Skip to content

Heritage Farm Excerpts

By Kent Whealy · Seed Savers Exchange · 1986 Harvest Edition

No wonder people question whether there is hope for the world. I deeply believe that there is hope, but it bothers me greatly when I see vast numbers of people giving up the struggle and becoming apathetic. That is as great a danger as any of the problems we face, because nothing is going to change without strong and deliberate action on a massive scale. I have thought long and hard about how individuals can make the greatest impact with their lives. There are a thousand good causes. But if you break your energy into a thousand pieces, you have nothing. Decide instead what one area holds the greatest interest for you, or where you feel you can do the most good with your life. And then focus all of the energy that you can muster on that one area and devote to it this short lifetime that we have been given. Become totally one-pointed, pace yourself so that you don’t burn out, and be careful not to spread yourself so thin that your efforts become ineffective. Believe me, you will be amazed at what you will accomplish.

I have always been a dreamer. I learned quite early that, with enough hard work, I could always make those dreams become reality. There’s nothing miraculous about that, but it does involve a certain amount of responsibility. Once you realize that you can indeed materialize your dreams, you must be sure that what you are bringing into the world will help it. I deeply believe that good people working together toward high goals can accomplish anything. The accomplishments of the Seed Savers Exchange are being studied closely and held up as models, and similar preservation projects are spinning off at a rapid rate. The SSE is definitely a unique and exemplary organization and our impact has already been extraordinary. But, as a genetic preservation project, I think there is a way we can do much more. I want to describe for you a dream that has been building in me for several years.

The SSE’s Central Seed Collection, which I am keeping here in Decorah, Iowa now numbers nearly 5,000 accessions. About 65% are heirlooms that all of you have sent me, and the remainder are endangered commercial varieties that we have purchased using The Garden Seed Inventory. We have grown out roughly a third of the collection on rented land during each of the last two summers. The genetic variation displayed in those two Preservation Gardens was dazzling, and the effect those gardens had on the people who walked through them was dramatic. I have put out publications for 12 years and have given speeches until I was blue in the face trying to warn people about the loss of genetic diversity. But only very slowly have I been able to build a core of dedicated people who will remain involved in our projects over the long run. Genetic erosion is such an abstract concept that most people fail to recognize it as a threat. I had started becoming rather cynical about what it apparently takes to move people to action. So it was with a great deal of excitement that I viewed the effect that the Preservation Garden had on those first tours of gardeners. Boy, did they get fired up! And I knew immediately that I had found the key. You have to show people genetic diversity.

That’s when I started dreaming about a Heritage Farm. I envisioned it as a strikingly beautiful small farm that would be a perfect showcase for our preservation projects. It would have two or three acres of gardens where we would continue to grow out the SSE’s Central Seed Collection and evaluate the newly discovered heirlooms that are constantly entering the collection. ( We would actually need five or six acres so that half could be set aside each year and enriched.) There would have to be a constant source of good water –a stream or spring or strong well—so that we couldn’t ever be hurt by drought again. Huge indoor areas for drying seeds would overcome rainy weather at harvest time which has ruined some of our beans these last two summers. And even something as common as a decent sink for washing tomato seeds would be a dramatic improvement over the horse tank in the cow lot that we are presently using.

Just having the gardens, equipment, and seed storage all at one location would save a tremendous amount of time. For the last two summers we have: driven 14 miles round-trip every day; hauled to the garden all of our seeds, transplants, tools, equipment, gas, and materials; hauled from the garden loads of rotting tomato pulp, hand pollinated fruits, countless sacks of beans, and every bit of produce we were saving for seed; and then washed, dried, and processed seed at several different locations, before trying to get it all back into storage at our house. Given all that we have to do, it is maddening to be forced to waste that much time needlessly. If we had our own place, we could build some small inexpensive greenhouses where we could start our plants and grow longer season crops, instead of having to rent expensive bench space at the Decorah Greenhouse. Eventually we could even build large underground storage areas where we could test the keeping qualities of heirloom potatoes and squash and apples, and store biennial root crops before replanting. And our heat-sealed air-tight packets of seeds could also be stored in the constant 55 degree temperatures of these root cellars, instead of in freezers that are expensive to buy and operate.

We would gradually plant large orchards of antique apples. Probably 2,000 named apple varieties still exist in this country, but half of them could easily be lost. Many people are afraid that current collections will be evaluated for disease resistance or genetic characteristics that are economically useful right now, and the rest will be discarded. That would be tragic. During the next couple of years I hope to work closely with Elwood Fisher, Roger Way, and Phil Forsline to start an orchard of several hundred historic apples concentrating on excellent varieties with well – known histories, cider apples which have fallen out of use, and varieties that may fall through the cracks as material is entered into the new clonal repository. Eventually such an orchard would make possible a massive scionwood exchange, which would spread this heritage of apples across this country. Also that orchard would be a fantastic display of genetic diversity and an educational tool around which various harvest festivals and cider pressings could be developed. Imagine bringing the public in for taste tests at harvest time and telling them, “Probably all you have ever tasted is a Red Delicious or Golden Delicious or McIntosh that was picked green six months ago. Why don’t you try this Sops of Wine, and this Chenango Strawberry, and Esopus Spitzenberg (one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites) , Winter Banana, Pound Sweet, Yellow Bellflower, Westfield-Seek-No-Further, Twenty Ounce, Winter Sweet Paradise….”

We have a tremendous opportunity right now, because these dreams are coming alive at a time when so much of this material still exists. It is true that a lot has been lost during this century, but a staggering amount of genetic variation still remains, at least for the time being. Our challenge is to Preserve what still remains for future generations. You must realize that we are attempting to set up genetic preservation projects that are endless. If the Seed Savers Exchange dies when Kent Whealy does, we have failed. That is why I have set up the SSE as a non-profit, tax exempt, publically supported organization with clearly defined goals. And that is also why this Heritage Farm must actually be owned by the SSE, so that it will live on with an unbroken string of caretakers that care as much as I do.

Scroll To Top