An Arctic Journey: Seeds Travel to Norway for Deposit at Svalbard

  Lights illuminate the entrance to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, shown at night shortly after the vault opened in 2008.

Lights illuminate the entrance to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, shown at night shortly after the vault opened in 2008.

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a steely compound tunneled 500 feet into an icy mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, just 600 miles from the North Pole. To date, it has welcomed nearly 1 million seed samples, including more than 3,000 from Seed Savers Exchange.

Earlier this month, SSE mailed Svalbard its latest shipment—a sturdy black box containing 225 accessions neatly packed in alphanumeric order. The 225 accessions, which comprise 975,425 seeds representing 40 unique crop types, bringing the total number of samples Seed Savers Exchange has stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault since its opening to 3,322. 

While Seed Savers Exchange’s deposits represent only a small portion of the more than 850,000 total deposits at Svalbard, the organization’s contribution is unique in that the deposits are mostly heirloom varieties conserved by amateur home gardeners throughout the United States. This year’s shipment included a variety of pepper stewarded for five generations by a family in Des Moines, Iowa: the ‘Ausilio Thin Skin Italian’ pepper, donated to SSE by Chad and Michele Ogle-Riccelli in 2015.  Chad’s great-grandparents, Rachel and Giovanni—Italian immigrants who met, married, and settled in Des Moines—first grew the pepper in the rich soil of their new homeland, and Chad's three children are now learning how to tend, cook, and save seed from the pepper.

  Molly Thompson, curatorial technician, packs the seeds sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in February.

Molly Thompson, curatorial technician, packs the seeds sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in February.

The pepper is among the more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated varieties that Seed Savers Exchange preserves in its collection at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. Each year, staff regenerate seed from some of these varieties on the grounds of Heritage Farm to ensure that the organization has sufficient quantity of viable seed in storage to protect the variety. If a recent regeneration produces enough seed, that seed is then sent to Svalbard and/or the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Ft. Collins, Colorado. (Seed Savers Exchange will ship more than 300 accessions to the USDA this spring.)

“These efforts ensure the security of our collection,” says John Torgrimson, Seed Savers Exchange executive director. “We deposit seeds from our collection in Svalbard as a way to ensure the long-term conservation of the genetic diversity that has been entrusted to us by amateur gardeners and our members. Varieties can be lost, and Svalbard, like the USDA, offers free insurance to us and other seed banks around the world.”

Learn more about the efforts of Seed Savers Exchange to collect, save, and share heirloom seeds.