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From bean collection to seed bank: transformations in heirloom vegetable conservation, 1970–1985

  • HELEN ANNE CURRY (a1)

Abstract

In 1975, the Missouri homesteaders Kent and Diane Ott Whealy launched True Seed Exchange (later Seed Savers Exchange), a network of ‘serious gardeners’ interested in growing and conserving heirloom and other hard-to-find plant varieties, especially vegetables. In its earliest years, the organization pursued its conservation mission through member-led exchange and cultivation, seeing members’ gardens and seed collections as the best means of ensuring that heirloom varieties remained both extant and available to growers. Beginning in 1981, however, Kent Whealy began to develop a central seed repository. As I discuss in this paper, the development of this central collection was motivated in part by concerns about the precariousness of very large individual collections, the maintenance of which was too demanding to entrust to most growers. Although state-run institutions were better positioned to take on large collections, they were nonetheless unsuitable stewards because they placed limits on access. For seed savers, loss of access to varieties via their accession into a state collection could be as much an ending for treasured collections as total physical loss, as it did not necessarily enable continued cultivation. As I show here, these imagined endings inspired the adoption of a new set of conservation practices that replicated those seen in the formal genetic conservation sector, including seed banking, cold storage and safety duplication.

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Copyright

This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Footnotes

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This work was supported by a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant and the Wellcome Trust (109337/Z/15/Z). I am grateful to Sara Peres, participants in the How Collections End workshop, and the editors of this issue for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper. I would also like to thank staff of Seed Savers Exchange and the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation for introducing me to their work and helping me to recover its past.

Footnotes

References

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1 Quotation in Seed Savers Exchange (hereafter SSE) Winter Yearbook 1985, p. 1. All SSE publications were consulted with the assistance of the Robert Becker Memorial Library, Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa.

2 True Seed Exchange (hereafter TSE) 1975, p. 1; 1975 invitation letter by Whealy, quoted in ‘How to set up a seed exchange’, Mother Earth News, July–August 1976, at www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/seed-exchange-zmaz76jaztak, emphasis in original.

3 ‘F1 hybrid’ refers to ‘filial 1 hybrid’, the first-generation offspring resulting from the hybridization of two genetically distinct parent plants. F1 plants are often characterized by hybrid vigour, and for this reason sold by seed companies as superior types. However, the genetic mixing that generates hybrid vigour also means that the offspring of the F1 generation will be genetically heterogeneous – that is, they will not necessarily ‘grow true’ to perform as well as their F1 parent. This feature of F1 hybrids is a disadvantage for growers who cannot save the seed to use the next season, but a boon to seed companies who are guaranteed return customers.

4 TSE 1976, p. 17.

5 TSE 1976, p. 17.

6 TSE 1976, p. 1; Third Annual TSE 1978, p. 1.

7 On the role played by newsletters in facilitating exchange and generating community see Kelty, Christopher M., ‘This is not an article: model organism newsletters and the question of “open science”’, BioSocieties (2012) 7(2), pp. 140168.

8 SSE 1981, p. 45.

9 SSE 1979, p. 1.

10 On the history of ‘genetic resources’ as a biological and agricultural concept see Christophe Bonneuil, ‘Seeing nature as a “universal store of genes”: how biological diversity became “genetic resources”, 1890–1940’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, in press 2019, DOI: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2018.12.002. See also Fenzi, Marianna and Bonneuil, Christophe, ‘From “genetic resources” to “ecosystem services”: a century of science and global policies for crop diversity conservation’, Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (2016) 38(2), pp. 7283.

11 Pistorius, Robin, Scientists, Plants, and Politics: A History of the Plant Genetic Resources Movement, Rome: IPGRI, 1997; Pistorius, Robin and van Wijk, Jeroen, The Exploitation of Plant Genetic Information: Political Strategies in Crop Development, Wallingford: CABI, 1999; Saraiva, Tiago, ‘Breeding Europe: crop diversity, gene banks, and commoners’, in Disco, N. and Kranakis, E. (eds.), Cosmopolitan Commons: Sharing Resources and Risks across Borders, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013, pp. 185212; Peres, Sara, ‘Saving the gene pool for the future: seed banks as archives’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2016) 55, pp. 96104; Curry, Helen Anne, ‘Breeding uniformity and banking diversity: the genescapes of industrial agriculture, 1935–1970’, Global Environment (2017) 10(1), pp. 83113; Curry, , ‘From working collections to the world germplasm project: agricultural modernization and genetic conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation’, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (2017) 39(5), DOI: 10.1007/s40656-017-0131-8.

12 See collected accounts of community-oriented seed saving initiatives in Jabs, Carolyn, The Heirloom Gardener, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1984; Nazarea, Virginia D., Rhoades, Robert E. and Andrews-Swann, Jenna E. (eds.), Seeds of Resistance, Seeds of Hope: Place and Agency in the Conservation of Biodiversity, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013; Vernooy, Ronnie, Shrestha, Pitambar and Sthapit, Bhuwon (eds.), Community Seed Banks: Origins, Evolution and Prospects, Abingdon: Routledge, 2015.

13 Scholarly accounts of Seed Savers Exchange and its approach to conservation include Steinberg, Michael K., ‘Valuing diversity: the role of “seed savers” in in situ crop plant conservation’, Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (2001) 23(3), pp. 4145; Carolan, Michael S., ‘Saving seeds, saving culture: a case study of a heritage seed bank’, Society & Natural Resources (2007) 20(8), pp. 739–50; Helicke, Nurcan Atalan, ‘Seed exchange networks and food system resilience in the United States’, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (2015) 5(4), pp. 636649. A recent account of the organization's history by one of its founders is Whealy, Diane Ott, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, Decorah, IA: Seed Savers Exchange, 2011.

14 For reflections on the histories and politics of cold-storage technologies, and their application to diverse purposes, see Radin, Joanna and Kowal, Emma (eds.), Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

15 For a sociological study that usefully brings together varied examples to offer a generalized picture of seed savers’ activities see Nazarea, Virginia D., Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005. See, similarly, Nazarea, Rhoades and Andrews-Swann, op. cit. (12). For recent accounts of seed savers in the United States see Campbell, Brian, ‘Open-pollinated seed exchange: renewed Ozark tradition as agricultural biodiversity conservation’, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture (2012) 36(5), pp. 500522; Helicke, op. cit. (13).

16 Pottinger, Laura, ‘Planting the seeds of a quiet activism’, Area (2017) 49(2), pp. 215222; Phillips, Catherine, ‘Canada's evolving seed regime: relations of industry, state, and seed savers’, Environments (2008) 36(1), pp. 518.

17 E.g. Gilbert, Paul Robert, ‘Deskilling, agrodiversity, and the seed trade: a view from contemporary British allotments’, Agriculture and Human Values (2013) 30(1), pp. 101114; Helicke, op. cit. (13); Phillips, op. cit. (16).

18 This is in contrast to the burgeoning literature on the history of state-led genetic conservation programs; see references in notes 10 and 11.

19 E.g. Carolan, Michael S., ‘Conserving nature, but to what end? Conservation policies and the unanticipated ecologies they support’, Organization & Environment (2006) 19(2), pp. 153170; Dooren, Thom van, ‘Banking seed: use and value in the conservation of agricultural diversity’, Science as Culture (2009) 18(4), pp. 373395. Both of these authors rightly point out the more encompassing notions of what is to be conserved that dominate in seed-saving organizations and the different conservation practices that emerge; I highlight instead how different conservation aims could lead to similar conservation practices.

20 On the back-to-the-land and homesteading movements of this period see Edgington, Ryan H., ‘“Be receptive to the Good Earth”: health, nature, and labor in countercultural back-to-the-land settlements’, Agricultural History (2008) 82(3), pp. 279308; Brown, Dona, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011, Chapter 7.

21 A recent institutional account is found in Whealy, op. cit. (13).

22 ‘The plowboy interview: Kent Whealy’, Mother Earth News, January–February 1982, at www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/interview-with-seed-savers-exchange-founder. Harlan, a botanist, breeder and USDA plant explorer, and Garrison Wilkes, a botanist with particular expertise in maize diversity, were two particularly vocal American scientists on the subject of genetic erosion in the early 1970s.

23 ‘The plowboy interview: Kent Whealy’, op. cit. (22). The article by Ehrlich to which Whealy referred appears to have been ‘Paul Ehrlich interview: the population bomb’, Mother Earth News, July–August 1974, at www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/paul-ehrlich-the-population-bomb-zmaz74jazraw.

24 SSE 1981, pp. 44–46.

25 TSE 1976, pp. 6, 9.

26 Third Annual TSE 1978, pp. 4, 5.

27 SSE 1979, p. 7.

28 USDA, The National Plant Germplasm System, Program Aid no 1188, Washington, DC: USDA, 1977, p. 4. See also Burgess, Sam (ed.), The National Program for Conservation of Crop Germplasm (A Progress Report on Federal/State Cooperation), Athens, GA: University Printing Department, 1971.

29 Letter from L. Bass, quoted in Third Annual TSE 1978, p. 28.

30 E.g. SSE Winter 1986, pp. 39, 42; SSE Winter 1987, pp. 53, 57.

31 See correspondence in the records of the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation (hereafter NLGRP), Fort Collins, Colorado, folder ‘Withee, J. (Beans)’. For a further account of John Withee see ‘The life and legacy of the Bean Man’, at www.seedsavers.org/withee-exhibit-bean-man.

32 SSE 1979, p. 22.

33 Dietz to Bass, 4 January 1976, NLGRP, folder ‘Berrier Bean Collection 2’.

34 The descriptors ‘bush’ and ‘pole’ refer to the morphology of the plant: ‘bush’ beans typically grow a meter or less in height and support their own weight while ‘pole’ beans grow as vines and require a stake for support. Berrier to Bass, 8 January 1977, NLGRP, folder ‘Berrier Bean Collection 2’.

35 Beans were and are a popular focus for seed savers who amass large collections of a single vegetable. One reason for this is that a great deal of diversity is visible in the seeds themselves, which can differ dramatically in shape, size and colour. Many other vegetables must be grown out in order for their diversity to be similarly appreciated.

36 Bass to M. Berrier, 17 February 1978, NLGRP, folder ‘Berrier Bean Collection 2’.

37 SSE 1979, p. 22.

38 E.g. Bass to Lillibridge, 30 March 1978; Bass to Stokes, 11 May 1978, NLGRP, folder ‘Berrier Bean Collection 2’.

39 Bass to Stokes, 11 May 1978, NLGRP, folder ‘Berrier Bean Collection 2’.

40 Bass to Withee, 29 March 1978, NLGRP, folder ‘Withee, J. (Beans)’.

41 ‘Beans from the Berrier Collection (for regrowing)’, 5 February 1979, folder ‘Berrier Bean Collection 3’.

42 ‘Beans from the Burt F. Berrier Collection [with annotation by Withee]’, [1978], NLGRP, folder ‘Withee, J. (Beans)’.

43 SSE 1979, p. 32.

44 ‘The life and legacy of the Bean Man’, op. cit. (31), emphasis added.

45 SSE 1981, pp. 48, 51–52.

46 SSE 1981, p. 52.

47 SSE Harvest Edition 1994, p. 129.

48 SSE Harvest Edition 1994, p. 130–131.

49 SSE 1981, p. 46.

50 SSE 1981, p. 47.

51 SSE Harvest Edition 1987, pp. 93–96.

52 SSE Harvest Edition 1987, p. 96.

53 SSE Harvest Edition 1987, p. 96.

54 On plant exploration within the US Department of Agriculture see Williams, Karen A., ‘An overview of the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System's exploration program’, HortScience (2005) 40(2), pp. 297301.

55 SSE Harvest Edition 1987, p. 96.

56 The history is not entirely clear; this is my best reconstruction from the available documents. See NLGRP, ‘Berrier Bean Collection’ files.

57 A search portal for the USDA collections cataloged in GRIN-Global can be accessed at npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/search.aspx.

58 Russ Crow, ‘A bean collector's window’, 2012–2017, www.abeancollectorswindow.com/index.html. The exchange listings of Seed Savers Exchange can be searched at exchange.seedsavers.org.

59 Not without objections from Whealy, who left Seed Savers Exchange in 2007. See Kent Whealy, ‘Response regarding Svalbard’, November 2010, at www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/response-final_40147.pdf.

60 Radin and Kowal, op. cit. (14); for a contribution that deals explicitly with seed banks see Thom van Dooren, Chapter 13, ‘Banking the forest: loss, hope, and care in Hawaiian conservation’, in Radin and Kowal, op. cit. (14).

61 Third Annual TSE 1978, p. 18.

This work was supported by a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant and the Wellcome Trust (109337/Z/15/Z). I am grateful to Sara Peres, participants in the How Collections End workshop, and the editors of this issue for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper. I would also like to thank staff of Seed Savers Exchange and the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation for introducing me to their work and helping me to recover its past.

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