Kent Whealy's Seedy Operation Provides Garden Variety Veggies from Centuries Past

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tell Kent Whealy that he has gone completely to seed, and he won't be offended. Indeed, as founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, he'd be delighted and no doubt would consider it an opportunity to show off his bean seed collection, which numbers 2,200 varieties. Besides beans, his personal holdings include seeds for some 700 types of tomato, 400 squash, 150 kinds of watermelon, 100 corn, pea and lettuce.

Whealy's collection has grown out of a dozen years dedicated to the preservation of what he calls "heirloom seeds," those passed down through generations of families, and other endangered garden varieties. Many are unfamiliar versions of common vegetables with strange looks, unique flavors and exotic names—like Afghani Purpleroot carrots, Howling Mob sweet corn, or Rat's Tail radishes.

Whealy, 41, isn't alone in his underground obsession. Through his nonprofit organization, headquartered in Decorah, Iowa, he has created a grass roots network of serious gardeners who save and swap seeds that might otherwise be lost forever. SSE doesn't sell seeds; it's "just a big access network," says Whealy. People have traded seeds for centuries, and until about 1940 it was common practice in this country. However, with widespread urbanization and the industrialization of seed companies, much of the country's unique heritage and genetic variety of foods began to disappear. To counter that Whealy and his organization are turning up seeds that exemplify America's melting pot. "Gardeners invariably brought seeds with them," says Whealy. "It let them continue to enjoy the foods from the old country." Germans brought cabbages, Mexicans brought chilies, Russians brought rye, and Italians brought tomatoes.

Of Irish descent himself, Whealy grew up in Wellington, Kans. He studied journalism at the University of Kansas and became interested in seed preservation when he and his wife, Diane, moved to Iowa in 1971 to be near her unusually named grandfather, Baptist John Ott. As the newly-weds started a garden, Ott gave them tips, along with seeds of three plants his family had brought from Bavaria four generations earlier. When Ott died the next winter, Whealy realized that "if his seeds were to survive, it was up to me."

Inspired by an article on the dangers of genetic erosion if the breeding stocks for food crops were allowed to die out—and the legacy of Grandpa Ott's seeds—Whealy founded SSE in 1975. He began his search for heirloom seeds by writing to the editors of backwoods newspapers and gardening magazines.

At the end of its first year, SSE had six members who traded seeds by mail. Supporting his growing family by working in a print shop, Whealy had 29 seed nuts as members the next year, so he began mimeographing a newsletter that listed who had what in the way of seeds. That was the germ of SSE's yearbook, now 256 pages long, listing 4,000 varieties offered for trading by its 630 members, as well as the types of seeds they are looking for.

In 1981 Whealy and his wife quit their jobs and began working for SSE full time, although at that point the organization had never grossed more than $3,000. SSE now grosses $95,000 per annum from membership fees, book sales and foundation grants. As the director Kent draws a salary, while Diane takes care of all correspondence, answering thousands of inquiries a year.

SSE's latest venture is Heritage Farm, a 57-acre spread in Decorah, where the Whealys and their four children have lived since February. They plan to grow an orchard of antique apples and raise rare poultry and livestock. They already have re-planted their renowned Preservation Garden, which demonstrates "all the incredible beauty of genetic diversity," says Whealy. "Planting the seeds, seeing them break the soil, having the plants come to full fruit and then watching them all die—it's a deeply religious experience."

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