(Almost) Instant Replay: 9th Annual Tomato Tasting Results

(Almost) Instant Replay: 9th Annual Tomato Tasting Results

Perhaps the only thing that the staff a Seed Savers Exchange love more about their jobs than growing plants  is actually getting to eat some of the amazing fruits that these plants produce. As part of our work here we get to take part in taste evaluations and no evaluation is more anticipated and beloved than our Annual Tomato Tasting.

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Reinvention of the Humble Tomato Tasting

Reinvention of the Humble Tomato Tasting

Due to the popularity of our on-site Tomato Tasting, and the wild success of last year’s Apple Tasting event in Des Moines, we had the idea to hit the road with our tomatoes. As we began developing plans for a Tomato Tasting Block Party at the Tiny Diner in Minneapolis, we got inspired to expand beyond our initial vision for an off-site outreach effort.

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Evaluating Heirlooms with 2014 Conference Attendees

Evaluating Heirlooms with 2014 Conference Attendees

Part of the evaluation process (and arguably the most fun) involves Tasting Trials. Aside from SSE Members who participate in the Member Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN), the Evaluation Program has not requested public participation in the Taste Trials up until this point. Sixty-five participants at the 2014 Conference and Campout gave us detailed rankings and notes about 4 snap beans, 5 carrots, 4 collards, and 11 kale.

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2014 Heritage Farm Companion Spring Edition

2014 Heritage Farm Companion Spring Edition

The Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) quarterly member publication, The Heritage Farm Companion, is now being made available online and our 2014 Spring Edition has just been posted.

Non-members can get a preview of this edition by reading about SSE's past and upcoming farm-to-table collaborations with the Pepperfield Project in this article by David Cavagnaro.

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Seed Saving School

Always label your seeds

Seed school in the garden

Seed Savers Exchange was proud to present our first-ever multi-day Seed Saving School last weekend to 19 enthusiastic participants from across the country and around the world.

Our most comprehensive workshop available, the Seed Saving School combined early-morning classroom lectures with hours of hands-on activities out in the field. Students had the rare opportunity to experience seed saving from start to finish: garden planning, plant isolation, hand-pollination, seed harvesting, seed cleaning, storage and seed sharing.

Friday morning began with introductions, and though our class was quite diverse (gardeners/entrepreneurs/teachers from the UK, California, Alberta, Iowa, Michigan…), everyone was united in their excitement for heirloom produce, biodiversity, sustainability and self-sufficiency. After a quick orientation to Heritage Farm and the various ways that we protect and promote our garden heritage, students headed to the gardens to begin harvesting heirloom tomatoes and squeezing out their seeds.

tomato seeds

Saturday focused almost entirely on flowers. Collection Curator Jenna Sicuranza taught pollination, reproduction and lifecycles for common garden crops, then the class packed up for a field trip to The Pepperfield Project, where founder David Cavagnaro discussed seed saving on a home scale and overwintering biennials. In the afternoon, back at Heritage Farm, students learned hand-pollination and isolation techniques to keep seeds pure for outbreeding crops like corn, squash, cucumbers and mustards.

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Sunday’s activities related primarily to harvesting and cleaning seeds of various garden plants. We began with an illustration of market maturity vs. seed maturity, then proceeded to harvest beans, peppers, eggplant, squash and cucumbers with the intent to process them later in the day. After everyone built their own screens for seed cleaning, we spent the afternoon splitting squash, macerating peppers and eggplant, threshing and winnowing beans, and rinsing the tomato seeds we’d squeezed and left to ferment at the beginning of the course.

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By the end of the weekend, each student had a small collection of vegetable, flower and herb seeds to take home for planting next year. As we said ‘farewell’, I encouraged students to share their new seeds and new skills with friends and neighbors, or with fellow gardener/seed savers through our Seed Exchange.

These knowledgeable and enthusiastic participants give us an overwhelming sense of optimism about the future of our garden heritage. Folks like these—who continue to seek out experiences that allow them to preserve rare heirloom and open-pollinated varieties in their own backyards and pursue opportunities to connect with other seed savers—are vital to our mission.

Congratulations to all of our Seed Saving School graduates! Because of your success, we look forward to making our Seed Saving School a permanent fixture in the educational offerings at Heritage Farm.

For other gardeners interested in attending next year’s Seed Saving School, look for more details early in 2014.

Located in Decorah, Iowa, Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and promoting America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

Forgotten Tastes

Heirloom Apple Tasting

Few people know that our garden heritage contains a rich diversity of thousands of apple varieties. The limited variety of modern commercial apples leaves little room to experience the diversity with which we were at one time endowed, with varieties grown for specific purposes like pressing cider, baking, storing, and making sauce. SSE has obtained a majority of the pre-1900 varieties still in existence for its orchards, where hundreds of different apple varieties that flourished in the 19th century and before are on display. Heirloom Apple TastingOn Sunday, October 6, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) held Forgotten Tastes, An Heirloom Apple Event in Johnston, Iowa, at Grade A Gardens. Operated by Jordan Clasen and Thomas Burkhead, Grade A Gardens grows SSE vegetable varieties for a CSA and many progressive Des Moines restaurants.

Despite rain and cold weather, the event attracted 200 guests from Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Forgotten Tastes provided a rare opportunity to taste and enjoy over 70 heirloom apple varieties from SSE’s historic apple orchards. Guests recorded their notes as they proceeded through the apple lineup, tasting apples with whimsical-sounding names and curious histories, including Northern Spy, Sops of Wine, and Zuccalmaglio’s Reinette. Wine, artisan cheeses from The Cheese Shop, heirloom apple tarts from Tami’s Tarts, South Union Bakery bread, and cured meats from La Quercia were specially selected to pair well with the apple varieties. Two delicious versions of hard cider were available for tasting, and guests enjoyed music by members of Cousin Eddy while they mingled. Meanwhile the lecture tent was packed with eager learners enjoying talks on heirloom apples, orchard management, grafting, and cider. Speakers included SSE’s Diane Ott Whealy, Dan Bussey and Steve Carlson.

Cheese DisplayHappily for Seed Savers Exchange, Kari and CJ Bienert organized a "Happy Apples" event at The Cheese Shop (Shops at Roosevelt) the following evening with SSE’s Orchard Manager Dan Bussey talking heirloom apples and CJ suggesting exquisite cheese pairings. What a perfect way to top off the apple weekend!

Slow Food Des Moines was instrumental in making the event a success, through help with planning, food, and enlisting some 30 volunteers. Also assisting were Paul and Lori Rottenberg, of Orchestrate Hospitality, the marketing partner for Gateway Market and other “fresh and local” restaurant businesses.

Forgotten Tastes was sponsored by Wells Fargo. Ticket sales provided much needed revenue to support the work of Seed Savers Exchange.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and promoting America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

2013 Squash Festival: Squashtastic

Heirloom Squash Display

Heirloom Squash DisplayThe fifth annual Seed Savers Exchange Harvest Festival incorporated a celebration of squash with all the fun activities everyone has come to expect at the autumn event. The versatile and dynamic Cucurbita genus offers so much more than just pumpkins and zucchini, and the SSE crew was eager to show it off. Along with a beautiful heirloom squash display, attendees enjoyed a variety of gourmet squash soups, workshops on saving squash seed, a lecture on the origins and evolution of squash, and a talk on the culinary uses of different squash varieties. Pressing apples for ciderFestival-goers also helped press apple cider, sampled a variety of apples from the Historic Orchard, learned to plant and grow garlic, enjoyed a guided edible and medicinal plant identification walk, and learned to make broomcorn brooms. Turnout for the event was great despite the wet and cool weather, which was decided by all to be ideal conditions for the soup cook-off.

The Harvest Soup Cook-off is quickly becoming a highlight for this annual event, where chefs from some of the most respected local restaurants enter a soup for attendees to vote on. In the days prior to the festival each chef was given a box of Potimarron squash, and each one showed up Saturday with a delicious and unique soup for the contest. After the ballots were cast and the votes were tallied, Chef Tom Skold of Albert’s Restaurant was declared winner of this year’s cook-off.

Winner of the soup cook-offEntering his Harvest Bean and Squash Soup, the chef admitted he had not handled the rare Potimarron winter squash before. He said of it, "With such a brilliant, colorful squash, I was really excited to use it," adding, "this is a transitional time where you can still get your fresh produce out of the garden as well as your fall crops. Everyone is interested in eating this time of year, so it’s really a good time to be a chef." Below you'll find Chef Tom Skold’s winning soup recipe.

Download all of the mouth-watering squash soup recipes here.

Potimarron Squash

Harvest Bean and Squash Soup


¾ cup Anasazi beans, soak overnight water to cover salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste 4 cups Potimarron (or butternut) squash, peeled, large dice 6 medium tomatoes, cored, halved 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 ancho chili pepper 8 cloves garlic, sliced 1 white onion, large dice 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock 3 tablespoons rosemary, chopped ¾ cup hard cheese (such as parmesan), grated


1. Drain the soaking water from the beans, cover in fresh water, bring to a boil with a pinch of salt, and simmer until thoroughly cooked.

2. Preheat oven to 425F. Place the squash and tomato halves on separate baking sheets and drizzle them each with 2 T. olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Roast the squash and tomatoes 45 minutes at 425F and reserve, cutting the tomatoes in large pieces when cool.

3. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Toast the ancho chili on all sides and remove; when cooled seed and chop. Add the garlic to the same oil, toast golden brown and remove. Add the onions to the same oil and cook until caramelized.

4. Add chicken stock, rosemary, cooked beans, reserved squash, tomatoes, chilis, and garlic to the pot and bring the soup to a boil. Puree part of the soup to thicken, season to taste and serve topped with the grated cheese.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and promoting America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

And the winner is...

And the winner is...

Despite concerns that our tomatoes would not ripen in time for the event, over 40 heirloom and open-pollinated tomato varieties (and one mega-mart hybrid tomato) competed for the title of this year's favorite. SSE staff, friends, and family brought tomatoes from gardens across northeast Iowa and Wisconsin to serve over 800 event attendees.

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Gary Paul Nabhan Speaks at Seed Savers Exchange

2013 Conference Keynote

Gary Paul NabhanAt this year's 33rd Annual Conference and Campout, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) was more than happy to welcome back a long-time friend, Gary Paul Nabhan. Gary has been a supporter of Seed Savers Exchange going back to before 1980, and has since appeared at numerous SSE Conference and Campouts. Having recently published a book titled "Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land," he spoke this year about climate uncertainty becoming the new normal and the importance of adapting our food systems to a changing climate. Stressing the importance of agrobiodiversity in mitigating the effects of climate change, the Ecumenical Franciscan brother led Conference attendees in a renewal of their vows—to seeds. Repeating after him, the crowd recited:

I, (name), a gardener, farmer, seed saver, and eater,

wish to renew our sacred vows

to take care, love and serve,

the astonishing diversity of life on this earth.

Through sickness and in health ("I bet you knew that line," Gary laughed),

in times of crisis and times of joy,

to sow the seeds of food justice,

to sow the seeds of food security,

to sow the seeds of food democracy,

to sow the seeds of true food sovereignty,

through our own actions and our own eating patterns

so that we may all eat what we have truly sown.

I reaffirm our covenant with this earth,

to humbly be one more way that seeds themselves regenerate into more seeds to nourish all of us.

View the video of Gary Paul Nabhan's keynote address at the 2013 Conference and Campout:

Check out Gary's website here, and his recent article in the New York Times here.

Stop back to our blog in the coming weeks for more coverage of this year's Conference, as well as the Harvest Edition of the Heritage Farm Companion coming out this Autumn.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), member supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. Our mission is to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.


2013 Conference and Campout Slideshow

Diane's garden tour

With nearly 400 attendees from across the U.S. and beyond, the 33rd Annual Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout was a huge success. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) members are passionate about what they do, and events like this are important for networking, seed swapping, and sharing knowledge. The conference also introduced new seed savers and gardeners to resources, information, and gave many the inspiration to get started.

For the first time ever, Seed Savers Exchange held a Member Field Day on Friday before the conference started. Over 150 members were given behind-the-scenes tours and discussed possibilities for future member engagements with SSE staff and board members. It was a wonderfully productive day that is sure to become a fixture at future SSE Conferences.

Another highlight from the Conference was the distribution of former SSE member Mary Ann Fox's bean collection. SSE inherited Mary Ann's enormous seed collection after her passing in February, and successfully distributed the entire collection to seed savers at the Conference who were eager to carry on her legacy. Read about Mary Ann Fox in our blog and in Modern Farmer Magazine, and look to the Harvest edition of our membership publication, The Heritage Farm Companion, for in-depth coverage of both the member field day and the distribution of Mary Ann's bean collection.


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Click here to read about the 2014 Conference and Campout set for July 18-20, 2014

Check back on our blog to see more coverage of the 2013 Conference and Campout. Now posted: Gary Paul Nabhan's keynote address!


Located six miles north of Decorah, Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the preservation and distribution of heirloom seeds.  Seed Savers maintains a collection of thousands of open pollinated varieties, making it one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the United States.  For more information, go to seedsavers.org