Carol Deppe: Plant Selection for Seed Saving

Carol Deppe: Plant Selection for Seed Saving

Seed Savers Exchange is proud to feature Deppe as a keynote speaker for the 36th annual Conference & Campout this July.  Her speech, The Art and Science of Selection, will focus on plant selection which according to Deppe “is the heart and soul of seed saving and variety maintenance.”

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Plant breeder Carol Deppe to headline SSE 2016 Conference

Plant breeder Carol Deppe to headline SSE 2016 Conference

Oregon plant breeder and author Carol Deppe will be the keynote speaker at the 36th annual Seed Savers Exchange conference July 15 – 17.  Deppe holds a PhD in genetics from Harvard University and specializes in developing open source crops for organic growing conditions, sustainable agriculture, and human survival for the next thousand years. Carol is owner of Fertile Valley Seeds, a member of the Open Source Seed Initiative board of directors, and author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, The Resilient Gardener, and The Tao of Vegetable Gardening.

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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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My Internship at Seed Savers Exchange

Corn Pollination

*We are now accepting internship applications for the 2014 season.*Click here for details.

By Talinna Appling

Germination Test

I discovered my passion for growing plants after spending a summer working for a local nursery in Helena, MT as a teenager. Several years later I decided I wanted to continue my quest for plant knowledge, and I enrolled in the Sustainable Foods and Bioenergy Systems program at Montana State University. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I developed an interest in saving seeds and seed production after picking up a copy of Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed. When the time came to choose an organization to satisfy the internship requirement for my degree, I looked to Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). With the help of Tim Johnson (Seed Bank Manager at SSE), the arrangements were soon made and I headed to Decorah, Iowa for a five-week immersion in seed-saving.

I arrived about a week before the annual conference—which I soon found out was a three-day gathering of dedicated seed savers from around the U.S.  It was inspiring to be among so many people who were as crazy about plants as I am. For me, the highlight of the conference was helping with Mary Ann Fox’s bean collection legacy distribution (read about it here), of which I committed to growing, saving, and sharing four of her varieties.  Needless to say the conference was an incredible experience that I was thankful to be a part of!

Corn Pollination

The main objective of my internship, however, was to learn how to hand pollinate (HP) corn and squash.

In order to save pure seed from corn, the ears have to be bagged before they push silks out to prevent cross-pollination with other varieties. These bagged ears are checked daily until the silks emerge. Once the silks emerge, the tassels get bagged so that pollen can be collected the following morning. Pollen from dozens of tassels of a single variety are sifted and combined to ensure the subsequent seeds carry the traits of multiple plants. About a teaspoon of pollen is then poured onto the exposed silks of each bagged ear. The ears are quickly re-bagged after pollination and remain covered until harvest time. In a population of 300 plants per variety, SSE’s goal is to obtain at least 200 ears of corn. Corn HP is a hard job that often left me covered in pollen and rashes, but it was rewarding to know that I was helping to preserve varieties that may otherwise be lost.

Squash HP isn’t as complicated as corn, but still requires a bit of work. The process starts in the late afternoon with the search for male and female flowers. Staff members scout for closed flowers with yellowing corollas, a sign that they will open the next day. These are pinned shut to prevent insect visitors from pollinating the flowers. To reduce the chance of spreading disease, pollination starts after the dew has dried the following morning. At SSE, three male flowers are used to pollinate each female to ensure good fertilization and a mix of genetics in the resulting seeds. The males are collected and their petals removed to pollinate the females, which are then taped shut and labeled. Trying to do all this before a bee comes along can be a challenge!

During my internship I also helped in the diversity garden, weeding and pruning plants alongside SSE Co-Founder Diane Ott Whealy (an unexpected treat!), helping with plant evaluations and taste testing (perhaps the best job at SSE!), germination testing (there’s much more to it than you’d think), and inventorying seed in the seed lab. The last week of the internship was set aside for me to reflect upon what I had learned and to develop a display for the diversity garden that communicated the techniques of squash HP.

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My internship at SSE was an invaluable learning experience. Being able to see the many different aspects of the organization was a fun and helpful way to learn about seed saving and the role that SSE has played in preserving our agricultural heritage. The staff members are all fantastic, fun, and dedicated people who were excited to help me learn everything I could while I was there. Seed production is an often overlooked aspect of agriculture and saving seeds is an important skill for anyone wanting to garden more sustainably. More importantly, seed saving and sharing is a great way to bring families and communities together and re-establish local food systems. If you are a student who is interested in sustainable agriculture, I would highly recommend learning how to save your own seeds and to consider SSE’s internship opportunities.

If you are interested in pursuing an internship with Seed Savers Exchange, contact Renata Christen at for more information.

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.

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

Mary Ann Fox: Legacy of a Seed Saver

Mary Ann Fox

Mary Ann Fox's Seeds In my role as an inventory technician for the Preservation Collection at Heritage Farm, I encounter the mundane and meaningful in almost equal parts. There’s no reliable rhythm to it. Some days are complete numbers-data tedium, while others are full of gratifying meaning.

Mary Ann Fox

My work over the past few weeks has been leaning heavily (in a good way) toward the gratifyingly meaningful. We have in just the past week received at Heritage Farm a large seed collection comprising just over two hundred bean varieties. This collection came to us from Mary Ann Fox, longtime listed member of Seed Savers Exchange from Shelbyville, Indiana, who died this past February at the age of 71. Mary Ann’s relatives, realizing the worth and importance of the collection and having to confront its monumental scope, were especially anxious to identify someone who could not only take the mass of seed off their hands, but who could also find eager stewards of Mary Ann’s seed-saving legacy.

Enter Jim Kelly, SSE member and friend to Mary Ann. Not only did Jim find a temporary storage location for the collection and move the countless plastic seed-filled bottles to the location, he also began imagining ways in which the collection could be shared among seed savers. Eventually Jim contacted Heritage Farm to find out if there were a way the staff here could collaborate and assist. Together, we came up with a plan to distribute Mary Ann’s seed collection at the Seed Savers Exchange 2013 Conference and Campout.

Inventorying the Seeds

An important step in preparing the collection for distribution is a thorough inventory and labeling of each seed sample. This has been my task over the past few days and will likely take another few days to complete. While the work may seem tedious and mundane to the outside observer, handling these artifacts of Mary Ann’s legacy—noting the care with which she filed and labeled each variety—is a profoundly meaningful “chore.”

Would you like to celebrate and honor Mary Ann’s seed-saving legacy right in your own garden? Will you be attending the July 2013 Conference and Campout? Look for the tent with racks of beautiful bean seeds in clear plastic bottles. I’ll be there with a collection catalog to help you choose the two or three (or four or more!) varieties that you want to take home to your garden. Or just come by to meet and talk with me and other seed savers. There will be great conversations about the ways in which we have all benefited from past seed savers, and you might even be inspired to get more actively involved in seed saving yourself. See you there!

2013 Conference Preview: Evaluating Heritage Poultry

Jeannette Beranger and Alison Martin will be at the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout representing the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They will be teaching a workshop titled Evaluating a Poultry Flock for Breeding. We asked them to fill us in on what to expect from their workshop.

Young Chicken from SSE's Heritage Poultry

Backyard Chickens Are Back!

By Alison Martin, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

Alison Martin

Look around you: more than ever, chickens are showing up in back yards or being incorporated into sustainable farms.  No matter the size of your flock, a question that comes up each year is “which of these chickens should I keep as breeders for next year?”  Our workshop, Evaluating a Poultry Flock for Breeding, will give you the hands-on skills and knowledge to make those decisions.

For those of you who don’t know us, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) works with farmers to conserve heritage breeds of livestock and poultry.  Like heirloom plants, America has lost many of the breeds that were important in times past.  In fact, in 1976 organizers of a Bicentennial celebration at Old Sturbridge Village in New England had trouble finding animals that would have been on the farm in 1776.  The more they thought about it, the more this bothered them, and together with concerned breeders and scientists, they formed the (then) American Minor Breeds Conservancy.  In the 36 years since, we haven’t lost a breed!

Unlike Seed Savers Exchange, ALBC doesn’t sell animals.  For one thing, they’re harder to gather and store than seeds!  We do facilitate participatory conservation.  Like Seed Savers Exchange, we help breeders network with each other so they can share and exchange breeding stock and best practices.  Our Master Breeder project documents the wisdom of long-time breeders, and passes that along to new breeders.  We have restored productivity to breeds that have been neglected, and brought other breeds back from the brink of extinction.  All this and more conserves agricultural biodiversity and maintains options for farming.

Jeannette Beranger

The time is right for heritage poultry and livestock.  Many have regional adaptations and history that fit right in with the local foods movement.  Farmers are discovering that their hardiness and thrift make them a wonderful fit for small farms, and consumers who care where their food comes from are discovering the benefits of rich and diverse flavors.  And heritage animals complement heirloom seeds well, as you’ve probably seen at Heritage Farm.

Jeannette and I are excited about our first visit to the SSE Conference and Campout.  We want to meet with you and hear about your homesteads.  And we want to share our experience – between us we have more than 50 years experience with poultry!  This year we helped Seed Savers Exchange source some excellent Buckeye chickens, and that’s what we’ll be evaluating in the workshop.  The birds selected as breeders will be banded, and at the end of the season they will go to the winner of the Mother Earth News Heritage Chicken Giveaway!

If you would like to learn more about Buckeye chickens, chicken assessment, or ALBC, check us out online at  See you in Decorah!

Conference Webpage

Thoughts from Jeremy Cherfas


Jeremy Cherfas

As the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout approaches, featured speaker Jeremy Cherfas took the time to give us a preview of what to expect from his talk.

Is Everything Not Permitted Still Forbidden?

By Jeremy Cherfas

The European Union’s current seed laws operate from a fundamentally strange foundation: everything not permitted is forbidden. In other words, if a seed variety is not registered on the Common Catalogue, it cannot be marketed. And marketing covers giving seeds away and swapping them. The new proposals do not change this fundamental principle. Instead, they expand somewhat the list of things that are permitted. Gardeners, for example, can now swap seeds.

These new proposals have provoked an outcry, especially among people who weren’t familiar with the existing regime. People have also rejected the whole notion of rules and regulations concerning seeds. As one person commented on my website, “Also, WHY would you NEED regulation for seeds?”.

Because seeds are fundamentally different from other goods one can buy and sell (except possibly computer software and 3D printers). As Jack Kloppenburg [editors note: Kloppenburg will also speak at SSE's 2013 Conference] has pointed out, they are both the product **and** the means of production. That is, you can eat a seed — possibly inside a fruit such as a tomato — or you can use it to produce more seeds. Furthermore, there is nothing visible on the outside of the seed that gives a clue as to the genes inside, and it is the genes inside that growers are actually interested in, because they determine the final product. As a result seeds have been subject to all sorts of sharp practices over the years.

We need regulations to protect people from fraud, to ensure that when you get seeds of a specific variety, they are what they say they are and that, given the right treatment, they will germinate. These conditions can be taken care of by existing legislation. In England, for example, we have the Sale of Goods Act, first passed in 1893, which says that things must be fit for purpose and of satisfactory quality, with tests for both.

Some seeds need more protection. Commercial farmers, for example, may want varieties bred for their specific needs. Seed companies exist to meet those needs (although some would say they also create many of the needs they meet) and they’re not going to invest in research and development to create a new variety unless they can be reasonably sure that they will get their money back, with a profit. That’s one reason why commercial breeders really like F1 hybrids, because they don’t breed true, and therefore growers who don’t want to get into breeding for themselves have no choice but to buy new seeds each season. F1 hybrids break the link between seed as product and seed as means of production. It is also why commercial breeders have lobbied long and hard for additional forms of protection, such as plant breeders' rights and plant patents.

More power to them, I say. If a grower is convinced that the extra cost of those highly-regulated seeds is worthwhile, why shouldn’t they have the freedom to buy them? But the reverse is also true. If I want to grow a different variety which, for one reason or another, doesn’t even try to meet the standards for additional regulation and protection, why should I not be equally free to make my choice? Of course there’s a risk that the seeds aren’t what they claim to be, or will fail to germinate, but I know that, and I know that existing laws might help me get redress if I really think that’s what I want.

Around the world, that’s possible. There are seed registration schemes, but there is also freedom not to take advantage of registered seeds. Except in Europe where, even if the new proposals are accepted without changes, everything not permitted will still be forbidden.

SSE Conference and Campout

View the Conference website for more information on speakers, workshops, and activities planned for the July 19-21 weekend.

Our mission is to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. Visit