is just beginning to mature as an organization. And I believe that we represent a human and a genetic resource that many of you are only starting to think about seriously. Already our members’ holdings could substantially increase and improve government seed collections, especially in many of the minor food crops. My role involves educating several thousand gardeners each year to the problems involving genetic erosion and then developing grass-roots projects which will translate their concern into workable solutions. When you took me through the National Seed Storage Lab yesterday, you were also taking along the 4,000 gardeners who will eventually read about the Lab in our publications. Our members could help you in your attempts to secure increased funding for national genetic preservation programs. They are deeply concerned about the loss of genetic resources and are already involved. Our members carry the legacy of a centuries-old tradition of backyard plant breeding that is no longer being utilized. It is my sincere hope that in the coming years the Seed Savers Exchange will be able to make a valuable and lasting contribution to genetic preservation in this country.