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Three Seeds

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.    

I know a story about three magic seeds, far more powerful than Jack and his beans that grew up to the clouds.

One hundred and fifty miles upriver from Rock Island, in northeast Iowa, a bit inland from the Mississippi, lies Heritage Farm, nestled in a narrow valley around a spring-fed pond. Here, Kent and Diane Wheally are busy preserving more than fifteen thousand heirloom and antique strains of vegetables, fruits, grains, and flowers, many of which would otherwise be lost as the world shifts to modern hybrids.

Remember Moon and Stars watermelon from your grandfather's patch? It's here. Or Abraham Lincoln tomato and Swedish brown beans? They're here, too, along with 3,500 other beans and 3,000 varieties of tomatoes. 

Heritage Farm began twenty-five years ago when Diane took her grandfather back home to Iowa to die.  He gave them three seeds he had brought with him from his native Bavaria: a deep purple morning glory, and two vegetables.

Preserving this grandfather heritage made Kent aware of the number of such seeds that must have come with immigrants from all parts of the world—and are still coming, from southeast Asia with boat people and others. No other country has such diversity.

It was a diversity, Wheally realized, that was being lost in favor of new hybrids bred not so much for taste as for ease of harvesting by machine and shippability: uniform size, uniform ripening, tough skins.  Once lost, the old genetic strains would be lost forever—strains a future world might desperately need.

The Wheally's three seeds became a hundred, then a thousand, then three thousand. Kent established the Seed Saver's Exchange, with eight thousand members to help with this task, members who not only want to preserve seeds but preserve a world of small gardens where fruit ripens on the vines and is shared with neighbors rather than shipped.

What have Kent and Diane learned along the way? "There are a thousand worthy causes in this world," Kent told a group of visiting students recently. "Pick one of them and give your life to it."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.