Is heaven in Iowa?

Posted April 7th, 2017 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog
Photo credit:  Seed Savers

In 1863, a three-year-old Irish toddler named Elizabeth Donnelly left County Leitrim. It is unclear whether she was accompanied by her parents, both children of farmers, or if she was orphaned and sent to live with relatives in America.

What we do know is that roughly a third of Leitrim had died either from starvation or disease or had left to make a life in North America in the years prior to Elizabeth’s emigration. The organism Phytophthora infestans caused widespread potato blight in 1845, which in turn propelled an unsustainable food system into the catastrophic Great Famine.

British land rule already had fractured Irish farmland into smaller and smaller parcels, which forced many farmers into a potato monoculture as it was a crop that provided both enough calories to feed a family and enough money to pay rent to British landlords. When a large percentage of the potato crop failed, the situation quickly became precarious. British rule did not allow the Irish to hunt or fish.  Relief was nonexistent.  There was no seed bank to improve biodiversity.

Landlords evicted already-starving tenant farming families into crowded workhouses, where cholera and typhus found ideal conditions to further the tragedy. It was not unusual for a corpse to be found with a green mouth, as desperate citizens attempted to fill their bellies with grass.

What Phytophthora infestans and British rule had started wasn’t the final chapter of the tragedy—about one third of the “fortunate” ones who attempted emigration died on what became known as “coffin ships,” overcrowded and barely seaworthy, with disease an unwelcome passenger.

The Irish toddler, Elizabeth Donnelly, is my great-grandmother. In considering the circumstances by which her family, and mine, came to be here in New England 153 years later, it strikes me that awareness of agricultural politics and the importance of genetic diversity to our food supply are not lessons we have fully learned. In an echo of 1841 Ireland, our food system is dangerously lopsided, tipped very heavily toward industrial farming practices and national farm policies that favor genetically engineered soy and corn monocultures.

There is hope, seeded by another immigrant.

112 years after my great-grandmother left Ireland, Diane Ott Whealy and her husband, Kent Whealy, sat at their kitchen table in Missouri and thought about Diane’s great-grandparent, who had emigrated from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870s. He brought precious cargo in the form of seeds: ‘German Pink’ tomato and ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory.  From these two varieties, Diane and Kent started a living collection that would grow to more than 25,000 seed and plant types, as well as a community of more than 12,000 members.

Their non-profit, Seed Savers Exchange, now is headquartered on 890-acre Heritage Farm in northeast Iowa, a magical place that has been accurately described as the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark wrapped into one. Heritage Farm actively promotes seed distribution to not only safeguard genetic diversity but also remember the stories of how these seeds were grown, saved, and passed down through generations—family treasures far more valuable than gold, treasures that we now know could have saved a million Irish lives.  They may yet save many more. The magnitude of their efforts is yet to be fully understood and is, to my mind, of biblical proportions.

Why does their work to preserve biodiversity in the form of heirloom and open-pollinated plants matter? These climate-ready varieties have the ability to adapt and regenerate themselves year after year. These seeds (and tissue cultures or other plant materials, depending on how a plant reproduces) have the power to withstand unforeseen pestilence and plant disease, climate change, and habitat limitations, even as they increase the diversity of flavors offered at the dining table. (

Consider this alarming twist: our current farming system heavily favors genetically engineered seeds. About 170 million acres of genetically engineered crops were planted in 2013.  Farmers are beholden to the corporations who control the seeds.  Their seeds are terminal—one year and done. Because of these modern “improved” farming techniques, we have lost 75 percent of edible plants varieties— and plants make up over 80 percent of the human diet. We are vulnerable in much the same way we were when immigrants like Grandpa Ott and Elizabeth Donnelly arrived in this country so long ago.

Seed Savers’ critical dual mission is to preserve genetic diversity and the living histories of each variety—the DNA within each seed contains its own rich and breathtaking memory of immigration, family farms and gardens and recipes. Take a look at the ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon, ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato, and ‘Mayflower’ bean. They are beautiful, historical, and delicious. They are also the antidote to genetically engineered crops and treacherous farm policies. These seeds are tiny, robust foot soldiers in the war against future famines. This is historic preservation of the most urgent type, and I can say without exaggeration that there is not a more important historic site I have visited in my 14 years at The 1772 Foundation.

Twelve years ago, my 10-year-old son Jack (Elizabeth’s great-great-grandson) and I made a pilgrimage to Heritage Farm to meet Grandpa Ott’s descendants. One line from the movie Field of Dreams kept running through my head—when Shoeless Joe Jackson appears on the Iowa ball field and asks, “Is this heaven?” and Ray Kinsella answers, “No, It’s Iowa.” To Elizabeth Donnelly and Grandpa Ott, their descendants, historians, environmentalists, and all who eat, Heritage Farm is heaven.


Photo credit:  Seed Savers