A birthday toast to Seed Savers Exchange

SSE Grandpa Otts Morning Glory Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

SSE Grandpa Otts Morning Glory
Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Forty-years ago Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy had an idea. They would start an heirloom seed collection with the seeds of two plants given them by Diane’s grandfather, John Ott. Grandpa Ott’s morning glory seeds and German Pink tomato seeds served as the foundation of an idea that proposed to bring friends and neighbors together to save and share the best of their gardens. And come together they did. Today, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a collection of more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable, herb, and plant varieties; including over 700 in-vitro potato varieties and over 900 apple tree varieties.

SSE’s mission is to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse, but endangered, garden and food crop heritage for future generations. In the past 40-years they have supported collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. But they have done much more. SSE has been a guardian of history and a caretaker of the future. The genetic diversity represented by Bronze Arrow lettuce, Kerry Pippin apples or Red Yoyo squash once lost cannot be recovered. And while the monetary value of preserving genetic diversity can never fully be calculated, there is no doubt that our lives and gardens have been enriched beyond measure by their efforts. SSE seeds (and tissue cultures or other plant materials, depending on how a plant reproduces) have the collective power to withstand unforeseen pestilence and plant disease, climate change, and limited habitat, and to stop culture-bleached dinnertime boredom dead in its tracks.

Since 1975 devoted members have distributed hundreds of thousands of heirloom and open pollinated garden seeds. Those seeds are now widely used by seed companies, small farmers supplying local markets, chefs, home gardeners and cooks of all kinds. Some of these seeds have found their rightful home in historic gardens and landscapes such as Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia.

With over 13,000 members, SSE offers training for both new and expert seed savers. At exchange.seedsavers.org, gardeners can find tutorials, webinars, and seed histories. At blog.seedsavers.org, gardeners can follow the latest seed saving news. Members have access to The Heritage Farm Companion, their award-winning quarterly publication,which offers in-depth articles, profiles, and tricks of the trade.

SSE Gardens and Barn Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

SSE Gardens and Barn
Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Situated on 890 acres in Decorah, Iowa, SSE’s Heritage Farm is home to preservation, display and scientific evaluation gardens, Robert J. Becker Memorial Library, Lillian Goldman Visitors’ Center, heritage poultry, indigenous Brook trout, and Ancient White Park cattle. SSE also hosts numerous events each year including a Seed Saving School and annual conference and campout.

So, Happy Birthday Seed Savers Exchange! And thank you … for Aunt Molly ground cherries, Plum Granny melons, Elf peas, Billy Goat hot peppers, Farm Salting tomatoes, Red Baron onions, Watermelon radishes, and the thousands of other plants you have nurtured along the way.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), member supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage. To learn more or donate go to: http://www.SeedSavers.org.

Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills

Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills
By Una McGovern
2008 Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, 376 pp, $24.95

Lost CraftsAuthor Una McGovern turns back the pages of time to remind readers of half-forgotten skills that were once as ubiquitous as the smartphone. Before the industrial revolution, every household had their own cider maker, beekeeper, rope maker, basket weaver, candle maker and much more. These abilities were not just the result of years of learning but also the result of careful observation of the natural world. They made families self-sufficient and in a hostile world this knowledge was often the difference between surviving or not.

The skill of coppicing, for example, is an ancient method of woodland management that intentionally produces material that will later be used for house building, making charcoal, basketry, brooms as well other things important to the function and comfort of the household. Like most of the skills in this book, coppicing is not instant gratification. And, it also requires the craftsman to work in tune with nature. When a broad-leaved tree is cut down, if the stump and roots are left intact, the tree will coppice. This means the tree will put its energy into regrowing by sending out new shoots. When the shoots reach the correct size for their intended purpose (which could be years) they are harvested and the process starts over. A practice similar to coppicing is called pollarding. Instead of cutting the tree at the ground, the tree is cut about eight feet up. Because the resulting shoots grow above the grazing level of animals, it is a useful method of growing firewood in an area that is also used as pasture.

Lost Crafts is filled with practical, simple knowledge that enabled former generations to live in harmony with nature and themselves. In a time where the ability to “work with one’s hands” is once again re-gaining the respect it deserves, this book opens a door. McGovern reminds us that even in a modern world, the ability to make a fire without a match, fish with creel, skin a rabbit, forage for wild food, and navigate by the stars are still very valuable skills to have.

Endangered breeds of dairy cattle

June is dairy month and the perfect time to highlight just a few of the many endangered breeds of dairy cattle. Like the loss of genetic plant diversity, the decline in livestock diversity also threatens the safety and security of the world food system.

Selected because of their high milk production, black and white Holsteins today make up over 90% of America’s dairy herd. But unlike most historic breeds that can thrive in poor pasture conditions, Holsteins require large amounts of feed and high levels of grain. The genetic make-up of historic breeds creates animals that are productive into their teens, compared with only six years of milk and calf production for Holsteins. Fine-tuned by nature over centuries, several historic breeds of cattle such as Canadienne, Kerry and Randall Lineback are currently listed as critically endangered by The Livestock Conservancy.

Brought to Canada between 1601-1660 and descended from Normandy and Brittany cattle, Canadienne are prized for their superior ability to produce milk on poor forage. These cattle are extremely hardy and have superior environmental adaptation. Milk ­production averages about 15,000 pounds per lactation, with about 4.35% butterfat and 3.7% protein.

Imported to the U.S. in 1818, Kerry cattle are descended from Celtic cattle that roamed the landscape when Caesar invaded Britain. Kerry cows are known for being robust mothers that calve easily and for making milk that more easily digests due to smaller butterfat globules. This breed’s ability to thrive in the meager environment of the remote regions of Ireland made them an important asset to poor farmers.

Likely to have originated in New England from a combination of Dutch, English and French cattle, Randall Lineback became an integral part of New England rural life. They were used for dairy, beef and oxen for several centuries. Randall Lineback genetics have been lost in the past century due to crossbreeding with Holsteins. Fewer than 150 of these animals remain.

For more information on these and other rare and endangered dairy breeds visit TLC Conservation Priority List.

The Livestock Conservancy is a clearing-house for information on livestock and genetic diversity; and the only organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic and rare breeds of livestock.

The Ancient Art of the Arborist

In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil was an eternal green ash tree that protected the entire world. Christian mythology says that the tree of life stood in the Garden of Eden uniting heaven and earth. And it is said that the Roman god Attis lent his spirit to the pine tree, which became the Maypole. On Midsummer’s Day, dancers would participate in a ceremony to celebrate the weaving of the world. As early as 600 BC, Celts planted trees in the names of their children to insure a connection between the divine and earthbound aspects of the soul.

These ancients would have easily understood Bryan Lilly. The bumper sticker on arborist Lilly’s truck reads, “Treehugging Dirt Worshipper.” Trained in the art and science of planting, caring for and maintaining individual trees, Lilly is a self-confessed plantaholic. He takes the health and welfare of trees personally by careful pruning, environmentally responsible pest management and constant monitoring. One of his latest projects has been to restore an entire heirloom apple orchard back to wellness.

Trees are the longest living and largest living organisms on earth, so it is no wonder that many ancient traditions, and Bryan Lilly, believe that trees produce both the fruits of knowledge and life. Bryan Lilly, ISA Certified Arborist – find him hugging trees at Natural Elements LLC (540-675-3084) in Huntly, Virginia.

For more information on the art and science of caring for trees visit the International Society of Arboriculture.

Taking Control of Fire and Air: Traditional Blacksmithing at Sanborn Mills Farm

The ancients believed that with an anvil, a hammer and a strong fire a blacksmith could make everything he needed. After that, he could make everything anyone else needed. It’s no wonder that an art which forged nations is experiencing a renewed interest around the globe. At Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, students come to learn this and other traditional skills that were once central to every thriving community.

A blacksmith creates an object by forging metal into a desired shape or form. Under his hammer, iron and steel becomes tools, horseshoes, weapons, armor, furniture, sculpture and whatever else he wills. Yet, there are only five basic operations or techniques used in forging:
Drawing – lengthens the metal by reducing one or both of the dimensions
Shrinking – the opposite process as drawing, resulting in a thicker piece
Bending – the metal is hammered or bent to desired shape or angle
Upsetting – the process of making the metal thicker in one dimension through shortening in the other
Punching – making a hole

Photo by E. John Waldron

While the idea of forcing iron to submit to your will may seem daunting, “If you can hammer a nail, you can get started blacksmithing.” says Colin Cabot, farmer, conservationist, preservationist and entrepreneur. Some of the things students will learn during the three-day workshop for beginners is safety, respect for the art, fire management, air handling, how to find the hottest part of the fire and how to “read” what is going on with the metal by judging its color. Beginning blacksmiths will use the techniques of drawing and tapering to create a gate hook. And they will learn the important secret of making multiples of the same item.

“Learning to forge metal is a linear progression of skills.” says Cabot. Individuals taking the intermediate workshop can expect to further develop their basic skills while moving onto finer work such as hardening steel for tools and knives.

Photo by E. John Waldron

Sanborn Mills Farm is a traditional New England diversified working farm with agricultural fields and managed forests. The timber-framed barns and outbuildings are used for animals. Dating from the 1830s, the water-powered sawmill and grist mill, and blacksmith shop still serve their original purpose. The farm buildings are clustered around two dams at the outlet of Sanborn Pond. At one time, the farm was a bustling center of agricultural activities that supported an extended family and served the surrounding community. Today, Colin and Paula Cabot have gathered farmers, craftspeople and historians to teach traditional skills. They provide opportunities for people to learn old-fashioned ways and explore how this knowledge can be integrated into modern life. Colin and Paula believe these skills are a vital connection to the land and continue to be important and relevant in our time. Surrounded by almost 2,000 acres of open space held in conservation, Sanborn Mills Farm serves as a meeting place where current needs for sustainability and community are forged with the skills and knowledge of the past.

A few of the other workshops offered at Sanborn Mills are: forge welding, tinsmithing, building stone walls, and logging with animals. Workshops generally cost around $100 per day depending on whether meals are included.  Accommodation is $30 per night. Some materials may be extra. To arrange for classes or gather more information visit:

Where: Sanborn Mills Farm
7097 Sanborn Road
Loudon, New Hampshire 03307
Phone: 603-435-7314
Email: colin@sanbornmills.org

Photographs by E. John Waldron