Seedsmen Hall of Fame
Honoring Horticulturalists

Kent Whealy

Kent Whealy was one of the original "bioneers" and founding-fathers of the heirloom seed movement. As a co-founder[2,3,9] and the creative force behind the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), he led the organization for thirty-two years as its Executive Director from 1975 until he was ousted by a unanimous vote of the board he had hand selcted, in October of 2007. Sadly, he chose to make his firing public and quite messy.[5-23]

Kent was a long-time gardener who trained as a journalist and recognized that not only was the commercial agriculture industry focused on developing varieties for large agriculture, they were also actively dropping older standard varieties well suited for home gardeners.[1]

This loss of biodiversity was quantified when in 1985 he inventoried and collated the cultivar offerings from all current garden seed catalogs, comparing to past catalogs, to create the first edition of "The Garden Seed Inventory." This publication provided a tool for easily seeing what varieties had been dropped from the seed trade as well as ones that were becoming rare and endangered.

During Kent's time at SSE, he created and oversaw annual editions of Seed Savers Yearbook, whose 8,000 members distributed an estimated 1,000,000 samples of rare seeds, and also all of SSE’s membership publications, books and seed catalogs. Beginning with three seed varieties given to Kent and his wife Diane by her grandparents, the seed collection at SSE grew to include approximately 26,000 rare vegetable varieties.[2]

Kent gave more than 125 major lectures in the United States and dozens of lectures overseas throughout his career with SSE. His international efforts included planning and funding twelve plant collecting expeditions to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (working with some of the world’s preeminent plant collectors/scientists at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Gatersleben Seed Bank in eastern Germany), which brought 4,000 traditional varieties from 30 Eastern countries into SSE members’ seed collection.[2,3]

Along with his seed preservation efforts, he had a vision and worked hard to create, a world-class organization that included the seedbank, development of Heritage Farm (SSE's headquarters), and acquiring the adjacent 716-acre Twin Valleys, where he designed, implemented and supervised other genetic preservation projects: 23 acres of certified organic Preservation Gardens; Historic Orchard containing 700 varieties of pre-1900 apples; and two herds of Ancient White Park cattle – the rarest cattle in the English-speaking world.[2] Kent successfully funded the organization and its staff, land purchases and projects with his highly successful grant writing, sales of the publications he originated and edited, and eventually through the sale of heirloom seeds through a catalog division.

Numerous awards for Kent's genetic preservation efforts include a MacArthur Fellowship (1990), honorary doctorate from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa (1991), and Russia's prestigious N. I. Vavilov Medal (1996). Along with founding JAK KAW Press, Kent was a trustee of the Ceres Trust, a private grant making foundation focused on organic agricultural issues.

Although Kent's advocacy for biodiversity preservation and other issues was very public, he was a very private person. He passed away in late March of 2018.[13]


Sources:

  1. "Keeping traditions on the menu; Three conservation organizations consider ecological and cultural landscapes as they preserve old crops and develop new ones," by Anna Maria Gillus, BioScience Journal, August, 1993, pages 425-429.

  2. JAK KAW Press "About Us" Page (June 7, 2018).

  3. "The Plowboy Interview Kent Whealy," by the Mother Earth News editors, Mother Earth News, January/February, 1982.

  4. "Saving of Seeds of the World," by Kent Whealy, Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2001, pages 30-31.

  5. Kent's letter to Listed SSE Members regarding his termination, January 11, 2008.

  6. Seed Savers Exchange Advisors Support Board Actions, January 18, 2008.

  7. SSE Advisors Support Board Actions, Rebuttal to Kent's Letter, January 18, 2008.

  8. Diane Ott Whealy's rebuttal to Kent's Letter, January 18, 2008.

  9. Kent's Second Letter to Members, February 4, 2008.

  10. Kent Whealy's Update Letter to SSE Members, July 9, 2009.

  11. "Seed Savers Exchange and the Svalbard Doomsday Vault: Biopiracy by U.N. Treaty,"  Speech by Kent Whealy, Prairie Festival, The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, September 26, 2010.

  12. Response from: Svalbard Global Seed Vault, October 13, 2010.

  13. Response from: Executive Director of SSE John Torgrimson, October 13, 2010.

  14. Response from: Lifetime Member of SSE Marty Teitel, October 13, 2010.

  15. Response from: SSE Advisors, October 13, 2010.

  16. Response from: SSE Member and Former Employee Arllys Adelmann, October 13, 2010.

  17. Response from: Former Research Director, ETC Group, Hope Shand, October 13, 2010.

  18. Response from: SSE Advisor and Lifetime Member Will Bonsall, October 13, 2010.

  19. Response from: Lifetime Member and co-founder of the ETC Group Pat Mooney, October 13, 2010.

  20. Response from: SSE Board, October 13, 2010.

  21. Response from: SSE Board Member and Lifetime Member Cary Fowler, October 13, 2010.

  22. Response from: SSE Board Chair and Lifetime Member Amy P. Goldman, October 13, 2010.

  23. Kent Whealy’s Response Regarding Svalbard and to the SSE Decision to drop many varieties from its seed collection, November, 2010.

  24. "Passing of Kent Whealy," Bifurcated Carrots, April 4, 2018.

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