Once Upon a Seed: Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa
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From this plot in northeast Iowa, stories grow. They are old family tales, rising from the earth in the shape of blooms and berries and tendrils. In this wooded, hilly region, a small rough field spreads like a rumpled blanket in a clearing. Vegetables assemble in rows, but loosely, like restless school children and with just as many personalities. Tall and narrow stands the 7-foot 'Reid's Yellow Dent' sweet corn that won a prize in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was developed in 1846 from seeds brought from Ohio.
Nearby dangle tan string beans ('Lina Sisco's Bird Egg') mottled with maroon. They come from a family who hauled them to Missouri in a covered wagon in the 1880s. Named in 1810 as one of the first snap beans without a string to remove, the 'Lazy Housewife' vines up poles. The orange 'Nebraska Wedding' tomato stands at the heart of a tradition of providing brides with tomato seeds as a wedding gift. All around beckons a cornucopia of varieties not readily found at retail.
"There's a connection to older plants," says Diane Ott Whealy, cofounder of Seed Savers Exchange, one of the country's largest nonprofit seed banks. She runs it from Heritage Farm, the 890-acre headquarters 6 miles north of Decorah. "There's a flavorful memory, especially with the tomatoes. We don't separate the seeds from the people. There's a history and a story to them."
Click ahead to read more about Seed Savers. Slides 4 to 12 feature a sampler of heirloom plants. Slide 13 has information on some of our other favorite stops in Decorah.