Diane Ott Whealy's quest to preserve America's heirloom seeds

February 24, 2012

OK, so it's no secret that farmer’s markets, farm-to-table restaurants, heirloom vegetables, CSA’s and organic gardening have exploded in popularity in recent years.  But what you may not know is that Diane Ott Whealy has been one of the leaders of the growing effort to preserve the nation's heirloom and non-hybrid seeds for nearly forty years. 

Listen to Steve's interview with Diane Ott Whealy on Afternoon Shift

I just finished reading Diane Ott Whealy's recently published memoir, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, and I must confess, I found it inspiring and, at times, quite moving.

Against the backdrop of the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960's and early 1970's, she and her then-husband, Kent Whealy, embarked on a simple, but ambitious quest: to save heirloom seeds. Inspired, in part, by her own experiences growing up in a farming family in Iowa, Diane's journey began with the Morning Glory and German Pink tomato seeds her grandfather handed down to her. 

In those early years, the Whealys scraped together enough to publish a small newsletter, the True Seed Exchange, from their modest homestead in Northwest Missouri. It was a bootstrapped operation, driven solely by the passion of the Whealys and a handful of other like-minded individuals around the nation.

Today, the Seed Savers Exchange bills itself as the nation's largest non-governmental seed bank, with more than 13-thousand members and a vast seed catalogue of thousands of varieties of rare vegetables, herbs, flowers and plants.  Now based at an expansive farm in Decorah, Iowa, the goal of SSE is both to preserve biodiversity, and to share those varieties with the public.

But the memoir isn't just the story of the SSE and its struggles and successes.

It's also a story about family and history, and the way food memories can create powerful links between generations: from the flakiness of Grandma's pie crust and the taste of Aunt Jane's potatoes, to memories of dad planting and pruning the garden. 

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