A Letter to SSE’s Members

By Kent Whealy, Spring, 1989 Introduction

Several years ago I met Wendell Berry for the first time when he spoke at Luther College. He mentioned being impressed by the energetic, fast pace of the folks around here. I told him, “Heck, Wendell, they’re just cold, that’s all.” Our long winters, where this corner of Iowa borders Minnesota and Wisconsin, result in an almost frantic burst of activity during the growing season. Everyone throws themselves into their projects as soon as the weather clears in the spring. Summer flies by in a blur. Suddenly it’s Labor Day, our children are starting back to school and fall is in the air. Seed harvest at Heritage Farm will continue for another frenzied month until the first hard freeze. All too soon the snow will be flying again, giving everyone time to reflect on what was achieved during this season.

Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory

Looking back at what has already been accomplished this year, both in SSE’s office and at Heritage Farm, I’m quite pleased. This is the second spring in a row that SSE’s staff has published a major book. We sent the transcript for our Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory to a printer in Michigan last April. Data entry had started nearly a year earlier, and the editing process consumed the last five months of the project. While the book was at the printer, SSE’s office staff mailed out nearly 50,000 pro¬motional brochures. We finished the promotion of the book in late May, just when the irrigation and plumbing projects at the farm were gearing up. That work was completed right before our Campout Convention in late July, which caused this issue to be a couple of months later than anticipated.

Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory is by far SSE’s best publishing effort to date. Its reviews have been excellent and sales have been brisk. Completing the book reasonably on schedule was gratifying in several respects. For the first time, SSE’s enlarged office staff and powerful new computer system were truly put to the test. The project gave us our first glimpse of SSE’s capabilities and what we will be able to accomplish in the future.

The completion of the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory is analogous to pouring the final section of the foundation upon which all of SSE’s future work will be constructed. The book, which provides complete access to all of the mail-order nurseries in the U.S., will be invaluable as we develop the Historic Orchard at Heritage Farm. Its publication also represents a turning point for SSE, because our focus has now expanded as far as we intend to let it. The strength of our office staff and computers will now be focused back in on our members and their collections. We intend to spend the next year tying up a thousand loose ends, getting our members’ publications on schedule, continuing to develop our Curator’s Network, publishing our first Plant Profiles and varietal data, writing grants for the final phase of Heritage Farm, and refocusing on the original goals of the organization.

Heritage Farm’s Mortgage Is Paid Off

In November of 1986, SSE purchased a 57-acre farm five miles north of Decorah, Iowa. The purchase was made with a $110,000 low interest loan from the Warsh-Mott Legacy. At the time there was debate within SSE concerning the organization’s ability to pay off such a sizable debt. During the fall of 1987 and again a year later, the Wallace Genetic Foundation made two $15,000 challenge grants to SSE’s members. The response from our members was almost beyond belief. I am pleased to report that 26 months after SSE purchased Heritage Farm, we were able to pay off the mortgage in full.

I’ve always thought that the word mortgage probably represented a gage of how much people can pay before they mort. Well, that certainly wasn’t the case with Heritage Farm. Diane and I and all of SSE’s staff who are working so hard on these projects, want to sincerely thank everyone who donated toward paying off the farm. We are also deeply grateful to the Warsh-Mott Legacy for believing so strongly in our work and to the Wallace Genetic Foundation for their continuing support. Once again our members have shown that they are indeed a very special group of folks. Because of your generosity, the genetic preservation projects of the Seed Savers Exchange will have a home at Heritage Farm forever.

Underground Irrigation System

During the summer of 1988, crops in Northeast Iowa and much of the Upper Midwest were burned by the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. The gardens at Heritage Farm were lush, however, because they were watered from the 200′ well beside the farmhouse. David Cavagnaro and I systematically dragged about 300′ of hose and one rainbird sprinkler around the huge gardens. I would start the sprinkler in the early morning, David moved it all day long, and I would take over again in the evening after returning from SSE’s office. We watered from 6:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. for about six weeks. We were lucky that the well did not go dry. Also I was worried about David, because the arm he used to drag the hose soon measured 6″ longer than his other one.

There is a one-acre pond about 100 yards behind the barn at Heritage Farm. A strong spring comes up in the pond which constantly overflows. It forms a small pool where our White Park cattle drink, and then joins other smaller springs to form a stream that meanders down the valley. We were afraid that this summer might bring another drought and dreamed about an irrigation system that would pump from the pond. During the latter part of May, the funding and the building materials and the workers were all in place, and the digging began.

Our winter temperatures sometimes drop to 35 degrees below zero which can freeze the ground down 5′ or more. The cost of burying an irrigation system below the frost line would have been prohibitive. One alternative was an above ground system of clip-together aluminum pipes, but such systems require considerable time for annual assembly, disassembly and storage. Aluminum systems can also be a real hassle in an area with lots of equipment and vehicle traffic, which is common around our barn in the summertime. A drip system was out of the question, because our gardens contain nearly 20,000′ of rows. As a final consideration, most of our plantings are quite tall; sprinkler heads would need to be 6′ above ground level and yet solid enough to eliminate vibration.

We decided to put the system underground, but only 30-36″ deep. A local plumbing contractor was hired to do the backhoe work and to install the rigid plastic pipe. Probably 90% of their digging was in beautiful black topsoil, often 4′ thick. I knew our gardens were rich, but didn’t realize our soil was that good. The backhoe crew had a laser leveling unit which uses a beam of light and a sensing device to dig in the pipes at a constant gradual incline. The gardens are all uphill from the pond, so the entire system should drain to a point beside the pond. If it doesn’t drain completely, we will certainly find out when we turn the system on next spring.

Our Amish friends built a small pump house about 60′ from the edge of the pond. A 2″ line, reaching 25′ out into the pond, feeds a 3 h.p. electric pump that is switched on and off from the barn. The pump pressurizes a 3″ main trunk line that runs along the downhill side of six different gardens. A 48″ key is used to open one of the six underground ball valves; the gardens are watered one at a time. Each garden contains from 6 to 11 rainbird sprinklers that cover about a 45′ radius. The sprinklers are 6′ above ground atop 3/4″ risers made from galvanized pipe. Each of the risers is secured to a 10′ treated 4 x 4″ post set 4′ into the ground.

The irrigation system was completed just when the drought returned with a vengeance. The system, pictured inside the back cover of this issue, works well and saved the gardens this summer. We water the gardens in the evenings when there is the least evaporation and usually on the weekends which doesn’t interfere with the activities of the garden crew. Two or three hours, depending on the number of sprinklers in that particular garden, results in a good soaking. Running the system for 10 hours only takes the pond level down one inch, which the spring more than replenishes in just one night. Often I walk down with a lantern after dark to turn the system off for the night. When the key is turned, the sprinklers in that garden gradually lose pressure, hiss and become silent. The heavy wet air always smells strongly of fish. The plants absolutely love it.

We usually get our first killing frost on the night of the full moon in September. Invariably the weatherman says, “Clear and cold tonight with lows dropping to the mid-20s in the valleys of Northeast Iowa. Better cover your plants.” Well, there’s no way we can cover 30,000 plants, but this year we’re going to try something new. About 4 a.m. when the temperature is dropping past 28 degrees, I’m going to start up the irrigation system. Each garden will be turned on for five minutes in rotation. The water in the pond is a frigid 48 degrees, but that should be warm enough to keep the plants from freezing until the morning sun takes over. If the gardens survive a couple of clear nights right then, a beautiful stretch of Indian Summer often extends our season for almost another month.

Restrooms and Showers in the Barn

While the plumbing crew was installing the irrigation system, we had them do all of the other plumbing for the barn project. A water line needed to be buried from the house down to the barn. I probably should have told Diane what was about to happen, but by that time things were so crazy that I didn’t want to worry her. Early one morning a backhoe started digging a 7′ trench beside the house, through the flagstone sidewalk, across the lawn and down the hill to the barn. We couldn’t even get off the deck to get to the cars. Diane about lost it.

When the county health department learned that more than 200 people usually attend our Campouts, a septic system twice as large and expensive as our first estimates was required. Two 1,600 gallon tanks were buried in a huge hole just behind the barn. The drain field was designed to handle peak use of 2,000 gallons per day, even though it will only be used that heavily for a few weekends each summer. But a smaller system couldn’t have handled the volume, and the last thing we need is for the sewage system to back up during our celebrations. By the time the water and septic and irrigation systems were complete, it seemed like the entire farm had been dug up. Joanne Thuente, who works in SSE’s office, brought out some paperwork one day and remarked, “This used to be a beautiful farm.”

A crew of four Amish carpenters returned this spring to work on the barn, but they started a month later than expected. Dan Zook, who runs a sawmill just north of Prosper, Minnesota, supervises the Amish crew. A fire destroyed Dan’s house during the depths of the winter last February. His wife Verna and their seven children moved into Dan’s small workshop. The entire Amish community came together to rebuild their home; exactly three weeks later they moved into the finished house. That’s why it’s called the Amish community.

Dan and his crew jackhammered out the barn’s rotten cement floor. Plumbing for two stools, two sinks and four showers was roughed into the northwest corner, before the floor was repoured with ready-mix. The exterior of the bathrooms is 1 x 10″ shiplap lumber; the interior is completely waterproof, built out of white glass¬board, caulking and plastic rivets. The Amish had never worked with glassboard and struggled at first with the awkward material, but soon mastered it. Glassboard showers were constructed, and both bathrooms can be thoroughly hosed down into floor drains. The new bathrooms, completed the day before the Campout, were quite a change from the rented Port-a-pots at previous celebrations.

The Amish also rebuilt our shed, which will be used to store tools, pepper cages and our Super 55 Oliver tractor. They added sliding doors, a couple of windows, a ramp for the tiller and a steep stairway into the shed’s loft. Additional construction in the barn includes an office for our Seed Librarian, workbenches and shelves along the south windows, and a counter with a large, double stainless steel dairy sink for washing seeds. The Amish may return for a short time this fall to build a seed drying room, inside pens and feed bunks for our White Park cattle and cement pads for heated livestock and poultry waterers.

This spring’s irrigation and plumbing projects, plus the construction by the Amish carpenters, almost completes the garden and barn portions of the educational facility at Heritage Farm. Finally our gardens are safe from recurring droughts, and work areas have been created that are sufficient for processing and storing the seeds of more than a thousand endangered varieties each summer. Numerous photos were taken during the irrigation and plumbing projects, but trenches and plastic pipes aren’t nearly as photogenic as Amish carpenters reroofing a barn. The 1989 Harvest Edition will contain a large photo essay on this summer’s Campout, however, including many pictures taken inside the barn.

Contents of This Issue

Photographic documentation of varieties is the theme of the artwork on this issue’s cover and the photo just inside. David Cavagnaro, garden manager at Heritage Farm, is a nationally known freelance photographer, author and naturalist. In recent years David’s talents have focused increasingly on horticulture, much to SSE’s benefit. His article on tomatoes in the July/August 1989 issue of Harrowsmith was spectacular. David has written two articles for this issue. The first deals with garden and plant photography in general, which leads directly into his second article on varietal documentation. This is the third summer that David has photographed hundreds of varieties in SSE’s gardens. He has developed a standard technique that all of us can use to document our varieties. Photographic documentation is just part of the varietal data taken in SSE’s gardens. At the end of David’s articles are lists of our bean and tomato descriptors, and copies of our data sheets.

Mike Courtney is a tomato breeder at the Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Mike has written an article on the genetics of tomato fruit color. Many of you may not realize that skin membrane color, one of the descriptors we record in SSE’s gardens, partially determines the colors of your favorite tomatoes. Mike’s article is followed by a series of three newspaper articles on the history of tomato growing in Arkansas, where consumers have always preferred large, tender, flavorful, pink tomatoes such as Arkansas Traveler. Within the last couple of years, however, huge commercial growers have rapidly switched to firmer but less flavorful red varieties. That is causing quite a stir in Arkansas where the official state fruit is the pink tomato.

A couple of years ago, a friend took me to see the remains of a pioneer orchard just southeast of Decorah. David Sliwa, orchard manager at Heritage Farm, has written two articles, and the first is on the history of “Apple” Loman’s orchard. A year ago last August, David and Lindsey Lee grafted buds from about three dozen of Lomen’s varieties for SSE’s Historic Apple Orchard. David’s second article describes how he and Lindsey and Lorado Adelmann benchgrafting nearly 300 other varieties last winter from scionwood supplied by the Clonal Repository at Geneva, New York and by Charles Estep. Those varieties are now in a temporary nursery behind the barn at Heritage Farm, surrounded by electric deer fence. David’s articles are followed by a short history of the original Delicious apple.

In 1985 the American Minor Breeds Conservancy (AMBC) conducted a census of North American livestock to determine which breeds of sheep, cattle, horses, goats and pigs were in danger of extinction. Their census was published early in 1986 and listed nearly 80 endangered breeds. In response to increasing requests from the press and the public for more information on rare breeds, AMBC recently published the American Minor Breeds Notebook. It includes historical and physical descriptions of the minor U.S. and Canadian breeds, along with photos and breed association addresses. Four representative pages from AMBC’s Notebook are reprinted here. In a related article, H. P. Jorgensen, director of the C. S. Fund’s Conservancy, offers his plan to open a rare breeds halfway house.

SSE’s publications used to carry numerous articles about our members and a fascinating hodgepodge of their correspondence. During the last few years that focus has been lost; we feel quite strongly that it must be regained. This change was never a conscious decision, but resulted mainly from the vastly increased workload in SSE’s office and at Heritage Farm. Our accomplishments during the last couple of years have been quite impressive, but the temporary change of focus has definitely put a strain on the organization. I used to travel the country interviewing our members, but barely have time now to keep up with current projects. In this issue, we have reprinted three newspaper articles that focus on five of our members. Please send us articles and clippings that you would like to see published, along with your comments and suggestions.

Due to requests from many new subscribers, our Seed Saving Guide is reprinted in the back of this issue. If time ever permits, we intend to publish the guide as a 32-page booklet, send it free to new members, and make it available to others for a small fee. SSE’s staff has begun work on a full length book of seed saving techniques authored by Suzanne Ashworth and illustrated by David Cavagnaro. Suzanne has finished the text, David is taking the last of the photos, SSE’s office staff has started editing and typesetting, and a grant for self-promotion has been secured. Seed to Seed is the first comprehensive seed saving guide for the gardener ever published and will answer many of our questions. For the first time ever, I intend to refrain from making my unrealistic prediction of when the book will be available, which always gets me into trouble. Well….probably by Christmas. Darn!

There is an “Application for Member’s Listing” for The 1990 Winter Yearbook in the back of this issue. Use it ONLY if you have NOT been a Listed Member of SSE during the last two years. Everyone who had a listing in The 1989 Winter Yearbook or The 1988 Winter Yearbook will receive a personalized printout of your previous listings in a separate mailing during early October. That mailing will also include a questionnaire to solicit our Listed Members’ opinions on last year’s price increase, which continues to be hotly debated. The final article in this issue features a new organization called The Flower and Herb Exchange. You can become a Listed Member of this new group by filling out the other membership form in the back of this issue. The deadline for returning either form is November 15, 1989. SSE’s staff hopes that all of you have had a very productive summer.