By Sara Friedl-Putnam
In 1986, Diane Ott Whealy, the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), and her husband, Kent Whealy, bought the farm — literally. Occupying 890 pristine acres just outside Decorah, Iowa, “Heritage Farm embodies resilience and rebirth,” Ott Whealy writes at the close of her book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver. “Its roots are strong and grow deeper every year.”
Founded in 1975, SSE’s mission is to preserve rare, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds. Today, SSE has thousands of members and supporters — as well as a bustling seed exchange. It began, however, as a simple sharing of seeds between a seasoned gardener and his beloved granddaughter.
Ott Whealy so admired the beautiful deep-purple morning glories that climbed up her Grandpa Ott’s porch in rural Festina, Iowa, that when she and Kent Whealy were planning their first garden, she asked her grandfather for seeds of that eye-catching variety. He gave her a pillbox full of the morning glory seeds and a handful of German Pink tomato seeds as well, telling her that the varieties came from Bavaria in the hands of their ancestors.
That bit of history, along with the knowledge that biodiversity was decreasing at an alarming rate, inspired the couple to call on other gardeners to share their seeds. Their message: If we all grow one another’s seeds, cherished heirloom varieties will thrive and survive into the future.
In 1975, some 29 gardeners sent the couple a quarter and a list of seeds they could share with other gardeners and seed savers. Diane typed up all the lists into six neat pages, and with the publication of that listing the True Seed Exchange (later Seed Savers Exchange) was born. “It seemed like a low initial response, but Kent and I were willing to be patient,” Ott Whealy said in Gathering.
While initial response may have been low, word about the organization spread quickly, and before long Seed Savers Exchange became the center of a movement to save and share open-pollinated varieties. Still growing today, the exchange houses the nation’s largest non-governmental seed bank at Heritage Farm with more than 20,000 varieties. Staff grow out select varieties in gardens each year to evaluate the yields and keep the seed supply healthy and viable.
Those varieties include more than a few that have a connection to the Appalachian region., One is the John Vance Leather Britches, first developed by Joan and Tom Vance of Frankford, West Virginia. The couple stewarded this prolific, vining snap bean from seed they received from Tom’s father, John Dolan Vance, soon after they married in the early 1970s. John Dolan Vance had, in turn, received the seed in the early 1960s from a fellow coal miner in Bayard, West Virginia. The fellow miner had acquired the variety from his father, who brought seeds with him from Italy in the early 1900s.
John Dolan Vance began growing this variety, which produces vines up to 15 feet and green pods that reach up to eight inches, because he wanted to dry them for leather britches — green beans preserved by drying them in their pods. According to Joan, he would raise them to maturity, pick them before they dried, string them on a long piece of thread, and hang them in the screen windows of his enclosed back porch until they dried to a leathery feel. He would then bag them up and keep them in the freezer until needed during the winter.
“I’m excited to know others may plant these seeds someday,” Joan Vance said upon donating the variety to Seed Savers Exchange in 2020. “I’m also passing them on to my children and grandchildren, who plant gardens. Hopefully, this bean will remain a remembrance to future generations of our family and others.”
Joan Vance’s hope to leaven an agricultural inheritance for future generations is echoed in the development of the Perlon melon. This heirloom melon is sweet and tangy, smooth and hefty. Its history is just as compelling. It was two longtime Seed Savers Exchange members, Joan and Orral Craig of Charleston, Illinois, who donated the seeds of this luscious melon to SSE. The melon reportedly dates to the 1800s and was lost for 60 years before being rediscovered growing on a remote farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. The long fruits are yellow with green stripes and very smooth, measuring up to 14 inches and weighing as much as seven pounds. “The Perlon melon is very resistant to heat and insects and very productive,” Orral wrote in a 1988 letter to fellow seed saver Glenn Drowns of the Sand Hill Preservation Center. “It has excellent genetic characteristics for development of better strains of muskmelons.”
That same desire for new and innovative produce also inspired Peg Davis. When only in her 20s, one of Davis’ horticulture students gave her four seeds of a tomato that the student’s grandparents had grown throughout their lives in Pennsylvania. Now in her mid-70s and living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Davis has grown the Peg O’ My Heart tomato for 45 years on her somewhat isolated mountain acreage, Snow Spring Farm, selecting the best fruits to improve and stabilize the variety. Each year she and her son, Daniel, grow and sell vegetables at a farmers market in Staunton, Virginia, including at least 3,000 pounds of this prolific, flavorful tomato that reach up to two pounds. “It has a big, complex, balanced, and wonderful old-fashioned flavor,” Davis said. “Our customers wait for it every year, and by the last week of July we have long lines waiting for the first ripe Peg’s.”
The left photo depicts the home of W. T. and Mamie Brown, for whom the Mamie Brown’s Pink tomato (right photo) is named.
Another delicious heirloom tomato was donated to SSE by Alicia Brown-Matthes of Iowa City, Iowa. Named for her paternal grandmother, Mamie Brown, who with her husband W.T. farmed near Green Bank, West Virginia, Matthes gifted the exchange this hefty, moderately sweet, pink beefsteak heirloom tomato in 1995. While Brown-Matthes grew up in Iowa, she made the summer trips during the late 1940s and ’50s to visit her grandparents in West Virginia where she first discovered the wonder of her grandmother’s eponymous tomato. Later, she decided to begin growing the tomato herself and obtained seeds from her aunt, Louise (Brown) Butcher. Averaging more than four inches and about one pound, this tomato cans well and makes great tomato juice.
As these remarkable examples demonstrate, every seed has a story — some known, others waiting to be unearthed — and more than a few of those stories have an Appalachian connection. Seed Savers Exchange is proud to steward Americaʼs culturally diverse and endangered garden and food crop legacy, including the four varieties examined here, for present and future generations. For more information about Seed Savers Exchange, visit seedsavers.org.
Sara Friedl-Putnam is the communications coordinator at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. She loves starting seeds for her small garden plot each spring.