Flood Damage and This Summer’s Gardens
Campout Speech by Kent Whealy, 1988
I want to welcome all of you to Seed Savers’ 18th annual Campout Convention. Each summer, on this next-to-last full weekend in July, our members gather at Heritage Farm for this special celebration, which is partly a convention and partly a reunion of old friends. Our first Campout was held in 1981 near Princeton, Missouri, when just 12 of our members attended and all of them camped out. One couple who were at that first Campout are here today, and I’d like to recognize them. Would Auburn and Clarice Cooper please stand. Auburn and Clarice have been to every one of our 18 Campout Conventions, and we’re really pleased to have them back with us again today. And special thanks to Clarice, who helps Arllys with Saturday morning registrations each year. I’d also like to have Thane and Corrine Earle please stand. Thane is a tomato collector from Wisconsin who has distributed extensively through the Seed Savers Exchange for many years, and has been to every Campout since my family moved to Decorah in 1984. I am very pleased that Thane and Corrine could be with us today. Indeed, we’re pleased to have many of our veteran Seed Savers back with us today, because they are the folks who helped build the Seed Savers Exchange during the organization’s early years, and they deserve our sincere thanks.
For some of you, this is your first visit to Heritage Farm. We want to welcome you and hope that you to feel at home while you’re here. Indeed, Heritage Farm is owned by the Seed Savers Exchange, and our members paid off Heritage Farm’s mortgages in only five years, so we really want you to feel like this is your home, too. While you’re here, I hope that each of you has time to wander through all of this summer’s gardens – which have never been more beautiful or more extensive – and keep in mind that all of Heritage Farm’s genetic preservation projects are supported by your membership fees, donations and purchases from Seed Savers catalogs of Heirloom Seeds and Gifts.
I’m very pleased to introduce this summer’s garden staff to all of you. Would Kathy Moen please stand. Kathy is our Garden Manager here at Heritage Farm, who has triple degrees from Iowa State in entomology, pest management and plant pathology. This is Kathy’s second year with Seed Savers, and she has done an fine job with all of the organic gardens here this summer, as you will quickly see as you look around. Except for Juliana’s four special gardens, Kathy and her crew are responsible for growing and harvesting 10 other gardens here at Heritage Farm this summer. I’d like to also intoduce the members of this summer’s garden crew: Kevin Kuehner, Melissa Wolfe, Gabe Church and Josh Twedt. I’ve never worked with a finer group of young people, and they will be around this weekend to answer your questions and help out when needed, so just look for their yellow name tags. Tomorrow morning, Kathy will be giving tours of her gardens and answering questions, for those of you who are scheduled to attend her workshops. (All of the hour-long tours and workshops are scheduled for 9:00 and are repeated at 10:30 tomorrow morning, with a half hour in between to travel to the second tour.) I hope that all of you will get a chance to meet Kathy this weekend and congratulate her on the excellent job she and her garden crew have done. And I’ll also be talking some more about Kathy’s gardens in my speech in just a moment.
Juliana, would you stand, please? This is Juliana Beiwel’s second season at Heritage Farm, after graduating from Iowa State in Horticulture. Last summer Juliana developed a permanent herb garden at the far end of the garden here beside the barn, which has been a real hit with the estimated 4,000 visitors who toured Heritage Farm last summer. Walking through all of those incredible aromas, especially on damp evenings, is always a real treat. This summer Juliana is continuing to refine and enlarge her herb garden. Juliana is also responsible for the Display Garden right beside the barn which, as the name implies, is used to display many of the varieties that are for sale in the gift shop. This summerJuliana designed the Flower Trial Garden over by the kiosk, and she also designed the Native American Three Sisters Garden beside the shed, which is a really fascinating project. Last winter Juliana visited Mike Scullin at Mankato State University (Minn.) who has grown several similar gardens, and he has supplied her with several authentic varieties. Additional varieties have been obtained from Heritage Farm’s collection and from the USDA’s Plant Introduction Station at Ames, Iowa. The varieties that will be on display this summer at Heritage Farm include five squash, four corns and three beans that were traditionally grown by the Arikara, Chippewa, Hidatsa, Mandan and Winnebago tribes. Mike and Juliana will be giving two workshops together on Sunday morning in Juliana’s Three Sisters Garden..
Would Arllys Adelmann please stand. Arllys started working for Seed Savers just after my family moved to Decorah in 1986. She is our Office Manager and keeps our entire office running as smoothly as possible, which is quite a feat considering the complexity and scope of everything that’s going on. Arllys’ main responsibilities involve Seed Savers’ membership records, renewals and membership publications, and she single-handedly compiles the Summer Edition and the Harvest Edition each year. She is also in charge of registration for the Campout, so all of you met Arllys as you checked in this morning.
I would also like to have Joanne Thuente stand. As I’ve said before, Joanne is sort of Seed Savers’ unsung hero. Each year she enters and updates all of your listings in the 460-page Seed Savers Yearbook, and she also enters all of the listings for The Flower and Herb Exchange. Joanne also has done all the data entry needed to compile and update three out of the four editions of the Garden Seed Inventory, and is currently working on our Fifth Edition which is a monumental task because of the large numbers of heirloom varieties that are being introduced. She also compiled both editions of the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory. Joanne and Arllys both carry extremely heavy loads, and their significant contributions to the organization never seem to be adequately recognized.
Kristi Mease, would you please stand. Kristi is a fairly new member of our office staff, who started working for Seed Savers last fall when the data entry for orders from the product and seed catalogs was in full swing. Kristi’s background is in inventory management, so she is gradually taking over more of our mail-order and inventory functions, and we are very pleased to have her as a full-time member of our staff.
I also want Diane Whealy to raise her hand. Diane coordinates all of the meals and the guest housing during the Campout, and also all of the other conferences and catered meals held each year at Heritage Farm. In addition to directing The Flower and Herb Exchange, Diane’s responsibilities are increasingly involved with product development, annually designing SSE’s mail-order product catalog and running Heritage Farm’s gift shops. She is also responsible for coordinating all of the garden tours at Heritage Farm each summer and gives many of the presentations and tours herself.
Aaron Whaley, would you please raise your hand? Aaron started working full-time for Seed Savers a couple of years ago, when he took over the potato tissue culture project on which John and Cindy Meyer worked so hard for about three years as volunteers. Aaron will be giving a potato tissue culture workshop on Sunday morning in his small lab in the basement of our new office facilities up the hill. He has about 400 varieties of heirloom potatoes growing in test tubes of gel, attempting to rid them of viruses. Aaron is also responsible for designing and publishing the color catalogs that SSE’s members receive each fall and winter. This summer Aaron is growing all of our potential commercial varieties in a Vegetable Evaluation Garden behind the barn and also in Juliana’s Flower Evaluation Garden.. These evaluative gardens are used to take an even closer look at varieties that have caught our eye, and also for collecting additional data, taking photos for our color catalogs and taste tests. This summer at Heritage Farm we are growing an additional 350 vegetables and 150 flowers for further evaluation. Aaron and I will be taking a lot of photos this summer, actually for the next three seed catalogs. So, this is a good opportunity to take a close look at many of the varieties that will be offered during the next few years in Seed Savers color catalogs. Revenue from those project-related sales is being used to help support the maintenance of Heritage Farm’s vast collections of seeds, which now include more than 18,000 varieties.
Last summer Aaron also started developing five large isolation gardens. The three that you will be able to easily see this weekend are in the Historic Orchard, at the far end of the gardens down the valley, and behind the root cellar up by the office. There are also two others at the log cabin in the back valley and one at the South farm, but those would take maps to get to. Eventually we hope to develop at least 10 of these isolation gardens in order to eliminate much of the labor-intensive hand-pollinations of corns and cucurbits, which are an incredible drain on staff time and finances. This summer’s isolation gardens also contain many of our most hopeful varieties from last summer’s trials, which are in the process of being multiplied into commercial quantities. Also, some of the varieties in the isolation gardens are being grown for “stock seed” (intermediate quantities) which are then sent to commercial growers who will contract-grow wholesale quantities for SSE’s catalogs. Sunday morning, I will be giving two workshops in the large isolation garden up in the far corner of Heritage Farm’s Historic Orchard, for those of you who wish to learn more about that new effort.
Bob Fullhart, would you please stand? Bob was a member of our garden crew last year, and this fall will be starting his junior year in Horticulture at South Dakota State in Brookings. This summer Bob has returned as our Orchard Manager, and has really done a fine job getting that project into fine shape. While you’re here, please take the time to visit Heritage Farm’s Historic Orchard, which is really beautiful this year. The orchard contains about 700 different varieties of old-time apples (mostly 19th century varieties), 200 breeding lines of hardy grapes from the collection of Elmer Swenson and also some older named varieties of grapes
Dan Bussey, will you please stand. Tomorrow morning Bob Fullhart and Dan Bussey will be giving a workshop in the Historic Orchard. Dan is an apple historian, and for the last two years he has been acting as our consultant for Heritage Farm’s Historic Orchard. Dan maintains about 400 varieties of apples himself and has an extensive library on apples, nearly everything that’s been published in this country and in Europe. Ever since I’ve known Dan, he’s been working on a book of apple histories and descriptions. We often hear it said that at the turn of the century there were more than 7,000 named varieties of apples in the U.S. Well, I’m sure that Dan has all of their descriptions in his computer. We have been talking about publishing a book that might focus on the heirloom apples in Seed Savers Historic Orchard.
John Swenson, will you please stand. Sunday morning John will be giving an allium workshop in the extensive planting down the valley. Several years ago John accompanied Phil Simon and other scientists from the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a plant collecting expedition to Central Asia where they collected rare varieties of “alliums” (the onion family). Seed Savers is currently maintaining about 150 different garlics, and quite a few rare allium species. Most of those have come to us because of John’s efforts. Many of those garlics are actually from the collection of Dr. Peter Hanelt, a taxonomist who has now retired from the seed bank at Gatersleben in eastern Germany. Starting about two decades ago, Gatersleben’s scientists made 10 collecting expeditions to Soviet Georgia within 12 years, because Georgia is the center of diversity for alliums. Now the Georgian seed bank has been completely flattened by civil war, but those garlics still exist at Gatersleben and here at Heritage Farm. John’s workshop will be especially interesting to those of you who have questions about how to harvest and replant the different types of vegetative alliums.
As most of you know, the Seed Savers Exchange is governed by a five-member board of directors. Besides Diane and myself, two of the other three members of our board are with us this weekend. Kevin Sand, would you please stand. Kevin, who is here with his wife Leslie, is a native of Decorah where he is a partner and chairman of Medical Associates, a group of family practitioners who are affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. Kevin is a past board member of the Forest Resources Center and various medical boards. He is a highly experienced gardener, orchardist and shiitake mushroom grower, and he has initiated several interesting projects involving reforestation, tree planting from seed, and the ecological restoration of damaged farmland. We are really pleased and fortunate to have Kevin on SSE’s Board.
I’d also like to have Neil Hamilton stand, please, who is here with his wife Khanh. Neil is the newest member of SSE’s Board of Directors. Those of you who were at the 1996 Campout heard Neil speak, and several of his articles have been reprinted in Seed Savers publications. Neil is the director of the Agricultural Law Center at the Drake University Law School in Des Moines, where he is the Ellis and Nelle Levitt Distinguished Professor of Law. Neil is also on the Advisory Board of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is currently on the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture. He’s a former consultant to the United Nations Development Program in China and also has been a consultant for the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England. We’re extremely pleased to have Neil on our board.
This year there will not be a workshop on Seed Savers’ herds of Ancient White Park cattle, but I would like to speak about them briefly. These cattle are an extremely rare English breed that dates back more than 2,000 years. Currently there are only about 500 of these cattle left in the world (mostly in England), with about 100 of those in the U.S., and about 30 of those here at Heritage Farm. Most of the U.S. herd is on the B-Bar Ranch in Montana, and we’ve been working with those folks on a breeding program to maximize the possible unique genetics of the U.S. population. We’re working with two breeding groups here at Heritage Farm, a total of 38 cows, although nine of those are heifers that were just added to the herds this spring and six of the really old cows are now too old to have calves: The larger herd is right here at Heritage Farm, and there is also another smaller herd on a farm a couple of miles away. Each June our friends in Montana bring us two young bulls, which were just let in with the cows yesterday. During April and May, 20 calves were born here at Heritage Farm. This year, there were 13 bulls and only 7 heifers, so the numbers weren’t in our favor this season. Also, there are some black calves this year, because the population carries a recessive gene for black, so if both of the parents are carrying the gene, there is a 25% chance that the calf will be black. All the mothers are extremely protective, and can be aggressive if you go near their calf. There are warning signs everywhere and barriers of electric fences, which are mainly for the people, not for the cattle. Still, I’d like to ask all of the parents here to please sternly warn your children not to climb any fences or open any gates. This is not a petting zoo, but it is a unique opportunity for everyone to get a close look at these handsome, ancient animals. If you see them coming down to the water fountain beside the barn, stand back and be quiet and just watch. The old cows, the ones with the largest horns, are the wildest and also the most shy, so they’ll get their drink very quickly and then leave immediately. But the others will stay around for quite a while, if nobody tries to get too close.
Again, I want to welcome all of you to Heritage Farm and urge you to take a close look at all of the projects – the beautiful Preservation Gardens stretching down the valley, Native American Three Sisters Garden, herb garden, display garden, Vegetable Evaluative Garden, Flower Evaluation Garden, isolation gardens, garlic collection, 19th century apples and hardy grapes in the Historic Orchard, potato tissue culture project and Ancient White Park cattle. I also hope that you are able to spend some time in our new office complex up the hill, which is air conditioned and will be open all weekend. So if it does get really hot this afternoon, which it might, you can walk up the steep path through the burr oak woods, or drive up, and just sit and relax in the attractive lobby or conference room or on the decks of Heritage Farm’s new offices.
I’d be willing to bet that some folks here today, like myself, are sick and tired of hearing everything blamed on El Niño. Is the weather really out of whack, or are even the oldest of us in this loft still too young to realize that we are just seeing normal extremes in weather cycles that should be measured in centuries? Obviously, I don’t know. Anyhow, last winter here in northeast Iowa was the warmest in recorded history. Instead of our normal couple of weeks with lows down to 35 below zero, we only had one night that was below zero, so we certainly have a wonderful crop of insects this summer. Last winter was also the second most overcast on record, so everyone was walking around even more depressed than usual. Then early this spring there was a month-long stretch of extremely warm temperatures, so we actually got everything planted about ten days early. But then it turned cool with rains that came in waves every two or three days, so all of the plants stopped growing and are now no longer ahead of schedule. It didn’t get hot and dry again until about a week ago, and now it appears that the heat is really going to kick in. Well, blame it on El Niño, if you must, but everyone growing crops always has to deal with the weather.
I had intended to talk today on “The History of the Heirloom Seed Movement.” My friend Gary Nabhan has been pushing me to write that book, so I thought writing a speech along those lines would get me started, but I just haven’t had time. I considered winging it, but two decades of complicated history is too extensive and complex for that, so I guess you’ll just have to wait for the book. Then three weeks ago tonight we had a flood here that was really quite incredible, so I decided to talk instead about that, and also all of the steps we go through during a typical season’s growout here at Heritage Farm, although this summer has been anything but typical.
Many of you saw Heritage Farm’s offices for the first time last night at the Reception for Early Arrivals. At a board meeting in October of 1992 in Tucson, we decided to pursue a $600,000 fund-raising drive to build our complex of offices and seed storage facilities. Seed Savers members donated half of that amount, and the remainder was supplied by foundation grants, mainly from The Kresge Foundation, Wallace Genetic Foundation and The Sol Goldman Charitable Trust.
In the basement of our offices are large cool-storage seed vaults, kept at 50 degrees F. and 40% humidity, where the seeds of 18,000 rare varieties of vegetables are stored. We also have a separate underground frozen seed vault – actually it’s a large walk-in freezer – where duplicate samples are kept as insurance against fires and tornadoes. Our seed storage is structured so that we have a five-growout sample of each variety in the cool storage vaults and another five-growout sample in the frozen vault. So we could conceivably fail five times before we have to dip into our frozen sample. Seeds in excess of those two samples are systematically being offered to Seed Savers members through annual listings in the Yearbook. We estimate that probably 1/3 of Heritage Farm’s collection has never been available to our members, so for the past three years Heritage Farm has been offering about 1,000 unique varieties through each Yearbook.
Heritage Farm’s collection has come to us from four main sources: 1) We go through each Yearbook and request varieties that we don’t have. 2) Joanne is currently working on the Fifth Edition of the Garden Seed Inventory, and when it is complete for the fifth time we will request seeds that are about to be dropped from mail-order catalogs. 3) Thousands of persons read about Seed Savers’ efforts and send their seeds directly to Heritage Farm for permanent maintenance. 4) And since 1993 Seed Savers has funded 12 collecting expeditions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Half of the samples collected are always left for the host country’s seed bank and the other half goes to Gatersleben in eastern Germany or to the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the samples are split again and half are shipped to Heritage Farm. So far we have received an estimated 4,000 traditional varieties from 30 Eastern countries, including varieties unlike any we have ever seen, Heritage Farm’s seed collections could never be re-collected, because of members who have died, seed from people who have never been members, and fighting in Eastern areas where we recently collected.
Heritage Farm’s collections have really gotten huge: 3,500 beans, 650 corns, 200 cucumbers, 140 eggplants, 150 garlics, 850 lettuces, 420 muskmelons, 950 peas, 1,200 peppers, 1,000 squash, 150 sunflowers, 4,100 tomatoes, and 220 watermelons. Actually those figures are a year and a half old, because I couldn’t find a current list and didn’t have time to run out a new one. And those figures also don’t include our 700 apples and 200 grapes, and the 400 potatoes being maintained in tissue culture.
After all of the seeds from the summer’s growout are processed in the fall, Kathy Moen spends most of the winter accessioning new varieties, mainly from Seed Savers members and from foreign collecting expeditions. In early spring, Kathy turns her attention to selecting the varieties that will be grown in the Preservation Gardens. We have always tried to grow 10% of everything each year, which formerly included 300 tomatoes and 300 beans, but our collections have now outgrown that. This year Kathy and I decided to grow 500 beans and 500 tomatoes, in an attempt to get ahead a little bit, but that meant that we wouldn’t have enough trellising materials.
During the last few years we have developed a trellising system that works well for our pole beans and pole tomatoes. Most of our gardens are 80’ wide, so we pound in a 6’ metal t-post at 8’ intervals down the row. Then we attach 8’ panels of concrete reinforcing wire that are 5’ tall (the kind that’s 10-gauge wire with 6” square holes and comes in 150’ rolls). The panels are held to the posts with reuseable ½” wide black plastic Adjust-A-Ties, that we order from A. M. Leonard. The pole beans easily climb the wire panels, but we use twine strings and keep tying the tomato plants back against the panels, weaving strings horizontally about every 12” as the plants grow upwards. We use the same panels for our peas, but plant a double row (one on each side of the panel) and keep training them so that the tendrils reach through the panels and grab the plants on the other side.
Since we were growing 200 extra beans and 200 extra tomatoes this summer, we needed 400 additional 8’ wire panels. Last year Seed Savers finally bought a used pickup truck, so I made a couple of trips to Menards in Rochester, Minnesota which saved us about $500. It took the garden crew a couple of weeks to cut all of the new panels with bolt cutters and then flatten them out, which was a tough job but they stayed right with it and did a great job.
We’ve always kept the Preservation Gardens at Heritage Farm organic. We’re not actually certified organic, but we use all natural products. This year we added a fertilizer injecter to the watering system in the greenhouse. Kathy bought several cases of liquid organic fertilizer that was mostly fish. The fertilizer is poured into a small holding tank and then the injection system is turned on every couple of days as we water the plants. There was a significant increase in plant size and strength over last year, especially with the tomatoes, but the pepper transplants were still a bit smaller than we had hoped. We still haven’t quite got the process down yet, but next year it should be perfect.
Heritage Farm is almost on the Minnesota border, so our frost free date is May 20-25. As I said, this spring the weather stayed really warm, so we planted all of our transplants about two weeks earlier than usual. I brought in a crew of Amish carpenters who replaced the rotten boards around the bottoms of our 125 pepper cages, which are now in perfect shape again. Also, we always have a real problem with early blight in our tomatoes, which gradually defoliates the plants from the bottom up. Early blight isn’t seed borne, it’s in the soil, and the spores are splash born. So if you can lay down a mulch that keeps the rain or irrigation from splashing the soil onto the bottoms of the leaves, early blight can largely be controlled. We’ve had problems before buying straw that wasn’t clean, which sprouted into a lovely crop of oats, but this year we found a fellow west of Decorah who sold us 400 bales of the cleanest straw I’d ever seen. And, for the first time ever, the garden crew got all of the tomatoes mulched before there was any splashing.
Two years ago we developed several new large gardens down the valley, which almost doubled our available garden space. Eventually we hope to develop a third set of gardens, either inside the enclosure around the Historic Orchard or in the field behind the root cellar. That third set of gardens will allow us to systematically rotate our gardens, letting about one-third rest each year. By tilling in cover crops, we hope to rebuild the fertility in our original gardens which have been used for almost a decade. That’s the plan, eventually, but this year, with the additional beans and tomatoes, all of the gardens were completely filled again. Kathy and her garden crew did an excellent job of transplanting, trellising and mulching. After almost six weeks of hard work, they conpletely finished on Friday evening, three weeks ago yesterday. After work, they all went in to the Whippy Dip, an ice cream drive-in in Decorah, to celebrate, on us. They were deservedly proud of the excellent job they had done.
Diane and I walked through all of the gardens on that Friday evening, and we both commented that the gardens had never looked more beautiful and the plantings had never been more extensive. All of the tomato plants were really stocky and healthy with no sign of blight. The rows of trellising stretched all of the way through the largest garden in the valley, which is almost one-quarter mile long. Our plantings always alternate with a bush row and then a pole row, and within each row it alternates with a bean and then a tomato, so there are no problems with any mixing. The straw mulch was thick and bright around each panel of tomatoes. The weeds were starting to come, because the constant rains had kept the soil too wet to till. But the garden crew had weeded all of the plants in the rows, and eventually it was bound to dry up enough to till. The gardens just looked great.
During the day on Saturday, a storm was steadily building. Around here most of the summer storms build vertically with towering thunderheads and then heavy rains. But the really bad storms roll in as a low black wall of clouds from the northwest. As wall after wall rolls over, the temperature drops immediately and often the clouds turn an odd color, with shades of brown and sometimes even dull green. Often, as these threatening walls of clouds are rolling over, it’s completely calm which is even more eerie. I absolutely love watching storms, so I was sitting out in a porch swing in the early evening, watching these incredible walls of clouds roll over from the west, waiting for the rain.
All of a sudden a huge black wall of clouds came over the hill from the north, which surprised me, and the storm cut loose. Right then a car roared down our drive, screeched to a halt, and terrified young guy with a long ponytail who I’d never seen before asked if it was alright to wait out the storm, as he ran by me into our house. The lightning was amazing, like constantly flashing strobe lights. Most of the winds were measured at 80 mph and some nearby towns had gusts up to 120. The television was warning that a tornado had been sighted near Burr Oak, which is only about five miles across country from Heritage Farm, but we never heard the tornado. The live radar on the television was really impressive – a solid red line of storms half-a-county-wide from near Minneapolis, all the way across Iowa and down into Missouri. I’d never seen that before.
The porch swing was out of the wind and rain, so Aaron and I sat there and watched the storm, while Diane and Jessie checked the storm warnings. The young fellow came out for about a minute, but then said it was just too weird for him and went back into the house. For more than an hour it rained as hard as I’ve ever seen. Finally the winds calmed, but it kept raining hard. Aaron was afraid that his Vegetable Evaluation Garden behind the barn might be washing. We always use the tractor’s tiller to cut a ditch along the edge of the garden nearest to the barn, but if it rains too hard the water just jumps the ditch and sometimes washes out part of the plantings. So Aaron took the pickup and drove down to the barn to check his garden.
A few minutes later, Aaron came back and said we had to all come with him to see what was happening. Diane and Jessie and I hopped into the pickup and we drove down behind the barn. Along the bluff and the pond, below the front gardens, there’s a streambed that’s usually almost dry, about 20’ across and 6’ deep in the middle. Aaron turned the pickup a bit sideways so that it’s lights were pointed toward the stream, and there was a raging white-capped river that was out of its banks! The rain was so heavy that the headlights couldn’t shine very far, so we turned the lights off and could see quite a distance when the lightning flashed. The campground was completely under water, but we couldn’t see far enough to tell if the water was washing through the gardens down the valley. Most of the water still appeared to be following the stream. We couldn’t drive to those gardens either, because another stream where there had never been one before, was flowing around the other side of the pond and cut us off. We watched for a quarter of an hour, but never could really see the gardens down the valley. The water was slowly coming up toward us, so we decided to leave while we could, and drove back up to the house. We watched the local newscasters for awhile, because they can be rather humorous when they get excited, but the worst of the storm was over so we all went to bed. It rained most of the night.
The next morning was foggy for just a bit, like it usually is after a heavy rain, but the morning sun quickly burned off the fog. The sky was blue and cloudless, and we could see from our back porch that the stream was back down, only half filling its banks. We had a leisurely breakfast and then all went for a walk. Aaron’s garden behind the barn had washed a little bit, but not too bad. I climbed up on the deck behind the barn, looked down the valley, and the gardens appeared to be gone!
We had to wade through the little stream to get down the valley to the gardens, but then couldn’t believe our eyes. The first 200’ of the gardens were completely washed away. Several years ago we had used a backhoe to dig in an underground irrigation line, and all of the dirt in that trench was gone, and all of the 4 x 4” risers were almost washed out. The stream had flowed out of its banks and cut a 50’ wide swath along the entire one-quarter mile length of the largest garden. We lost a tremendous amount of topsoil. In the center of the swath, up to three feet of soil is gone, in some places leaving only rock. In one spot it appeared that two currents had come together and swirled, and a crater the size of a car was washed right down to the rock. The crossing to the campground was completely washed out, and just yesterday we finally got a temporary crossing put in so that you can get across to camp.
Several huge logs (some 4’ across and others 20’ long) had floated through and torn out the trellises and the irrigation system. Several of the logs were from a storm in 1994 – when a tornado jumped right over the top of our house – that blew down some huge trees across the road. The county crew cut the trees into huge pieces and used a large front-loader to shove them down into the ditch. The beaver dams, holding back a couple of acres of shallow ponds across the road, broke during this summer’s storm. Maybe that surge was enough to carry those logs down to where they had to make a 90 degree turn, and then pushed them through the dual 8 x 8’ concrete culverts under the road. Anyhow, logs were laying everywhere in the gardens and there were huge deposits of gravel dumped in various places. There were dead fish all around and even some crawdads. Hundreds of white fiberglass marker stakes were just washed away. Some of the logs were covered with twisted masses of wire panels. The third of the trellises that were still standing were also heavily damaged, with the mulch crushing the plants against the bowed wire panels. The water had also washed under the panels, and many of the tomato plants were hanging on by a thread.
We were all sort of in shock. We just couldn’t believe it. It just made us sick. Josh and his family came out that weekend, but none of other garden crew knew what had happened. Diane and I met with Kathy and her crew on Monday morning, warned them that there had been quite a bit of damage, and then took them for a walk. They all just drooped, like a heavy weight had been put on their shoulders. I kept them all working in the gardens up by the road for a couple of days so they wouldn’t have to look at that incredible damage. It was tough on all of them, probably like a farmer standing in a field that has been leveled by hail or burying livestock after a barn fire. But they’ve all bounced back. As I said, I’ve never worked with a better group of young people.
As you walk through the gardens down the valley this weekend, try to image what it looked like before the flood, because that entire garden was completely filled with trellises like the ones that remain along the back side. And as you stand on the road by that garden, try to imagine the amount of soil that was lost, because that garden used to be level from the edge of the road over to the remaining trellises. And if you want to see how beautiful the trellises and the plants and the mulch all looked, just walk through Garden B, up along the road and by the driveway to the farmhouse.
You know, I’ve started writing all of the local newspaper articles about Seed Savers myself, but even that doesn’t always help. Twice so far this year their typos have changed Heritage Farm’s “genetic” preservation projects to Heritage Farm’s “generic” preservation projects. The newspaper article about the flood also contained a notice for a “Cleanup Day” which was held two weeks later when the soil had dried out. I want to thank Bob Watson and Cliff Fjelstul, two of our friends who helped with the cleanup and are here today, and also all of our staff and their spouses who really pitched in. Kathy and I had flagged all of the varieties that were salvageable. We also salvaged all of the panels that we could, and probably only lost about 30. I used the bucket on our tractor to haul all of the logs and wood into a big pile to dry out. We plan to have a huge bonfire later this summer to exorcise all of Heritage Farm’s demons (not exercise them, but exorcise them).
As I get older, I’ve become sort of a reluctant optimist, and in a case like this you find yourself looking for things that could have made it worse. Almost all of the pepper cages were up by the road, had just spent $3,000 for the Amish to repair them, would have been completely wrecked. Last year transplanted the Allium collection on down the valley, last year had been planted right where the worst of the washing occurred. Wouldn’t that have been something, material from Soviet Georgia that Gatersleben unknowingly rescued before the Georgian Seed Bank was flattened by civil war, now Gatersleben is slowly being dismantled, material makes it to Heritage Farm with John Swenson’s help, and then washes down the Mississippi.
Old timers who have been here since the 1920s have never seen this happen. Soil completely saturated.
Just a couple of the rows of the pea planting were somewhat damaged. Also the gardens here that are essentially for photography weren’t touched – Garden C, Flower Evaluation Garden, Vegetable Evaluation Gardens, which were planted to supply the photos for Heritage Farm’s next three seed catalogs, and the success of those catalogs will provide much of the future revenue needed to maintain Heritage Farm’s collection.
This summer we were growing about 1,600 varieties for seed renewal, including 500 tomatoes, 500 beans, 125 peppers, 150 peas, 60 soybeans, and so on. About 400 of the tomatoes and 400 of the beans were in the large garden down the valley, and the flood washed out about half of those, 200 tomatoes and 200 beans. But probably only a dozen of those 400 varieties do we not have plenty of extra seed to retry. As I mentioned earlier, the collection is structured so that we have a five-growout sample in the cool storage vaults and a five-growout sample in a separate underground freezer. So we can have floods four more years in a row before we have to start dipping into the frozen samples. (Goodness, that’s a terrible thought.) Actually we are intending to abandon this closest end of the damaged garden, and then cut a fake channel with a dike behind it so that any future floods will curve around and shoot back into the stream.
And this is what Heritage Farm is all about – maintaining this incredible seed collection across time. And it really is an incredible collection – a gardener’s collection. Heritage Farm’s seed collection is actually the foundation for many of the genetic preservation projects and alternative seed companies in the U.S. today We are propping all of that up. We are fueling all of that with our heirloom varieties. We are largely responsible for making all of that possible. Indeed, the future of gardening in America is steadily emerging from Heritage Farm’s collections.
Actually, it’s too soon for me to be talking about the history of the heirloom seed movement, because it’s really just getting started. When you see the giants of the seed industry, for example, putting out a Burpee’s Heirloom Catalog, you know we have their attention. We have already changed the way that people in America garden. We have awakened gardeners in this country to their true heritage, and that’s an incredible accomplishment for our organization. I think that all of us who are deeply involved with Seed Savers deserve to be rather proud of what has already been accomplished, but actually we are just now hitting our stride. Before this is over, we will have created the most intense wave of horticultural interest that this country has seen since the golden age of gardening a century ago. It’s really wonderful to see all of you here, and to be able to share the excitement of what is taking place right now at Heritage Farm. Indeed, Heritage Farm wouldn’t be here without your support.