Seed Companies You Should Know About: Seed Savers Exchange

Last week, I went over a smaller company that may not have been on the radar for many of my readers. This week, I am setting my sights on one of the biggest heirloom seed companies in the US. Why? Sure, most of the heirloom lovers will already know about them, but I talk about more than just heirlooms. I am willing to bet there are those in my readers who have never heard of this company at all.


Existing longer than I have, SSE got its start in 1975. Co-founders Kent Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy were inspired by inheriting two heirlooms from Diane’s great-grandmother that had been brought with her to the US in 1870. On the founding year, they hosted an exchange among 30 gardeners and listed six pages of seeds. They eventually converted their endeavor into a nonprofit company dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds. These days, they have the most diverse farm in the world, the histories of every variety they offer, their own underground seed vault and access to a huge number of seed varieties.

The website is huge, but well organized. As one would expect, it is professional and clear. There are a few web-exclusives, though I am uncertain if these are just items added after the catalog was printed or if there is more to it. What really makes the website great is all of the extra resources it offers. Links to any number of topics relating to heirloom plants and seeds can be found there. This includes a blog, a forum and the yearly get-together they hold.

Anyone can request a free catalog from SSE. The thing is fairly thick, offers color pictures and has lots of points of interest in it. There is a larger book available to members (and I believe those willing to pay, though I am not seeing it on the website at the moment) that has all of their varieties. That collection is huge! Membership also gives you access to direct exchanges with around 13,000 members who may have things not found in any of the catalogs due to limited supply.

GMO policy
They have signed the Safe Seed Pledge and vow never to knowingly purchase or sell GMO varieties. All seeds are grown using isolation methods and while I am not able to verify it, I believe at least some varieties are lab tested periodically. On the other side, there is a controversy associated with the current leadership’s decision to be involved with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. See the notes below.

Where the seeds come from
Most, if not all, of the varieties in their free catalog are raised on Heritage Farm, the home of the organization. With that said, their larger collection as a whole includes varieties grown in other locations by individual growers. Because of this, the odds are good that the seeds you receive are adapted best to Iowa. Still, there is no way to be entirely sure. Some varieties originate from rare native collections or family plots.

Pricing and Shipping
I can’t say anything good or bad here. They have been about average in my experience. The costs aren’t super high unless the seeds are particularly difficult to collect or exceptionally rare. Shipping costs can vary, though right now an order over 40 dollars has free shipping. As for how long it takes, it seems to vary a lot from year to year for me. The fastest I ever received my order was about two weeks.

Great extras
The conference they host is supposed to be a lot of fun, though I only know that second hand. The biggest advantage of this company is simply the sheer volume of varieties they offer. They have many varieties that I have not seen anywhere else. Membership can share with one another, which may be a huge boon for some people.

Looking to the future
I have no official contact with the leadership of SSE, but I believe they will continue to grow and expand. It is going to be hard to predict any changes, since they work by committee these days rather than having a single obvious voice calling all the shots. Time will tell how things will go from here.

Kent Whealy parted ways with the company he helped create in 2007 and in 2009 spoke out at length against the decisions being made by the company’s leadership. A lot of it focused on impropriety as well as the decision to give seeds to Svalbard, which then opened them up to use by biotech and have patents taken on them. They responded back of course and the topic has been a hotbed since then. Some fall on the side of SSE, some on the side of Kent. A little digging will pull up all sorts of information from both sides if you are interested. That is beyond the scope of this profile though. I think their catalog is worth having and I have bought seeds from them in the past. In recent years, I have been able to find most of what I want elsewhere and have done so. Look them over and make your own decision about them. They are worth knowing about even if you choose not to buy from them. After all, they were doing huge things for longer than almost any other company and are the single largest heirloom company out there.

What are your thoughts?

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