Visit to Seed Savers Exchange and the Vesterheim

(For a Norwegian version of this article, see KVANNs Nyhetsbrev #12:
I toured eastern and mid-west USA for 3 weeks in September / October 2019, on the back of being invited to the Mid-West Wild Harvest Festival in Wisconsin where I gave the keynote speech as well as a couple of classes. One of many highlights was a visit to Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) on September 26, just outside the small town of Decorah, IA, just an hour’s drive from the festival.

Decorah has become a centre of Norwegian-American culture. This originates from a large number of Norwegian settlements that started in the 1850s. Every July, Decorah also hosts the Nordic Fest, a celebration of Norwegian culture. Decorah is also home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, the largest museum in the country devoted to a single immigrant group. Until 1972, one of the largest Norwegian-language newspapers in the nation was published there, the Decorah Posten. I have long been a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, which is KVANN’s biggest inspiration, an organization that started as early as 1975 to take care of heirloom plants. Since then, SSE has published a yearbook every year. In the SSE Yearbook you will find, in 2013, as many as 12500 varieties of vegetables on offer over 500 pages of small print. This is real diversity. SSE was founded by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy after Diane bequeathed the seeds of two heirloom plants that her great-grandfather had brought to the United States from Bavaria in 1870!

I rented a car from Madison and drove through a dull monotonous landscape of almost exclusively arable land with ripe corn and soyabeans. The contrast was therefore remarkable arriving at Heritage Farm, where Seed Savers Exchange is located, and where one can find perhaps the largest vegetable variety in the world? They grow here over 1000 varieties of seeds each year and at the same time conserve the nature of the wooded river valley conservation area. The farm was larger than I expected, at 390 ha, but it is necessary to be able to isolate the vegetables far enough apart to minimise the danger of crossing in seed production!

I was really made to feel welcome by the staff of the Seed Savers Exchange and especially by the brand new executive director, Emily Rose Haga, who has long experience in vegetable breeding, and especially tomato, pepper and lettuce varieties, at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine since 2012.

In the morning I made a presentation to the staff of about KVANN and a little about my work with perennial vegetables which I talked more about in my evening talk (more below)!

Afterwards, I was given a tour of the facilities with Facilities Manager Jim Edrington who drove me around the farm to see the isolation areas for seed production, nature conservation areas, a collection of historic fruits and pastures with Ancient White Park Cattle (see http: //blog.seedsavers .com / blog / ancient-white park cattle-new-babies). Below is a picture gallery from my visit and at the bottom more about my evening talk in Decorah.

After visiting Seed Savers Exchange, I was given a tour of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah with the director before my lecture on perennial vegetables co-organized by the Seed Savers Exchange. What is missing from the museum is obviously a collection of Norwegian vegetables!

The lecture was in Vesterheim’s Gathering Room, where the administrative part is located, an amazing room decorated by Sigmund Årseth’s murals (see and to my delight it was full of people from Seed Savers Exchange and other interested parties. I even met the founder of Seed Savers Diane Ott Whealy, a great honour (she gave me a copy of her book) and also David Cavagnaro, Heritage Farm’s first “farm manager” and known from the Pepperfield Project (see Sadly I wasn’t aware who I was taking to at the time! Probably the most knowledgeable group I have had the privilege to give a lecture for!