Senior Gardening

One of the Joys of Maturity
The Senior Garden Blog Archive
Features & How-To's
Affiliated Advertisers


Whither Seed Savers Exchange
October 9, 2017

I've been concerned about the direction of the Seed Savers Exchange for several years. Begun in 1975 as an organization dedicated to growing, saving, and sharing open pollinated seed varieties, SSE has expanded to many other commendable efforts...and apparently has forgotten its roots.

In 2017, 404 listed members offered 15,272 unique varieties of open pollinated vegetables, fruits, grains, and such for sale through the member exchange and annual yearbook. While the offerings are impressive, those numbers and the Exchange's membership are both significantly down from previous years.

The recent loss of over a thousand members could be attributed somewhat to an increase in membership fees and old guys like me dying off, but I think there's something else going on. One previous member recently told me that he shared my concerns about the direction of SSE and the way it has been run over the last decade. He quit a year or so after co-founder Kent Whealy was fired in 2007. He joked in a recent email, "Heck, I may join again just so I can send a scathing letter of resignation."

As to why some seed saving and sharing members are frustrated, one only has to look at the content of the current Seed Savers Exchange home page. It's filled with offers for seed sales from SSE's catalog, requests for donations, entreaties to become a paid member of the organization, and self-congratulatory information about the goings on at SSE's home, the Heritage Farm. For an organization whose core was once member seed sharing, only two text links on the home page reference the member driven Seed Exchange.

Having a few contacts through the Exchange, I was able to get in contact with their new Executive Director. While he took the time to talk to me for an hour about SSE and my concerns for it, I pretty quickly realized that he was just trying to pacify a grumpy old member. In the weeks after our phone conversation, none of my concerns, even the easy ones, had been addressed. He obviously didn't share my views.

I fear that the de-emphasis of the member exchange is going to continue. I've called for the leadership of SSE to enthusiastically appreciate, support, and acknowledge those who have supported the organization for so many years. But right now, SSE continues to be all about seed sales, donations, and the Heritage Farm.

Totally frustrated in my efforts to get a more balanced approach by SSE's leadership, I decided to try and contact all of the members of its Board of Directors. That's a bit difficult, as SSE doesn't share contact information, only accepting snail mail or email through one online form. And such contact may prove fruitless, as none of the current eleven board members are listed, seed saving and sharing members!

Here's the letter I sent:

Dear [SSE board member’s name]:

I’m a retired teacher, avid gardener, longtime member of the Seed Savers Exchange, and a garden blogger. Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly concerned with the apparent direction of the SSE.

Over the last ten years as it has done many good deeds, SSE has increasingly de-emphasized its member seed exchange. Several years ago, only a small text link at the bottom of the SSE home page led to the member exchange. Fortunately, when I brought this to [then Executive Director] John Torgrimson’s attention, a link was added to the top of the page.

Beyond the link correction, the Seed Saver’s home page remains totally committed to selling seed and asking for donations. Neither are unworthy pursuits, but SSE seems to have forgotten its roots of a member based effort to preserve and share endangered vegetable varieties.

The member exchange is what the current Seed Savers Exchange sprung from. It’s also a reservoir for many good vegetable varieties not currently protected in the SSE or other seed banks.

SSE’s membership numbers are declining. Older members such as myself won’t be around forever, and the varieties we’ve worked so hard to preserve could be lost with us.

Below is an edited and augmented list of suggestions that I published on my Senior Gardening blog last month and shared with Executive Director Lee Buttala in some form or another. While Lee heard me out, it seemed to me that none of these items fit his plans or priorities.

  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 thousands of members over the last few years. Again, as we old guys die off, a new generation of seed savers needs to be found and trained.
  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 a bit 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 month. I don’t remember it doing that very well for a long time.
  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.
  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.
  12. Please, please, cut back on the fundraising letters and emails.

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 leadership of the exchange has forgotten that.

I hope that you, as a Seed Savers Exchange board member, will find some of my suggestions to have merit.

Steve Wood

The next Board of Directors meeting for the Seed Savers Exchange won't occur until January, 2018. Whether my concerns will come up and be addressed then, I don't know.

I'm hoping this posting resonates enough that SSE members will contact the organization and express their dismay with SSE's downgrading and de-emphasis of the member contributions that made the organization what it is today. Currently, responsibility for this issue lies directly at new Executive Director, Lee Buttala's feet and of the current Board of Directors, although it took a good many years for the de-emphasis to slowly evolve.

If SSE members want their organization to continue to serve as a trusted repository for endangered varieties protected by members' seed saving, they need to contact the Exchange and express their views.

From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
The Senior Garden Blog Archive
Features & How-To's
Affiliated Advertisers