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Time to Let Go
June 4, 2018

In the late 1970s, I joined an organization of gardeners seeking to preserve the heritage and genetic diversity of open pollinated vegetable varieties. Seed Savers Exchange founders Kent and Diane Whealy published an annual yearbook listing seed varieties to be shared by members with other gardening members. At that time, you sent a self-addressed stamped envelope with your seed requests to fellow members, paying for the seeds with postage stamps.

Over the intervening years. the Seed Savers Exchange has flourished. A permanent home base at the Heritage Farm has been established. More importantly, a seed vault for long term storage and preservation of seeds has been built and refurbished, backed up somewhat by contributions of seed to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. At times, excellent educational programs have been offered via SSE at the Heritage Farm and online.

The Seed Savers Exchange also began to sell open pollinated and heirloom seed from their collection. In time, revenue from seed sales outweighed members' dues by about 4:1. Contributions by some well-heeled donors also benefitted the exchange, although those contributions apparently came with some very strong strings attached involving control of the organization's direction. I suspect that led directly to the termination of the late co-founder Kent Whealy and the radical change in the organization from a member oriented organization into more of another seed vendor.

As seed sales and donations increased, the Seed Savers member exchange, once the heart and soul of the organization, was gradually de-emphasized. An online member exchange helped boost some seed sharing, but the online exchange has never been properly supported via links on SSE's home page or emails to members. The member exchange and long-time members now appear to have become an annoyance to the leadership of SSE.

After publishing some strongly worded constructive criticism about the Seed Savers Exchange (1, 2), I decided to hold my peace for a time. I did write each of the members of SSE's Board of Directors in the interim. Their total lack of response to my initial letter pretty well told me that they were in the bag for the current ruling group at SSE. (Hey, I even sent each one of them a packet of saved, endangered garden seed.) Only after a follow-up email did two of them honor me with a response.

What I wrote the Board and SSE's director wasn't offensive. I thought I had some good ideas for improving the organization. As time has passed, I've updated and hopefully improved my suggestions:

  1. Include highly visible links (not just toolbar links) to the member exchange on the SSE home page.
  2. Aggressively seek new members. SSE appears to have lost many members over the last few years. Again, as we old guys die off, a new generation of seed savers needs to be engaged and trained.1
  3. Offer reduced price hardship memberships; possibly as a one time only deal ($5-$10?) and maybe the same for new members. At one time, hardship members were allowed to write in an amount they could afford! Compared to previous membership prices and plans, SSE is beginning to look pretty greedy.
  4. Add a rotating feature story prominently linked from the home page on seed saving members, the varieties they save, and how they save seed. Telling what listed members do and their excitement about doing it should be good for the organization.
  5. Likewise, the Heritage Farm publication needs to feature member seed saving each and every issue.2
  6. Email contact addresses for the executive director and board members should be posted on the site or a routing pull-down menu added to the email contact page. This suggestion relates to the next one.
  7. Improve input by members in the governance of SSE. Currently, SSE members have absolutely no say in decisions about the Seed Savers Exchange.
  8. Either stop the sale of old seed that still tests good at the time of sale, or list the year the seed was produced. For those of us who buy in quantity and freeze our leftover seed from year to year, it matters how old the seed is when we receive it.
  9. Re-examine the Seed Savers Accessions Policy and Hierarchy for Preservation. All but one of the varieties I preserve fail to meet SSE's policies for inclusion in the seed bank. When I die, I'd hate for these excellent varieties to die with me. (The varieties we save are too new or weren’t on the market long enough to qualify for the seed bank.)
  10. Return some kind of online seed saving seminars to the web site. Grant Olson’s online seminars were a good idea, although the moderators sometimes appeared to need more experience in seed saving and preparation of their presentations.
  11. Insist upon some listed members being added to the Seed Savers’ Board of Directors. Currently, not a single board member is a listed, seed sharing member. That says a lot about the direction of the Seed Savers Exchange.3
  12. Get the annual print yearbook into members' hands in early January. Coming out in late February severely diminishes the usefulness of the print yearbook.4
  13. Please, please, cut back on the fundraising and seed sale emails.

I finished my letters and emails to SSE's leadership with the following somewhat tart, but true observation:

Not all of the Seed Savers Exchange’s work occurs at the Heritage Farm. It’s happening every day on the farms and in the gardens of SSE’s members. To me, it seems that the current leadership of the exchange has forgotten that.

Update (8/26/2018)

I unlisted most of our previous offerings from the Seed Savers Member Exchange last night. I left one listing just to see what happened to it when my membership in SSE ran out. It's still there.

Having decided to leave SSE, I'd been up in the air over how to continue sharing seed of our endangered varieties for some time. I'll still be sharing seed with my favorite seed library and giving away a lot of seed to individuals who inquire.

Update (3/9/2019)

Having not renewed my membership in the Seed Savers Exchange, I didn't expect to receive their annual member Yearbook this year. To my surprise, one arrived in the mail on January 29, weeks earlier than in the past few years. I assume that leaving a single variety of seed still available triggered the mailing. And while January 29 is still too late for a seed catalog to be of much use to us, it's better than SSE's past performance. In response, I relisted several seed varieties we'd previously shared through the Exchange.

Update (12/8/2019)

I'm somewhat encouraged that the board of the Seed Savers Exchange finally appears to be listening to their members. Some positive changes have occurred in the last year. First and possibly most important, Emily Haga has replaced Lee Buttala as Executive Director. Lee never was a good fit for SSE. But there have been other positive signs of change in the organization.

1 The Seed Savers Exchange politely, but aggressively reached out to former members such as myself with an invitation to return. A letter from Heather Haynes, SSE's Development Director, invited me to re-join. The clincher to her letter was at its top, announcing the replacement of Lee Buttala with Emily Haga as Executive Director. While required for me to rejoin, the change in leadership also accompanied some other positive changes.

2 The Heritage Farm magazine now regularly features stories of member seed savers. While I've rejoined SSE, such stories being linked from SSE's home page will be necessary for me to renew next year.

3 Both the new Executive Director and the Chair of the board are now listed members. That's a start, but it still leaves an overwhelming majority of the board as not listed, seed sharing members.

4 I received my annual Yearbook last year (2019) on January 29. That's a little better than in previous years, but still falls far short of my suggestion of getting it into members hands in early January. Update: The 2020 Yearbook arrived on January 22. That's a whole week better than last year, but still not even close to my suggestion of early January.

One thing that hasn't happened is the Seed Savers Exchange continues to only have links to the member exchange at the top and bottom of their home page. SSE must push the member exchange via highly visible links in body of their home page to continue to receive my support. It would be a sign that SSE isn't just another seed company, but an organization of seed saving and sharing members.

From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
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last updated 1/22/2020