Decorah's Seed Savers Exchange: A destination for gardeners and non-gardeners alike

At the Seed Savers Exchange visitors center, people can learn about the

organization's mission and the 20,000 seeds sto
At the Seed Savers Exchange visitors center, people can learn about the organization’s mission and the 20,000 seeds stored in its world-famous seed bank. More than 1,000 varieties of plants can be found in the Seed Savers Exchange display gardens. Submitted photo

A chive plant was Jeanine Scheffert’s childhood favorite among the vegetables, flowers and herbs in her family’s garden.

“My mom told me I could have chives any time I wanted,” she said.

As a kid, she loved harvesting but found tending plants to be tedious. Now, tending the plants in her garden is one of her favorite things.

“I develop a relationship with those plants,” she said.

Scheffert, as education and engagement manager with Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, helps people make a connection between gardening, well-being and health, and the family and cultural histories of the food we grow.

“It’s important to know where your food comes from,” she said.

Scheffert works year-round, spending much of the winter planning programs at Seed Savers headquarters on Heritage Farm, a short drive up a narrow dirt lane that meanders behind the farm’s Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and display gardens.

The site hosts numerous school groups and tours from May through September.

Those touring the farm may start seeds, wet process tomato seeds or winnow the chaff — the hard outer layer — from seeds. They learn about Seed Saver’s history, planting and harvesting, then tour the gardens, which feature more than 1,000 varieties of plants.

The organization’s significant events this year are the spring Heirloom Plant Sale; the Seeds Savers Exchange Benefit Concert on Aug. 1; Seed School, Aug. 14 to 16; Tomato Tasting, Sept. 12; Fall Harvest Festival, Oct. 10; and Winter on the Farm, Dec. 5. Be sure to check online for postponements or cancellations.

“Some of our events draw people from all over the country and all over the world,” Scheffert said.


The Conference & Campout, tentatively scheduled for July 17 to 18, draws the largest crowd. “It ends up being a full weekend where people engage with each other and our mission and celebrate the work we’re all doing,” Scheffert said.

The seed bank collection of more than 20,000 open-pollinated varieties is on the bucket lists of gardeners around the globe.

“It’s exciting to see how important it is for them to be here,” Scheffert said.

Scheffert’s personal mission aligns with the mission of Seeds Savers:

“As a non-profit, Seed Savers Exchange aims 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.”

Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy founded Seed Savers Exchange in Missouri in 1975 before the non-profit moved to rural Decorah. They formed a network of gardeners who preserved heirloom varieties of seeds and shared them.

Families have always saved seeds, then planted the same varieties year after year. The organization’s seed historians document those family stories, digging deep to learn as much as they can about the origin of the seeds.

“There really aren’t that many food crops indigenous to the United States. Often, the seeds have immigrated with people,” Scheffert said.

Seeds brought from Bavaria to Iowa by Diane Ott Whealy’s grandfather in 1884 were the first two varieties in the collection. Grandpa Ott’s morning glory features deep purple flowers with a red star on a vine that grows more than 15 feet up trellises and supports. His German Pink Tomato produces 1- to 2-pound pink beefsteak fruits with few seeds.


“I really love the German Pink Tomato,” Scheffert said. “It’s meaty and slices well and doesn’t crack easily.”

It was Scheffert’s art background, not gardening, that connected her with Seed Savers Exchange. It was there she displayed her oil paintings, hand-colored linoprints and paper earrings at the Northeast Iowa Studio Arts Tour about five years ago.

“It just felt really good every time I came out here,” she said.

Scheffert had studied fine arts and international studies and was working in art and education at the time. When she saw an opening for an event and volunteer coordinator at Seed Savers, she applied. Since then, her role has evolved and developed as she has added more educational programming.

“Art is about noticing and expressing beauty and relationships,” she said. “I think that’s also a big component of a good education program.”

If You Go

What: Seed Savers Exchange at the 890-acre Heritage Farm, 3074 N. Winn Rd., Decorah

Phone: (563) 382-5990


Tours: Before going, call or check website to check on status. Tours feature gardens with more than 1,000 varieties of plants selected from the more than 20,000 seeds stored in the organization’s world-famous seed bank. The farm’s historic orchard has more than 900 varieties of apples. Also, see ancient White Park cattle and heritage poultry breeds, housed in a show-stopper barn.

Visitors Center: The farm’s Lillian Goldman Visitors Center typically opens in March. There, you can learn the history of Seed Savers Exchange and Heritage Farm. A Gift & Garden Store offers seeds, garden supplies, local art and garden-themed gifts.

Trails: Trails wind through the farm’s rolling hills, bluffs and streams, open seasonally sunrise to sunset. Groups of 15 or more may schedule weekday tours by calling (563) 387-5686.

Tip: In mid-May, pack a picnic and hike to the farm’s historic orchard when the apple trees are in full bloom. “It’s spectacular,” according to staff member Jeanine Scheffert.

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