Article from The Wichita Eagle, October 13, 1989
The Seed of Hope
Kent Whealy, 43, also followed an idea all the way. A gardener extraordinaire in Decorah, Iowa, Whealy’s passion is seeds – heirloom seeds, the ones that would become extinct unless someone kept them growing.
He can’t put his finger on the reasons for his devotion. But he remembers the spark: the gift of several rare seeds from his wife’s grandfather, seeds that had come from Bavaria four generations before and had been passed down.
The first step was to find others with endangered seeds and to exchange them. He wrote to land and gardening magazines; several readers wrote back. In 1975, he founded Seed Savers Exchange; by the end of that year, there were six people saving seeds.
His wife Diane, 39, was definitely wary. “I guess you could say that Kent was on to this idea well before I was,” she says. “I really wasn’t sure that this was important, that there could be nationwide interest.”
When letters began to arrive in groups of 25, she began to be convinced. But it was only when Kent decided in 1981 to quit his job as a printer to devote his efforts full time to seeds that Seed Savers began to feel like a real enterprise. It also seemed a leap of faith.
“The 1980 earnings from it were $3,000,” he says. “Somehow that didn’t deter us from thinking we could make a living. I guess I’m the eternal optimist.”
His mother, Edna, only vaguely aware of what her son was doing, was nonetheless stunned when he quit his job to garden full time. The Whealys had three children then – they have five now – and “I was scared,” says Edna. “Plus, I thought his journalism degree was completely down the drain.”
Now her son is making a living for his family and gets to use his college degree by writing publications and yearbooks for Seed Savers members. Both mother and wife are surprised at how much the enterprise has grown: 57-acre Heritage Farm now contains 6,000 forms of rare vegetables, including 2,400 different beans, 1,600 tomatoes, 300 peppers. 200 lettuces. Using computers, Kent also keeps track of the seed inventories of 900 members, 230 companies and 248 nursery catalogs.
It’s a strange task, and you have to be one of the committed to do it. Most people would find it hard to believe, as Whealy does, that one’s life work could be esoteric seeds. More practical farmers also might find it odd to spend time growing things that don’t go to market.
That may explain why it’s so tough for the family to describe what Kent does. Son Aaron, 17, tells the kids at school his dad is a garden writer. Mom Edna is relieved when friends already know – because she has no idea how to tell them.
Neighbors in Decorah seem to understand and approve. But as Kent has noticed, some still drive past the farm slowly and stare.
You would think none had ever seen a Giraffe.