Whatever Happened to the Vegetable Variety Inventory? or The “Apple” of my Bloodshot Eye

By Kent Whealy · Seed Savers Harvest Edition · 1981

To get right to the point, the Vegetable Variety Inventory is only about one quarter complete. I still need almost 60 16-hour days to complete it and it is unrealistic to think that I will have time to get it done before Christmas, I have spread myself too thin. I always think that I can just knock things out in no time at all, but I’ve never taken on anything this big before. I really had no idea what a massive task it would be.

I had hoped to complete the Vegetable Variety Inventory this last spring between the time that I finished sending out the seeds for the Growers Network in April and the time that the “Organic Gardening” article came out about June 1. I am deeply grateful to Jan Blum (Idaho SSE Member) who took dozens of lists that I had collected or put together these past few years and compiled them and typed them up into a list of addresses for every seed company in the U. S. and Canada. There were 385 companies on that list and I had to check them all out even though the majority turned out to be either local seed companies that have no mail order sales or agricultural seed companies that handle no vegetables.

I then had a mailing printed up which included a form letter telling the companies what we were doing and a postcard for them to return to me. The postcard was to let me know: if the company was wholesale or retail or both; what it specialized in; what their catalog cost; would they put me on a permanent mailing list; if not, did I have to request or buy their catalog each year; And would they provide samples of deleted varieties if they knew that they would be maintained or stored? (A surprising number of companies answered yes to this last question, but several said that often they are forced to drop varieties because they lose their source of supply). Anyway, it took longer to collect the materials than I had naively thought it would take to do the entire project.

Then the “Organic Gardening” article hit and hit big. They have 1.5 million readers. Have you ever seen a mountain of mail? I have! I am not exaggerating one bit when I tell you that Diane and I worked frantically for all of June, all of July, and part of August before we had things back under control. Because it was into June when the whole flood started, I had an “Update Notice” printed which was stapled into the front of each Yearbook. It asked the people to please just use the issue as an introduction to the SSE and not request seeds from it, since it was obvious that they already had their gardens planted for that summer and since many of my Members were probably low on seeds if not actually out. If I hadn’t done that, it would have torn our organization apart. I offered to refund the people’s money if that didn’t suit them. I only had two people take me up on that offer.

All this time the seed catalogs kept rolling in. The Canadian postal strike held the Canadian catalogs up for about two more months. (I’m really glad I included the Canadian companies because it has turned out that a lot of the small companies up there are strongholds for non-hybrid varieties that have already been dropped down here.) I soon had two drawers of a filing cabinet completely full of catalogs. It was very apparent that it would be ridiculous to think about doing the Vegetable Variety Inventory by hand. So I started looking around for a micro-computer. After a trip to Kansas City and two trips to Des Moines and a lot of advice, I decided to buy an Apple II Plus Micro-Computer and use the new D. B. Master as its software. I knew that the system could do the job for me and I hoped that I would be able to learn the program without having to spend a month at it, as is often the case with off-the-shelf software.

The first week was almost a wrestling match between me and the computer. It was so foreign, so alien to me. I must say that there was one day that I really wasn’t sure which of us was going to win. But in a little over a week I had broken it out into the nine volumes I needed for storage, had created all of the files, and was starting on the catalogs. By then it was already into September. I was determined to knock it out before the Tucson Convention, because I knew that there would be some people there that were interested in working with me to store the varieties that the Vegetable Variety Inventory showed were endangered. I only came out of the room to eat and sleep. I spent 16 hours a day for 23 days straight on the computer. I almost burned myself out and can still feel it a little bit. And even after all of that I had only completed about a quarter of the 129 catalogs. With only that much of it done, it took me two full days just before we left for Tucson to print out what I had compiled (but that includes building all of the reports which I won’t have to do again).

Ever since we got back from Arizona, I have been working full time on the “Fall Harvest Edition”. By the time I am done completely with mailing it out, it’ll be just about Thanksgiving. Then I have to start going through about three bushels of packets of seeds (samples from Members, the multiplication of the Growers Network, and the 1,200 Wanigan varieties). There will be shelves to build, jars to label, and card files to develop before I can work up the lists of varieties for this next year’s Growers Network. I’ll be lucky if I even get a week or two between Thanksgiving and Christmas to work on the Vegetable Variety Inventory.

Then the day after Christmas I start writing the “Winter Yearbook”. I know from experience that it will be early February before it is completely mailed out. Right about then is when Diane will be having a baby. After things settle back down then, I’ll have all of the distribution for the Growers Network to mail out including the vast Wanigan Associates heirloom bean collection. So unless something really breaks, unless somehow I get some real help in knocking it out, it will be almost April before I can get back to working full time on the Vegetable Variety Inventory. In that case it would probably be late June before it’s finished and then it still has to be printed and mailed.

I’m not telling you all of this because I want your sympathy. I just want you to know why I am over six months later than my first projection and still can’t tell you when it will be done. It is terribly frustrating to have so much else going on that I am unable to go right ahead and complete a project that is so vital. If I don’t get it done in time to use it to identify and to buy up endangered varieties from this next winter’s catalogs, I will have lost an entire year and that will be tragic. It is the tool that can save the vegetable varieties that are currently being dropped so quickly. Between Rodale’s proposal for a Vegetable Seed Storage Facility and another grant that I have received, every one of those endangered vegetable varieties could be stored, if I can only get it done!

Now that I have told you everything that’s going wrong, let me tell you the good news about the Vegetable Variety Inventory. It’s going to be fantastic! I had at first hoped to hold it down to 128 inside pages (this book is 64), but I can see that it will be over 200 pages. I estimate that it will cover somewhere around 3,500 non-hybrid vegetable varieties. Within each type of vegetable, the varieties are listed alphabetically. After each variety name is the range of days to maturity that are listed by the different companies (I feel this range is important because it will reveal strains that will be of value, for instance, to gardeners in short season areas.) Then comes a complete description of the variety and finally a coded list of all its known sources. I am concentrating on working up good varietal descriptions, so that gardeners can search through everything that’s available to find varieties that are specifically suited to both their climate and their individual needs as well as those that are resistant to local diseases and other problems.

It will be relatively easy to update the Vegetable Variety Inventory each year, once it is finally completed. Then for the first time we will be able to see just what is being dropped and how quickly. It will show which varieties are the least available so that both gardeners and preservation programs can buy them up while other sources still exist. It will be the basis for numerous storage projects.

I believe that the Vegetable Variety Inventory will do more to preserve the diversity of vegetable varieties available to home gardeners than possibly all of our other projects put together. I also realize that many of you have waited longer than I have any right to ask. I will gladly refund anyone’s money. That’s only fair. But I intend to keep on selling advance copies of it, even though the price may be unrealistically low. I really believe in it and I have no intention of quitting.

(For more about the Vegetable Variety Inventory see my speech to the Seed Banks Serving People Workshop.)

Kent Whealy
Kent Whealy
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