Have you heard of a “seed saver”? What do you think about going to a conference for seed savers? Does it sound nerdy? Niche? I only ask because I see the slight amusement in people’s eyes when I tell them how excited I am about going to the Seed Savers Exchange Conference in Decorah, Iowa each year. Others don’t hide their reaction so well – like the couple my friend and I ran into at a wayside rest site on our way home from the conference. We exchanged stories and they asked about our travels. My friend enthusiastically answered that we were in Decorah at the Seed Savers Exchange Conference. *They literally laughed out loud.* It’s ok, I get it. But let me try to explain why saving seeds is more than a nerdy pastime for zealous gardeners. 

Get this: between 1903 and 1983, our country lost 93 PERCENT of our seed varieties. Completely lost. Extinct. The DNA gone forever. Worldwide, experts estimate that we have lost more than half of our food varieties over the past century. (Rural Advancement Foundation International) That’s thousands of varieties of food crops that hold a trove of biodiversity; biodiversity that holds possible solutions to drought, climate change, pests, crop diseases, and our own medical needs as well. And don’t forget our taste buds, which desire to explore, create and experience new flavors and quality foods.

The role of Seed Savers Exchange is to protect and propagate remaining seed varieties and their stories of origin, including resurrecting and repopulating those that were once thought extinct. The organization does this through conserving over 25,000 rare and heirloom varieties in its seed bank, making those seeds available to the public, and educating and connecting seed savers from around the country who share seeds through the exchange. These people recognize the importance of preserving both our food crops and heritage for future generations. So, even if you won’t be attending a seed conference any time soon, I think we can all agree that everyone eats, and food is important.

At this year’s conference, I felt I had one big take away: There is so much more to explore. The first keynote speaker was Lee Reich, PhD, who spoke on a sampling of fruit varieties virtually unknown in the grocery store, but that will grow readily in your own backyard. Some we have at least heard of – Nanking cherries, currants, gooseberries… but did you know there’s a type of passionfruit that can grow even here in the midwest? Or something called a kiwi berry, which is literally a berry-sized kiwi that grows on a vine and you eat whole? How about pawpaw, medlar, American persimmon, gumi, Juneberry, lingonberry, seaberry and shipova? These items aren’t at the grocery store for a variety of reasons – often harvesting or shipping challenges make them impractical commercial fruits. But why shouldn’t we be growing and enjoying these fruits on our own property? The “large selection” at the grocery store seems rather paltry when you get a peek at what you’re missing. And by “what you’re missing,” I don’t only mean the flavors – we are missing out on the chance to be self-sustaining. Somehow, in the last couple generations we have become divorced from our own food supply and don’t trust ourselves to take part in it – even in the most simple and enjoyable ways, like having fresh fruit to pick!

Another keynote speaker I’ll highlight is Sean Sherman, founder of “The Sioux Chef,” who is doing really incredible work  here in Minneapolis. He shared how this journey began with an ah-ha moment – he was suddenly struck by the strange fact that the metro area has an impressive array of cuisines from all around the world, but not a single restaurant serving Native American cuisine. Because I’m such a fan of Little House on the Prairie, I laughed out loud when he pointed out that American heritage didn’t start with Laura Ingles Wilder! There is a whole culinary history that predates European settlers that is meaningful to both European and Native Americans, because it is a history not only of a people, but of the land.  I loved his vision that we might be able to travel the country and sample each region’s wild and natural foods, rather than the same old burger and craft beer, which apparently fit the bill for “local food” in our mind. “There is so much more out there to explore,” he told us emphatically, “both regionally and historically.” I’m excited for the chance to experience his modern take on native foods soon – among its other endeavors including education and catering, The Sioux Chef team will soon be opening a restaurant in Minneapolis!

Ironically, the friend I mentioned, who had enough interest to attend the weekend conference, has always lacked sufficient inspiration to actually plant a seed. She’s completely on board with eating fresh, local, and seasonal food – she’s never even laughed at me when I’ve shared my enthusiasm about seed saving! But, she couldn’t quite see why, having her hands full already, she would want to plant a garden when she can shop the co-op or farmer’s market. But what converted her over the course of the weekend were the unique varieties of foods we can nourish our bodies with if we grow our own – the foods that you can’t find at even the most diverse grocery store or the freshest farmer’s market. If you haven’t jumped in yet, find your inspiration and get started! There is so much more to explore!