Save Seeds, Save Money, Save the World

Feature Stories Fall 2011 Issue

Save Seeds, Save Money, Save the World

By Wendy Allen | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

Growing up in the cornfields of south-central Iowa, my fifth-grade class took a field trip to the local agricultural seed company branch. I’d looked forward to this trip because I loved watching the eight-foot high tassels blowing beautiful patterns across the fields behind my house, and I was always excited when the planes flew over trailing…I didn’t know what. Water? The lab tech gave each of us a packet of corn seeds, and I remember being intrigued over the neat new gene in these kernels that killed bugs. I remember looking at my hands covered in some pink stuff, which the lab tech said was a mix of fertilizer and pesticide to help them grow tall and strong.

We went about the rest of our corn-and-soy-country schooling blissfully unaware, applauding when the giant corn float drove by in parades and mourning when the branch eventually moved to another town. Nobody told us we were playing with poison that day, but if I’d known then what I know now about genetically engineered (GE) crops and chemical-intensive agriculture, I’d have at least asked for a facemask.

Today a portion of the world seems to, thankfully, recognize the importance of organic farming methods and saving seeds so we don’t forever lose that precious history to genetic tinkering. But considering the host of new GE crops confidently awaiting approval on the USDA’s docket, preserving the genetic purity of our seeds is more important now than ever.

The Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) non-profit in Decorah, Iowa, defines “heirloom” seeds as “any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture.” Over the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cultivated generations, heirloom seeds have adapted to the climate, diseases and pests in the regions where they were developed— something seed companies have been unable to successfully re-create in the mere 25 years that GE crops have been commercially available.

SSE and their member network of mostly amateur gardeners are dedicated to continuing the heirloom tradition, both for the benefit of other gardeners and for saving in seed preservation banks. This April, SSE announced that they made a deposit of 271 heirloom seed varieties dating back to the mid-19th century to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (featured in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic), bringing their total deposits there to 1,660 open-pollinated varieties. In the states, SSE maintains over 13,000 varieties at their Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa.

How to Participate in the Seed Saving Movement
Seed saving requires commitment and attention, but it can be quite successful in small, backyard gardens and hobby farms, too! According to Basic Seed Saving by Bill McDorman, the first-time seed saver will want to look for plants that produce seed the first year they’re planted and are mostly self-pollinating to lessen the worry of cross pollination. Start with veggies like beans, lettuce, peas, peppers and tomatoes for the best chance of success. Corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes, spinach, winter squash and pumpkins also produce seed the first year but require more attention since they will cross-pollinate if planted too close to a near-relative.

Expert seed savers may like the challenge of beets, Swiss chard, the cabbage family (including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale), carrots, escarole, onions, radicchio and turnips, all of which require careful separation to prevent cross pollination—1,000 feet to one mile in the case of the cabbage family, for instance.

Since every plant’s seed saving technique is different, check out Basic Seed Saving online at Or support SSE by purchasing their book Seed to Seed, which describes techniques for 160 types of vegetables. The SSE website also gives tips on how to organize a community seed swap. Don’t have the wherewithal to grow your own? Support the movement with your dollars by purchasing saved seeds from local, organic farmers, buying SSE seeds at food co-ops and natural food stores, or ordering online at Start now to plan your spring seed saving garden.

Wendy Allen is digital editor, copy editor, and a writer for Edible Madison. She reads style guides for fun, believes stories have power, and is fascinated by the evolution of the English languageā€”for better or worse. Her mission: to wrestle the wily comma into submission.

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