Chow Town

Exchange works to preserve nation’s garden, food heritage

You’ll find the town of Decorah, Iowa, tucked into a the northeast corner of the state, with Minnesota just to the north and Wisconsin to the east.

The town is the county seat of Winneshiek County, Iowa. And it’s the home of the Seed Savers Exchange for the last 39 years.

Seed Savers Exchange has been at the forefront of the heirloom seed movement, saving seeds and preserving the nation’s garden and food heritage.

“The beginning of Seed Savers Exchange dates back to about 1974 when our co-founder, Diane Ott Whealy, received some seeds from her terminally ill grandfather, Grandpa Ott,” Seed Savers communications coordinator Steve Carlson said. “They were tomato and morning glory seeds originally brought to the U.S. from Bavaria.

“Diane soon realized that she was the sole caretaker for these heirloom seeds that had been in her family for multiple generations. She reached out to find other people who were in similar situations. In 1975, they formed the True Seed Exchange, where about 30 folks across the U.S. would share a list of rare heirloom seeds they would like to trade with others.”

That small group evolved into the Seed Savers Exchange. Today, the organization has a membership of some 13,000. The focus remains preserving and and exchanging seeds facilitating a huge seed swap.

“In this year’s exchange, there are about 13,000 unique varieties — 20,000 total listings, if you include duplicates — offered for sharing,” Carlson said. “And, now you can find Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and the German Pink tomato in dozens of seed catalogs all over the country.”

The seed exchange, Carlson said, ensures the responsibility of preserving rare seeds is shared among many people. The exchange backs up the seeds in a long-term storage facility in northeast Iowa. Each year, the exchange tests the viability of the seeds by growing several hundred to over a thousand varieties to both increase the seed stock and make sure the seeds remain viable.

“Not only are we preserving the genetic diversity in these seeds, but also the cultural history as well,” he said. “Heirloom seeds are seeds with stories, with a history of being grown in a specific family, community, or region. We collect these seed stories when we collect the seeds.”

Interest in heirloom seeds has grown exponentially through the years.

“Anyone can access our seed catalog and, as a non-profit organization, these seed packet sales support our preservation work and help us facilitate the seed exchange,” he said. “One can also join Seed Savers Exchange as a member, gaining access to the largest and most diverse seed swap in the nation. Anyone can browse the online home for this seed exchange, at, but only members can request seed from other members.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start with the catalog and go from there.

If I ever get to Decorah and see the operation for myself, I’ll be sure to share that with you. It’s a trip I’d like to make.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.