Seed Savers Exchange: Annual Conference and Campout

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Keynote speakers share ideas and gardening advice in the main tent.
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This colorful salad mandala accompanied one of the many seasonal meals.
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The old red barn is adjacent to Diane’s Garden, which is named after the co-founder and contains her favorite heirlooms.
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‘German Pink’ tomatoes inspired co-founder Diane Ott Whealy to start Seed Savers Exchange in the 1970s.
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Heritage Farm is home to Ancient White Park cattle, a protected breed sent to the United States during World War II as part of a British program to protect national treasures.
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The Saturday night barn dance brings together seed savers of all ages.
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The weekend retreat provides plenty of kid-friendly activities.
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Of the 10 carrots and 13 beets included in the event’s tasting trials, ‘Kuroda Long’ carrot and ‘Crosby Green Top’ beet won for flavor.
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The large red barn is where the dance and documentary viewings take place.
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‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glories inspired co-founder Diane Ott Whealy to start Seed Savers Exchange in the 1970s.
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Attendees peruse multiple well-kept gardens between presentations.
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Hundreds of seed crops are grown organically on the 890-acre grounds.
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Dozens of heirloom cultivars and special stories were swapped at the weekend’s seed exchange.
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This machine sorts and packages thousands of seeds per day.
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The event staff arranges freshly picked bouquets to adorn tables.

Heirloom seed enthusiasts from across the country meet annually at Seed Savers Exchange’s 890-acre Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa, to swap seeds, share stories, and learn organic gardening techniques from the experts. The intimate event is hosted by the nonprofit’s dedicated staff and board members, and each day is wrapped up with acoustic music, a lively barn dance, or an agriculture-related documentary. Guests have the opportunity to camp in the picturesque orchard, and the cost of registration includes healthful meals made with homegrown, seasonal ingredients.

There couldn’t be a more perfect host for an event that brings together organic gardeners and seed enthusiasts from across the country. For more than 40 years, Seed Savers Exchange has worked to preserve heirloom cultivars and the tradition of seed saving. The organization was founded by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy after Diane received seeds of two cultivars, ‘German Pink’ tomato and ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory, from Diane’s grandfather, who brought the seeds with him from Bavaria in the 1870s. That simple exchange of seeds — and the process of learning the stories behind them — was essential to the preservation of the seeds’ identity. This realization made Diane and Kent imagine all the other seed savers who might also hope to pass on the seeds of their favorite cultivars. The couple started Seed Savers Exchange (first known as The True Seed Exchange) in 1975 with the goal of helping seed savers everywhere find and share seeds with one another.

Soon after the organization started, letters with beautiful and compelling stories about treasured cultivars began rolling in — with seeds to accompany them. Diane and Kent realized that the world also needed a place where heirloom cultivars and their stories could be held for safekeeping when aging seed savers didn’t have anyone in their family to continue the tradition. Thus, Seed Savers Exchange’s plant collection started slowly and quickly grew to more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated cultivars. Today, the Seed Savers Exchange staff works to rediscover and document the amazing and touching stories of every vegetable, herb, fruit, and flower cultivar in the collection while ensuring seeds remain viable, healthy, and pure.

In addition to the nonprofit’s trial gardens, underground seed vault, research library, and dedicated staff, the organization has built a passionate network of members that helps protect the seeds in the most sustainable way possible: growing the seeds in their communities; sharing the seeds with fellow gardeners; and telling the seeds’ stories to younger generations. The photo slideshow provides a peek inside this passionate community’s annual gathering. 

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.