Kent Whealy Memorial Seed Collection

Pictured above: Doug Gosling, Mother Garden Biodiversity Program Director, in the OAEC seed vault with the new Kent Whealy dedication plaque. 

It is our great pleasure to announce the dedication and naming of the OAEC seed collection after seed preservation visionary and mentor, Kent Whealy. 

Kent Whealy recognized in the 1970’s that the collapse of agricultural biodiversity, the loss of ancestral plant varieties, and the consolidation of seed production into a small handful of corporations was a crisis in the making. Through curiosity, vision, and collective hard work, he co-founded the celebrated Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) which became one of the major collaborative forces behind the revitalization of heirloom seed-saving that continues to flourish today. Beloved by gardeners and lauded by scientists, SSE became the country’s largest non-governmental seed bank, growing into a collection of 26,000 unique varieties. In growing seeds from rich slices of time and cultures, SSE made available an unprecedented array of exceptional varieties to gardeners and breeders alike, and greatly expanded the trade in open-pollinated seeds through their inventories.

*see caption/note below

In 1982, Doug Gosling, OAEC’s Mother Garden Biodiversity Program Director, received a mailing from SSE and was immediately captivated. At the time, Doug was the Garden Manager for the Farallones Institute, which then owned and stewarded the land that OAEC now calls home. Doug joined SSE right away and each year eagerly anticipated receiving the SSE annual yearbook, which listed many thousands of varieties of seeds grown by both amateur and professional seed savers. The yearbook facilitated connections between seed savers, where growers could directly write to each other and exchange seeds based on listings in the yearbook. Doug recalls the yearbook was both remarkable and intimidating, as there were over 35 pages of tomatoes alone!

Doug had the fortunate opportunity on several occasions to visit the SSE farm in Decorah, Iowa where they grew out a lot of the SSE seed collection. He gave workshops regularly at their yearly campout and describes the farm as “an extraordinary place and mind-bogglingly beautiful.”

**see caption/note below

In 1990, after the Farallones Institute closed, the land here was purchased by an organization called the CS Fund which was a major funder of SSE. As Doug was still the Garden Manager, it was natural that he and the gardens become more involved with SSE. Doug was asked to be a curator of some parts of the SSE seed collection, as the collection was far too big to grow out only at their farm in Iowa, and there were more appropriate bioregions to grow certain seeds. Doug curated part of SSE’s collection of lettuce, basil, artichokes, and a few other crops at the gardens here. Doug dedicated entire beds and sections of the garden to seed saving, growing out over 50 varieties of lettuce alone. It was during these years that Doug got to know Kent and became increasingly inspired by his work. Kent visited the gardens here numerous times.

In 1994 the CS Fund sold the land to Sowing Circle and OAEC, and while Doug did not continue to act as a curator for the SSE collection, OAEC continues to grow out lots of the varieties we had curated for SSE, many which still cannot be found commercially. Some of the varieties, especially some of the beautiful lettuces, are still some of Doug’s favorites. It was this work with Kent and SSE that inspired the major growth of the OAEC seed program, where we now curate a collection of over 2,000 open-pollinated heirloom varieties of food crops, culinary and medicinal herbs, fiber and dye, and other plants. We share this living collection with the public by hosting California’s three largest seed exchanges at the Ecological Farming Conference, the Bioneers Conference, and Sonoma County’s Community Seed Exchange, and also through OAEC’s Mother Garden Biodiversity Nursery.

Kent Whealy taught us that it was our responsibility to preserve and keep ancestral seed heritage and knowledge alive, and that seed saving and organic growing should go hand in hand. Most gardeners and farmers are over-reliant on seed companies, but Doug learned the value of saving our own seeds, as they quickly adapt to our unique environment and carry our stories of experience with them. Furthermore, Kent’s insistence on the importance of biodiversity for agriculture and for the planet played a key role in how the gardens and our years of advocacy for sustainable and regenerative agriculture have developed at OAEC. Kent truly gave OAEC a compass for the garden, the seed program and our policy campaigns.

When in 2009 Kent joined as a trustee of Ceres Trust, they were able to further his work for the genetic preservation of food crops and reinforce his opposition to the genetic modification of plants and the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture. Following Kent’s passing in 2018, and in honor of Kent, the Ceres Trust made a very generous, sustaining, multi-year grant to the OAEC Mother Garden Biodiversity Program, including to support our seed-saving program. In honor of his life work and of the support that Ceres Trust has shown OAEC in his name, it is our great pleasure to dedicate and name the OAEC seed collection after Kent Whealy. His name and memory is right at home among the thousands of varieties of seeds OAEC curates and shares with the world. We have deep gratitude for Kent and his extraordinary contributions to a healthier planet rich with beauty, diversity, and abundance, and available to all for generations to come.

 

*The SSE logo on the cover of the catalogue was drawn from a photograph of Kent’s father’s hands passing seeds to Kent’s son’s hands.

**Kent pictured in his rocking chair celebrating the completion of the first Garden Seed Inventory which he worked on from 1981-1985. The inventories were used to identify seeds about to be dropped from commercial trade so they could be bought and maintained and so that gardeners everywhere could easily access open pollinated seeds in circulation: a herculean job he was glad to see completed!

 

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