Speech by Kent Whealy
Prairie Festival, The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas
September 26, 2010
For past three years, Amy Goldman (Chair of the Board of the Seed Savers Exchange) and Cary Fowler (Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust) have been depositing portions of Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the far north of Norway.
Goldman and Fowler are being dishonest – to Seed Savers’ Members and in the avalanche of self-promotion from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the entity that oversees Svalbard – by concealing the fact that being deposited in Svalbard places Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection under the control of the United Nations’ FAO Treaty, which was specifically designed to facilitate access by corporate breeders. Goldman and Fowler targeted an exemplary U.S. nonprofit in order to gain control of and then misappropriate Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection of 26,000 varieties, by far the best collection of heirloom garden crops in the world.
The grassroots movement to collect those genetic resources started 35 years ago. In 1975 I founded the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and for 33 years was its Executive Director. I created and published the nonprofit organization’s yearbooks which have listed the names and addresses of up to 1,000 SSE Members who annually offered samples of 12,000 garden varieties to other gardeners and farmers. During the 33 years that I guided Seed Savers, 3,500 Members offered 33,000 family heirlooms and rare garden varieties through the annual editions of Seed Savers Yearbook. Over the years SSE’s Members have distributed an estimated 1,000,000 samples of rare garden seeds often on the verge of extinction. That selfless sharing has resulted in SSE’s beautiful flavorful heirlooms spreading rapidly throughout Farmers’ Markets and CSAs nationwide, being widely used by chefs sourcing local foods, and has provided the foundations and resources for numerous alternative seed companies.
In 1986 I made the first of five land purchases for SSE (eventually totaling 886 acres) which established Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa as SSE’s national headquarters. Nonprofit donations from SSE’s Members quickly paid off Heritage Farm’s land contracts and also provided the majority of the funds for a $600,000 complex of offices, greenhouses and seed storage facilities. Each year many of SSE’s Members and thousands of visitors tour Heritage Farm’s genetic preservation projects, which include: 26 acres of certified organic Preservation Gardens; Historic Orchard containing 700 varieties of pre-1900 apples and 200 hardy grapes; and two herds of endangered Ancient White Park cattle, the rarest breed of cattle in the English-speaking world. (You might say they are extremely rare, as opposed to medium-rare. . . . .sorry. . . . .sometimes I just can’t help myself.)
SSE started maintaining a central seed collection in 1981, as a back-up strategy so that SSE’s Members could always get their seeds back if lost. Those members generously donated their family’s seeds to Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection which steadily grew to 26,000 rare varieties by 2007. Each summer 10% of those varieties were multiplied on a 10-year rotation (about 2,000 varieties annually) and those newly grown seeds were made available to SSE’s Members and the gardening public. SSE’s system of growouts was specifically designed so that SSE’s Members would have revolving access to new seed of the entire collection over a 10-year period. Seed Savers quickly became recognized as the greatest source of unique plant material that North American gardeners have ever known. Numerous awards for the genetic preservation 7 projects I initiated have included a MacArthur Fellowship and Russia’s N. I. Vavilov Medal for organizing and funding 12 plant collection expeditions from 1993 through 1997 in genetically rich, but critically endangered areas of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
During SSE’s annual growouts, hundreds of exceptional garden varieties were discovered. Nonprofits are allowed to generate “project-related revenue” if aligned with their mission, so in 1999 SSE started selling packets of heirloom seeds through Seed Savers Catalog. My stated goal was for the revenue from seed sales to eventually cover the annual costs of permanently maintaining Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection. By 2006, only eight years later, net revenue from seed sales had already grown to $1.2 million and was supporting 72% of SSE’s operations. (And only two years after that, due to the economic meltdown, SSE’s net seed sales doubled to $2.4 million.) Financial self-sufficiency was in sight and the final step of building endowments to always support SSE’s genetic preservation projects had just begun.
Amy Goldman and Cary Fowler, however, both had their own personal agendas for the Seed Savers Exchange and for Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection. But how could they possibly take over Seed Savers, especially at the height of its success, in order to place Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection in his Svalbard Doomsday Vault, when they both knew that I would never agree? That involved years of manipulation and deceit, which all began in 2002 when Amy Goldman was asked to be on SSE’s Board of Directors because of her funding of SSE’s projects. For years she sat silently in the background at board meetings, while quietly starting to fund the projects of existing board members and even some of SSE’s Advisors, and later placed others financially beholden to her on SSE’s Board.