The Plowboy Interview Kent Whealy

| January/February 1982


Kent Whealy
The Seed Savers Exchange

As we head into a new year, gardeners all across North America are beginning to dream of the coming spring. And many of them will celebrate the first months of 1982 by poring over newly arrived seed catalogs, in a delightful agony of indecision over which vegetables to order. Well, imagine finding out—as you leaf through your catalogs this winter in search of that succulent tomato you enjoyed last season or those hardy carrots that kept on producing until well after the first frost—that your pet varieties have been discontinued and replaced by unfamiliar "specialty hybrids". Or 'suppose an elderly neighbor has, for years, shared a prized watermelon with you . . . but now that he or she has died, you can't find seed for the antique melon anywhere.

Well, you may be surprised to learn that those imaginary incidents are representative of events that are beginning to affect gardeners everywhere . . . and to alarm scientists in many countries. In short, we're in the midst of a worldwide crisis—which few people even know about—that could actually threaten the survival of many of our food crop species!

Dr. Erna Bennett, of the Crop Ecology Branch of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, states, "Genetic wipeout . . . might well be tomorrow's greatest single problem, the problem of feeding the human species in the midst of the technological wealth it has created. " The fact is that an increasing number of vegetable varieties are disappearing from the plant kingdom. Literally hundreds of cultivars become extinct every year, either because aging gardeners have no one to pass their heirloom seeds on to when they die, or because the varieties are dropped by seed companies for economic reasons.

But what's an individual to do, you may well ask. Is it time to throw up our hands, pack away the gardening tools, and stock more long-term storage foods in the cellar? Well, the future doesn't have to be quite that bleak. All over the world—and especially in the United States and Canada—concerned gardeners are taking action by seeking out antique or "endangered" species of plants, and trading the seeds with other growers so that those varieties can be kept alive. At the focal point of much of this energy is Kent Whealy, a dedicated young man of 35 who expects to spend the rest of his life involved in the effort to protect what remains of our already depleted vegetable gene bank.

Kent founded the Seed Savers Exchange in 1975, hoping to establish an informal group of backyard gardeners who would subscribe to an annual yearbook (edited by Whealy) and participate in an exchange of seeds. The group's several hundred members share a kind of folksy friendship with one another. . . and with Kent, who prints excerpts from their letters along with the listings of rare or long-lost vegetables that they wish to find or have to offer.

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