Going to The Mountain (or in this case, The Farm): Seed Saver’s Exchange Conference & Campout

I first got introduced to Seed Saver’s Exchange in 1989. At the time I was working for an environmental publication and had the pleasure of being friends with a co-worker who was one of the original employees from Smith & Hawken. She had taken me under her wing to teach me everything she knew about edible gardening and started me on an interesting and joy filled path that I still walk today. The editor of the publication knew I had fallen in love with food gardening and gave me the SSE catalog. It was much smaller than it is today! From that first glance I was hooked not only on the importance of seed saving and genetic diversity but I became a SSE junkie too.

  • to the point that the first seed order I placed in 2007 when we just installed The Yarden was to SSE
  • to the point that the very first post for this blog in September of 2009 was inspired by them
  • to the point that, years later, the 2012 flagship projects of The Peterson Garden Project is the Edible Treasures Garden at the Field Museum of Natural History where we partnered with SSE (and I got to spend time with my (s)hero Diane Ott Whealy)
  • to the point that I’m wearing one of their t-shirts as I type this (yes, I’m a dork!)

If those snippets give you an inkling of how important this organization has been in shaping me as a person and guiding my world view and “second career” in the edible and community garden world then perhaps you can have an idea about how excited I was to attend the 32nd annual Campout and Conference. It was kind of like church.

[If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of heirloom seeds you might want to read this NYT article before continuing. It will put things in perspective.]

Although I was dreading the 5+ hour drive – especially after my mobile phone cut out about three hours into the trip and registered NO SERVICE the entire weekend – once I got there the magic began.

I am not waxing rhapsodic here… every person I talked to and every speaker I listened to was genuine and powerful. This is a movement made of real people. Doers who have believed in this work since the early 70’s. There were no air kisses and fakey social niceties – these were real people. Doing real work.

The first session (of many) that blew me away was from Ken Greene from Hudson Valley Seed Library. Like me, he came to the seed saving world from a strange entry point – he was a librarian. His and his partner, Doug Muller’s, work with the seed library has ignited a phenomenon across the country. And their brilliant idea to meld artwork with seed diversity showcases the creativity and passion of artists and other activists working hard to do the good work of protecting genetic diversity before it is too late.

This is going to be a long blog post, so I won’t go on. You can read more about the Hudson Valley Seed Library HERE.

Hand in hand with food growing is cooking and eating. In one instance a regional dish – the bean pot – spurred a now deceased SSE member, John Withee, to hunt down bean varieties he remembered from his youth. [A touch of OCD seems to be a key trait in many of the old school (and maybe new school – ahem) members of SSE.] So for one of the meals we had a bean pot with several varieties from the SSE exchange collection. Then the “seed bible” was brought out with a visual of over 600 of the varieties in the 1,168 strong collection Mr. Withee bequeathed to SSE. OCD indeed. To learn more, click HERE.

The event was one long seed swap. Although the “official” seed swapping happened in one place and time, people were sharing and talking seeds the all weekend. Naturally. I got turned on to the potato onion which was part of the inspiration for the genesis of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. And also snagged a envelope full of “Alice Elliot” Okra seeds to dig myself deeper into my obsession with and fear of okra. I’ll get over it one of these days. Maybe.

Possibly the most impressive aspect of the weekend was fully, and finally, understanding the effort it takes to maintain a living seed collection. The number “25,000 entries” was bantered around a lot over the weekend. The learning opportunities around the collection upkeep and scope were impressive and well done. The relatively new CORE Project was established to preserve the stories that go along with the seeds. [Had my guidance counselor in high school told me I could grow up to be a “seed librarian” I might have played my cards in life differently…]

In a weekend of amazing experiences, the private farm tour on Saturday night at dusk was the most remarkable of all. Jim, the facilities manager, and I had hit it off. I asked how a curious groupie could see more of the 850+ acres that belonged to Heritage Farm. A beat up pick up was the answer… along with two other lucky souls we got the tour of the trout pond (aka “swimming hole”), old buildings from long disappeared farms, the white park cattle herd, countless preservation gardens dotted here and there and finally, just as the fingernail moon was coming out, “inspiration point” the high point of the farm between two valleys. I wish I could say more but there are no words…

And truly… there are  no words. The beauty and passion I experienced at Seed Saver’s Exchange touched me in ways I can’t quite articulate. And, when wordless, pictures do the talking best…

Veggie Gardens






That purple flower, bottom middle… that’s the flower that started it all. Diane Ott Whealy’s grandfather’s morning glory that his family had brought from Bavaria at the turn of the century. One small flower proves how much that the love of beauty, family and faith in the future can do.


LaManda JoyGoing to The Mountain (or in this case, The Farm): Seed Saver’s Exchange Conference & Campout

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