Whealy was one the original "bioneers" and founding-fathers of the
heirloom seed movement. As a co-founder[2,3]
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 October of 2007.
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.
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.
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]
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
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
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).
He was ousted, by a unanimous vote of the board he had hand selected,
in October of 2007. Sadly, his firing became public, quite
messy, and divisive.
After leaving SSE, Kent founded JAK KAW Press, and was a trustee of the
Ceres Trust, a private grant making foundation focused on organic
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.
"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.
JAK KAW Press "About Us" Page (June 7, 2018).
Plowboy Interview Kent Whealy," by the Mother Earth News
editors, Mother Earth News, January/February, 1982.
"Saving of Seeds of the
World," by Kent Whealy, Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2001, pages
Access to unpatented seeds, Kent Whealy and the Seed Savers Exchange
of Kent Whealy," Bifurcated Carrots, April 4, 2018.