Conservationist Cary Fowler holds two vials of peas. The sleek structure behind him holds the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which he founded in Norway to help stop the mass extinction of crops that threatens our future food supply.
Six miles outside the town of Decorah, Iowa, an 890-acre stretch of rolling fields and woods called Heritage Farm is letting its crops go to seed. It seems counterintuitive, but then everything about this farm stands in stark contrast to the surrounding acres of neatly rowed corn and soybean fields that typify modern agriculture. Heritage Farm is devoted to collecting rather than growing seeds. It is home to the Seed Savers Exchange, one of the largest nongovernment-owned seed banks in the United States.
In 1975 Diane Ott Whealy was bequeathed the seedlings of two heirloom plant varieties that her great grandfather had brought to America from Bavaria in 1870: Grandpa Ott's morning glory and his German Pink tomato. Wanting to preserve such unique varieties, Diane and her husband, Kent, decided to establish a place where people could store and trade the seeds of their own past. The exchange now has more than 13,000 members and keeps in its walk-in coolers, freezers, and root cellars the seeds of many thousands of heirloom varieties. The farm grows a glorious profusion of select vegetables, herbs, and flowers around an old red barn that is covered in Grandpa Ott's stunningly deep purple morning glory blossoms.
"Each year our members list their seeds in this," Diane Ott Whealy says, handing over a copy of the Seed Savers Exchange 2010 Yearbook. It is as thick as a big-city telephone directory, with page after page of exotic beans, garlic, potatoes, peppers, apples, pears, and plums—each with its own name, personal history, and distinct essence. There's an apple known as Beautiful Arcade, a "yellow fruit splashed with red"; one named Prairie Spy, described as "precocious"; another dubbed Sops of Wine that dates back to the Middle Ages. There's an Estonian Yellow Cherry tomato obtained from "an elderly Russian lady" in Tallinn, a bean found by archaeologists searching for pygmy elephant fossils in New Mexico, a Persian Star garlic from "a bazaar in Samarkand."