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A Gardener's Paradise: Seed Savers Heritage Farm

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 18, 2012 6:00PM

When you crest the hill at the entrance to Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm, you feel like you have entered another world. A world where everything is green, there are no pests to eat your garden plants and "organic" and "heirloom" aren't words on fancy labels but unspoken assumptions. For the full-time workers there, I'm sure it isn't quite so perfect, but luckily, they let me live out my fantasy. Best of all, this fantasy world is free, open to the public, and within driving distance of Chicago. Welcome to Heritage Farm.

Seed Savers Exchange, founded in 1975 by Kent Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy, preserves tens of thousands of heirloom seeds and plant samples. During the 1960s and 70s, as hybrid seeds began to dominate the market and seed companies consolidated, thousands of varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers began to go extinct. Once no one was selling them anymore, the varieties dropped off the map. Starting with old fashioned newspaper ads and flyers, the Whealys managed to rescue and preserve many of these wonderful old varieties. Many of the fancy produce items we see at farmers markets and on restaurant tables was rescued from extinction by Seed Savers and their thousands of members.

Unfortunately, seeds don't stay viable in jars. You can't simply keep millions of seeds and then dig them back out in 50 years - they have to be grown and re-harvested, over and over and over. Hence Heritage Farm, Seed Savers living laboratory and production facility. Called "the most diverse farm in the world," Seed Savers many gardens showcase the heirloom varieties in their collection. And they do it in the prettiest way possible, in an effort to inspire home gardeners to buy some seeds, take them home, and plant them all over their homes and yards. They have the largest non-governmental seed collection in the world, and they exchange seeds with many of the worlds most important seed banks.

There are two main gardens near the Seed Savers Lillian Goldman Visitors Center - the main preservation garden and Diane's garden. I was lucky enough to get a personal tour of Diane's garden from Diane Ott Whealy herself, who I met while she was in Chicago planting the Edible Treasures Garden at the Field Museum. Whealy stepped down as the leader of Seed Savers as it grew larger and more complicated to run, but she is still Vice President of the organization. This garden is the only place on the now 800-acre Heritage Farm that is entirely her own. Its a combination of a ramblingly beautiful herb garden on one side and a collection of raised beds on the other, filled with companion plantings of flowers and vegetables. If you need inspiration, this is the place. As Diane told me, "You can talk about heirlooms and genetic diversity all you want, but seeing it makes it real."

In addition to the show gardens, the farm has a collection of Ancient White Park Cattle, an endangered heirloom variety, as well as heirloom ducks, chickens and pigs. They have an orchard, a trout stream, and miles of hiking trails that take visitors past many of the production gardens and greenhouses. For the home gardener, they have a gift shop stocked with hundreds of varieties of Seed Savers seeds as well as a collection of garden tools and books. For anyone interested in food, gardening or farming, you couldn't have a more fun day than tromping around Heritage Farm.

Heritage Farm is located in Decorah, Iowa, about a 5-hour drive from Chicago. Decorah has a wonderfully restored historic hotel, the Hotel Winneshiek, as well as several great restaurants. The farm is open March - September, 7 days a week, and guided tours are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. If you can't make it to Heritage Farm, buy some seeds!

Heritage Farm is located in at 3094 North Winn Road in Decorah, Iowa.