DECORAH, Iowa — If it weren't for his wife's grandfather, Kent Whealy might be just another journalist.
Just before he died, Baptist Ott gave Whealy the seeds of a morning glory, a large pink German tomato and a little pole bean. He instructed Whealy to preserve the seeds, which had come from Bavaria in the 1930s.
That was 16 years ago, when Whealy was fresh out of the University of Kansas. He now is editor and founder of Seed Savers Exchange, a small group in Iowa working to save countless varieties of seeds from extinction.
"Animals just have more cuddle appeal. It's a lot easier to get the concern about an animal than it is to get concerned about a plant," Whealy said, adding that the "genetic erosion" of seeds has been dramatic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a survey of the U.S. and Canadian garden seed inventory in 1903. A comparison between that list and the inventory of the government's largest seed collection, in Ft. Collins, Colo., found that "only 3% of the varieties available in 1903 are still in government collections," he said.
"That's the type of loss that has occurred in the last 80 years."
Not Seen as Threat
Genetic erosion of plant seeds "is so abstract that most people fail to recognize it as a threat," but rapidly changing weather patterns, increased use of pesticides and chemicals, and hardier insects will ultimately take a toll on the nation's food crops, Whealy said.
"If you look at the corn around here . . . it's just millions of acres and billions of plants that are genetically similar," he said. "There are only six parent lines that make up all of the corn plantings in the U.S., and three of those lines are so closely related they might as well be the same.
"What I'm saying is that we're in sort of an evolutionary race, with the plants on one side and weather and disease and pests on the other. We're going to need all the genetic variability that we can lay our hands on to breed the crops of the future.
"The situation is just ripe for epidemics of huge proportions."
Much of the problem is economic.
In 1984, Seed Savers researched "the entire U.S. and Canadian" garden seed inventory and found 230 mail-order vegetable seed catalogues. Three years later, 54 of the 230 had gone out of business. The huge companies generally discontinue a line of seeds if they can't sell 500 packets, he said.
Tries to Fill Void
The Seed Savers Exchange attempts to fill that void. It offers three publications a year, the most important being the winter yearbook. Through this 250-page journal, more than 700 members who pay $15 a year trade their seed collections, many of them strains that go back generations.
Whealy himself has strains of vegetable seeds dating to the Mayflower.
"This is the core of the Seed Exchange. The yearbook lists 4,000 varieties, and almost all of them are not available commercially," he said. "A lot of it is very rare, material that is almost extinct."
Whealy lives on an 84-acre farm with his wife and five children. Heritage Farm, as he calls it, is an ideal place to plant the thousands of seeds he has collected, stored in labeled jars and recorded on a computer.
"Out at the farm we're keeping 2,200 strains of beans, 1,500 kinds of tomatoes and probably between 300 to 400 different kinds of peppers," he said.
Also at the farm, Whealy is raising a type of cattle called ancient white park, which were hunted during the 12th and 13th centuries in England and "only number about 100 now," he said. He's also raising "Iowa Blue" chickens, a vanishing breed once prevalent in northeast Iowa.
"We've also hired an orchard manager who is doing research right now on varieties we would like to put into an historic apple orchard," he said. "We imagine it would be 400 to 500 varieties of 19th-Century apples."