The Doomsday Vault, Grandpa Ott, and the Cherokees

Posted March 11th, 2015 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog



The Doomsday Vault, Grandpa Ott, and Cherokees

Along with the rest of New England, I have grown weary of gray snow, frozen toes, narrow slippery sidewalks, and re-re-re-scheduling appointments and travel because of weekly snowstorms.  Thankfully, March has arrived and there is no sign of permanent damage to house, car, limbs or psyche.

This time of year brings the trifecta of spring: daylight saving time, the vernal equinox, and the vibrantly green and intoxicating seed catalogs that give us faith that the ice will melt, the ground will thaw and food can be grown again, even in New England.

The combination of these last icy cold days of winter and the pile of seed catalogs on the kitchen table reminds me of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, whose chilling nickname is “the Doomsday Vault”.  It is the Noah’s Ark of seeds located halfway between Norway and the North Pole.  Its stark modern metallic exterior- half bunker-like, half futuristic architecture is built into the permafrost and protected by the occasional visiting polar bear.

The shining modern edges of the structure belie the fact that it is historic preservation in action.  And not the “George Washington slept here” kind of preservation, the “I like to eat food, sometimes three times a day and would like future generations to able to do so too” kind of preservation.  The Crop Trust maintains the black box recorder of our world’s agricultural history –  history told in the language of DNA.  The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. ( To date, the Vault holds over 800,000 samples, representing food crops from most countries.  Ultimately, it will hold 4.5 million samples, the ultimate food supply backup.

Closer to home, with no polar bears in sight, the 1772 Foundation has consistently supported Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.  From    Founded in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, SSE’s collection started when Diane’s terminally ill grandfather gave them the seeds of two garden plants, Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato. Grandpa Ott’s parents brought the seeds from Bavaria when they immigrated to St. Lucas, Iowa in the 1870s. Diane and Kent realized that if they did not keep these varieties alive, they would become extinct.

SSE’s work to preserve seeds is an amazing mash-up of thoughtful historic preservation and the preservation of our future food supply.  There are serious threats: genetically modified organisms, climate change and the demands of consumers for cheap fruits and vegetables- food bred to meet transportation demands, not flavor or nutritional excellence, and definitely not the well-being of small local farmers.  Unlike hybrids (having only one generation of “trueness” to them) and genetically modified organisms, “heirloom seeds” are the ones we haven’t tampered with, yet. They are robust genetically diverse gems that have evolved naturally through open pollination.

Without genetic diversity, we are vulnerable to the kind of collapse that comes from heavy reliance on one type. The Irish potato famine provides the historic view of the catastrophic results that can be expected if we ignore the need for diversity.  Had there been a diverse crop of potatoes instead of a monoculture of “clones”, some of the crop would have survived the 1840s blight and provided the right resistance for the next generation of potatoes and people.  One million people perished because of a lack of genetic diversity and we are still vulnerable.  Seed banks could be our salvation.

It is a remarkable sensation when you understand the importance of the heirloom seed world- the weight of this potential in a handful of beans.  The ones I bought after visiting SSE’s Heritage Farm were from a collection that had been passed down from the Cherokees who had managed to protect them on their forced march west in 1838. The beans are named “Cherokee Trail of Tears” and carry with them not only the genetic diversity that is at risk, but also a painful American history lesson and the hope for a better future.  Indeed, each of the varieties of seeds in the SSE collection has a story of American history embedded within it, stories that are now being collected for cucumbers, tomatoes, wheat, squashes, etc., so we will know how they came to survive.   The 1772 Foundation funded the Collection Origins Research Effort (CORE) to document the stories behind the seed.  A sampling of this work can be viewed at

Never has historic preservation had such a critical purpose- to protect our future food supply. Take a look at and; these groups will sustain us through many more long, cold winters to come so that seed catalogs will continue to land on kitchen counters in March filled with the promise of a fruitful spring. Help them out and know that you are connecting our forebears’ efforts with our grandchildren’s futures.


~ Mary Anthony, Executive Director

The 1772 Foundation