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By Jennifer Casey, Slow Food USA Governor and Chairperson of the Ark of Taste Midwest Regional Committee

We came from cities large and small, crossing some of the country’s biggest rivers and lakes as well as unknown valleys cut by tiny streams. We passed by impressive river bluffs with their ancient burial mounds and bur oak stands topping verdant hills. Through fields of songbird and fields of corn, our travels led us to a place that is the heart of biodiversity work in the heartland. It was the Midwest Regional Ark of Taste Committee’s first in-person meeting. And where better for biodiversity leaders to gather than at Seed Saver’s Exchange — a nonprofit dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds with an educational farm nestled among the Driftless region’s characteristic hills, just outside of Decorah, Iowa?

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) has been a durable partner in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste work and is a national leader in seed preservation. I came hoping to build relationships with my fellow committee members as well as some of the luminaries of food conversation — people like Diane Ott Whealy, Co-founder and Vice President of SSE; David Cavagnaro, Director of the remarkable Pepperfield Project; and Dan Bussey, SSE Historic Orchard Manager. I came hoping to meet the smart and enthusiastic staff at SSE so that we could explore the past, current, and future collaborations. I came hoping to be inspired by people and place…and I was not disappointed.

{{ image(2829, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:”300″, “height”:”200″, “method”: “img”}) }}To begin, we took in our surroundings. It should not comes as a surprise that the founder and vice president of SSE keeps a beautiful garden, but stepping into the lavish beauty of Diane’s Heritage Farm Garden, I could not help but be amazed. Morning coffee in hand, she gave us a tour of her garden — where lush colors and scents of fruit and vegetables mingling with flowers creates a feeling of wild abundance. Diane’s approach embraces the diversity of plant life and growth habits; setting the stage for delightful surprises. The deep purple tops of showy Amaranth pop out of a raised bed of Sultan’s Golden Crescent Beans. Tiny butter colored flowers atop Lolla Rossa lettuce plants demonstrate a glorious stage on the path to seed formation. The bright purple of Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory volunteers peek through the Scarlett Runner Beans and, below, fuzzy magenta Amish Cockscomb flowers nestle next to Red Okra, still green. This is a garden where plants make welcome people and pollinators.

A stone’s throw from Diane’s garden, we found the Ark of Taste Nominee Plot that SSE staff had planted with seven potential Ark of Taste candidates from the SSE catalogue in anticipation of our meeting. Like all nominations, we would consider their suitability by reviewing their at-risk status, cultural and historical linkages, ability to be sustainably produced, and, of course, their taste. SSE has contributed several additions to the Ark of Taste in the past (think Beaver Dam Pepper and Moon & Stars Watermelon) but they have a huge collection of many thousands of heirlooms that might be good fit for the Ark of Taste, and more importantly, a staff with the knowledge, understanding, and interest in this potential. This Ark of Taste Nominee garden, with its ripening Chelsea watermelons, tall Hop McConnel Speckled Corn, and flowering Italian Black Cowpeas, seemed to be a physical manifestation of the collaboration between SSE and Slow Food — working together to preserve stories and foodways.

Over a stream and across the pine woods, we ventured into the SSE Historic Orchard, now managed by Dan Bussey. In the quest to reverse the tide of extinction of once bountiful American apple varieties, a small handful of people stand out — and Dan Bussey is among them. His vast knowledge of apple varietals has some people calling him a “Walking National Monument” but his modesty is clear when he refers to himself as, simply, an “apple enthusiast.” I’m somewhat of an antique apple devotee, so to explore the orchard with its hundreds of 19th century apples on display, to learn about the orchard’s past and future plans (possibly including rare grafted tree sales), and to discuss the arc of apple diversity in this country with Dan was sheer joy.

The inspiration of the tours lasted throughout our meetings, where we discussed nominations as well as partnership opportunities between SSE and local chapters. Seed Savers has a foundational concept, participatory conservation, that mirrors one of Slow Food’s own — the concept of the co-producer. Both terms speak to the power of the individual to create change through being actively engaged in our food system, and both organizations create increased avenues to do so.

As dusk fell one evening of that memorable weekend, we gathered at David Cavagnero’s Pepperfield Project, a nonprofit devoted to teaching about sustainability, genetic preservation, healthful eating and food gardening. While preparing to enjoy a meal featuring a dozen Ark of Taste ingredients (most sourced from Pepperfield itself) David spoke to us about understanding our nation’s cultural and biological food diversity through the lens of immigration. Indeed, we have become a nation where immigrants are the majority — with indigenous peoples’ foods and food traditions intricately woven throughout the foodways of the vastly diverse peoples that have come to call the US home. As our committee discussed our vision for the Ark of Taste in the Midwest, we came back to this concept again and again — remembering that our diversity is not only our strength, but our pleasure. Pepperfield’s epic Ark of Taste dinner, with its Anishinaabeg Wild Rice, Chapalote Corn, German Pink Tomato, Christmas Lima Bean, and many more storied ingredients at its heart, served as a tangible and tasty expression of the exciting, diverse, indigenous and immigrant foodways we are all working so hard to preserve.