Seed Savers Exchange / Decorah Trip

Last week the wife and I decided to spend a couple of days up in Decorah, Iowa.   It’s a small-ish town in the NE corner of the state close to Minnesota and Wisconsin and about a four hour drive from Des Moines.

I’ve never been to that part of the state but last year I heard a few stories on Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa about things in Decorah that caught my interest.   One was about the Seed Savers Exchange Farm and the other was about Fern Hollow Cabin.

Seed Savers Exchange specializes in preserving (and proliferating) heirloom varieties of vegetables as well as some livestock and fruit trees.   They can tell their story better than I can, so click here for more info.    On their farm they grow these varieties in order to harvest the seeds.   This is pretty important work in today’s world where GMO’s and monocropping rule the roost and it seems like there isn’t much variety in produce on most supermarket shelves.   They’re very famous in the world of organic gardening and all things related.

I think we made it to their farm at a good time of the year.   The heat of the summer was winding down, the summer crops were still in the ground, things were still in bloom and the fall crops were going strong.

The farm itself was very peaceful, I think there were only a few people there including some hippie-types lounging on a picnic table.   I guess the locals treat the place as kind of like a park, which would be cool.    It’s a nice, scenic walk through the whole place and big enough that it can eat up some time, especially if you stop to look at things.    I also thought that the gift shop was probably the only gift shop I’ve ever actually been excited to be in as an adult.  They had a great selection of seeds (of course), books on various subjects relating to gardening and homesteading, locally produced food items and things of that nature.  I picked up about ten packets of seeds, a bag of Siberian garlic bulbs and the wife picked up a couple bags of varieties of beans that you don’t see every day.

Here are a few pictures around the farm:



I like how everything is densely planted with narrow walkways.   You’re up close and personal with the plants.   You can smell them, they’re brushing up against you and all the insects and hummingbirds are buzzing around.   It’s a lot more fun and sensually stimulating than if they just had neatly planted rows of stuff.   I know that kind of sounds a little too hippie-ish, but I thought it was cool.   I’m a war veteran and I can get away with saying things like that.

This is me.


They had a few varieties of chickens, ducks, turkey and geese which I thought was kind of interesting.   They had a small herd of White Park cattle, which is an ancient and very rare breed that has been in the British Isles for thousands of years.   It was a nice walk down to where the cattle were at, through a nice pasture surrounded by wooded hills.

On another part of the farm they had an apple orchard of historic varieties.   Fortunately it was apple season and the trees were loaded with fruit.   They had a sign at the door that said that visitors cannot take fruit off the trees, but anything on the ground is fair game.   We got a bag out and spend about half an hour rummaging through the apples on the ground and filled up a bag with good apples.  I saw some other people doing it too, so it might be a common practice for the locals.     In part of the orchard they used electric fencing so they could have pigs come in and eat the apples that had fallen off the trees.   We didn’t pick up apples from the areas we could tell the pigs had been, btw.    I forgot what kind of breed the pigs were, but they were cool.   We could get up fairly close to them and we watched them for a while.

To get a little more touchy-feely, one thing I like about the Seed Savers Exchange’s mission is that plants and animals are sometimes more than what they are.   It’s easy to look at a carrot, chicken or tomato and say “that’s just a carrot/chicken/tomato”, but each of these varieties/breeds represents a distinct history, story, place and place in time.   It’s a direct living connection to the past – many of these varieties have been in families for generations.  I think the most famous example of this is the “mortgage lifter” tomato – a guy during the great depression down on his luck had a particularly prolific strain of tomato and was able to sell enough of the seedlings to pay off his mortgage.   As supermarket produce aisles are filled with soulless varieties that facilitate mass production and transport, we’ve lost that kind of connection to our food.   How cool would it be to have a heritage breed of turkey from the colonial era on Thanksgiving instead of one from Jennie-O?     I think society would be a little better off if we held more reverence for these kinds of things.    I would rather eat/grow/raise something with unique qualities (taste, shape, color, texture, etc.) with a story behind it than the kind of white-washed and homogenized food products on the supermarket shelf now.

The cabin we stayed in was very cool.   The owners were a couple of homesteader/permaculture types that had lived in the cabin with their two daughters, but built a house 100 feet away and kept the cabin as a rental.   It was built by one of the owner’s Norwegian ancestors around 1850 and moved to the present location a few miles outside of Decorah in a nice spot in a hollow surrounded by forests.    The cabin was powered by solar energy and heated with a wood stove.   There was a composting toilet in an outhouse and the shower was a small pump in a five gallon bucket connected to some pvc pipes – you had to heat the water on the stove and pour it into the bucket.    While a lot of people would not be happy with these kinds of accommodations, we loved it.

The composting toilet was interesting…  I’ve heard some things about them and heard people say “it really doesn’t smell” and I didn’t believe it.   They’re right.   It really didn’t smell at all.   Maybe it would in warmer weather, but it was a fairly pleasant experience.   We’re considering a move to the country eventually, and knowing that a composting toilet isn’t that bad is a good thing considering the cost of septic tanks and all of that.    Liz, the wife suggested that I piss outside in order to reduce the amount of liquid in the toilet.   Don’t mind if I do!

They served breakfast from foods produced either on their homestead or at least somewhere in the community (except for the coffee.  We haven’t figured that one out in Iowa yet) and it was great.   They did a good job accommodating my vegan wife too.   The first morning we had pancakes with fried puffball mushrooms, freshly pressed apple cider from their trees, pumpkin seeds and I had a couple of eggs from their hens.   The next day it was muffins (I forgot what kind, but they were good), green beans, fresh apple/grape juice and an omelette with parsley, tomatoes, garlic and basil.

One thing that was particularly memorable was the night sky, being so far away from lights.    You could clearly see the Milky Way and all kinds of things you can’t see in the city at night.   I spent about an hour sitting on a porch swing sipping peppermint tea just staring up at it.    A lot of the sky was obscured by the hills and trees, but still, it was very cool.

Here are a few pictures from the outside:

The website for this place (Fern Hollow Cabin) is here.   I would definitely stay here again.   I would also spend a little more time talking to the people that own it, they were very friendly people that did a lot of interesting stuff and probably had a lot of interesting stories and wisdom to share.

As for Decorah itself, I liked it.   It’s a very progressive town, but quaintly progressive – think Minnesota, not Berkeley.   There seems to be a very strong sense of community there.  I noticed the main drag (Water Street) was mostly local business with very few if any vacancies.  It seemed like most restaurants touted local fare on their menus and the local food thing was all over the place.   It was kind of nice to not see payday loans, fast food, tobacco stores and cellphone stores like the kinds of businesses I see day-to-day around here.    I think we went to Oneota Community Food Cooperative about half a dozen times in our short stay for a few meals and various grocery items.   They had a hot bar (or “buffet”) that changed daily, often using local products.   One day it was local themed with all local products – apple pork, stuffing with local bread and herbs, beets, squash, kale and apple crisp.   The next day it was Chinese with local products.     One day we hit sample night, where local producers come and peddle their wares within the store with free samples.  I was told it was just like getting a free meal once everything was said and done and they didn’t disappoint.  There was yogurt, various meats, honey, aronia berries, bread, produce, mushrooms and some other things.   It sure beats getting a wedge of frozen pizza or a paper cup of cereal at Costco.    All in all, I was very impressed with that town’s support of their local producers and merchants.

Decorah is VERY Norwegian.   It’s home to Vesterheim, a museum dedicated to Norwegian immigrants.  I guess it’s the largest museum dedicated to an ethnic group in the US.   The museum was interesting with lots of things from day-to-day life from the early immigrants.  While we were there, they had some (apparently) famous fiddle players from Finland playing in a church on the museum’s grounds.      Around town there were a lot of signs in Norwegian, trolls, troll houses (did you know that there’s never been a credible troll sighting of English-speaking trolls?   They only do Norwegian, even in Iowa).   Lots of little trinkets with that self-depreciating Scandinavian humor like Ole and Lena jokes, Lutefisk jokes, “Uff Da!”, etc.  Most people looked the part – lots of tall, thin blondes.   I know that Scandinavians in the upper midwest have a reputation of appearing to be stand-offish and cold to outsiders, but most of the people were very friendly.  In fact, I kind of felt like a dick some of the time for being kind of short with a few people that seemed like they were trying to engage us in conversation.

The scenery in the area gets described with “it doesn’t feel like you’re in Iowa”, which is definitely true.   Maybe that’s Central Iowa centric of me though.   The glaciers flattened out most of the state, but they missed a sliver in NE Iowa/SE Minnesota/SW Wisconsin known as the “driftless area”.     Most of the drive up there was through mind-numbingly flat Northern Iowa where there’s little but fields and wind turbines and then all of a sudden there’s hills, rock outcroppings on the side of the road and a ton of trees.   I think it looks a lot like Northern Minnesota.   I guess it’s a good area for mountain biking, canoeing, hiking and things like that due to the terrain.

A lot of Northern Iowa looks like this.

Decorah has stuff like this

…and this. An area by a stream tucked away in a forest near the cabin.


So that was the first time I’ve been to that part of the state and I’m glad I know it exists now.   It appealed to a lot of things I’m into – gardening, sustainability, locally grown food, European heritage and outdoorsy stuff.   I’ll definitely be back.




  • Rottenclam

    A fantastic blog article, Ryan! Props.

    Lots of things I’d like to comment on….

    a) The farm description(s) really got me wanting to visit them and stay there for a few days

    b) The town descriptions did the same thing (that co-op sounds great). I thought that small towns like this no longer existed in America (no paycheck loan and cellphone stores?) – It would be great for small towns in America to take a hint from Decorah

    c) I wasnt sure where you were going with your review of the drive and overall surface of NE Iowa, but the pictures really do your descriptions justice. I had no idea that SE Minnesota / SW Wisconsin / and NE Iowa looked like that. Parts of Illinois look like that, and we’re moving to Western Pennsylvania (and a lot of it looks like that)…so I’m really looking forward to living in that kind of “driftless area” terrain.

    Oh – BTW – that one picture which has YOU in the actual picture made me double-take for a second. The reason: you’re wearing multi-cam trousers that blend quite convincingly into the green lawn’s background, so at first glance, it makes you look disembodied from the waist up. I gotta get me some of those trousers (and get my tactical on).

    Again – a great article.

  • Ryan

    The farm was worth a visit and every now and then they have special events and guest speakers and all of that – I’m going to keep an eye on their schedule.

    There’s a few towns that are kind of like Decorah (in practice, not necessarily style) Iowa, usually based on some sort of non-Anglo ethnic group (Norwegians, Germans, Dutch, Czechs, Danes). In one town near me called Pella (very Dutch – it’s like a cross between 1950’s America and 1850’s Netherlands) Wal-Mart lost out to local competition when first came. Several years later they built a new one outside city limits though. Even the Subway was forced to at least make their storefront look Dutch. I wouldn’t mind living in/near that town, it has a lot of things going for it. Either way, it’s cool to see a town square with thriving local businesses instead of just a few insurance agents, some vacancies and chains like a lot of small towns.

    There’s also a private Lutheran college in Decorah that is probably the largest employer and keeps the town kind of youthful, so that helps. I don’t know what it is about the Lutherans/Scandinavians, but they do seem to lean towards being very progressive but reserved about it. I think it comes off as being more “concerned” than “angry”. But yeah, I was very impressed with the sense of community they seemed to have there and all the things that were going on – there seemed to be a lot of art events and people getting together to do stuff (one church had things like canning/preserving classes, group cooking and a community meal which apparently was a big deal in town.). For as much as people say “there’s nothing to do in small towns”, it seems like these people had more going on in their lives than most people I know do. I guess places are what you make out of them.

    Honestly, I would consider moving to Decorah if things started to go south for me here. It seems like there are more positives about the area than negatives and my interest in things like shows/subculture events is kind of low right now.

    I remember seeing a “visit Illinois” commercial where they showed some landscape that looked like the driftless area and being a little confused. I guess most of Illinois that I’ve seen looks a lot like, well, most of Iowa. I know that Southern Illinois is a different world (in a few ways) though. Anyways, if you ever do make it to this part of the world give me a heads up.

    RE: camouflage. I actually remember talking to you about this in DC in ’05. Going to that Marpat digital camo was actually a good update, I think. Those uniforms are much easier to maintain (no ironing), a little more practical (better pockets, more pockets, apparently better NBC protection and a little harder for NVG/thermal to detect for what that’s worth) and the pattern is much more effective than the older tricolor camo. That was designed for fighting Ivan in the forests of Germany and it stands out in arid/urban places. The new woodland marpat breaks your outline better – it works better in the forests of Germany, earth-toned third world urban areas and the kinds of arid areas we end up. The desert one definitely blends in with earth-toned buildings and arid areas. For what it’s worth, sometimes being seen is more important than NOT being seen in Iraq/Afghanistan – they want people to know we’re there and to be visible out and about. The Army’s pattern seems pretty good for places like Iraq/Afghanistan but I’m not sure if it works in the forests of Germany.

    Another advantage of the Marine Corps’ pattern is that it distinguishes Marines from US Army soldiers and the insurgents know the difference and sometimes they would see Marines and decide that it wasn’t in their best interest to engage us. There was a village that was part of our area of operations in Iraq and we had guys there every day with very few incidents. An Army convoy of SF dudes came through and Ali Baba jumped all over it and lit them up – a few of the SF dudes got killed in that one. They definitely get a little less bold when they see USMC uniforms.

  • Ryan

    Oh, I don’t know if you get Mother Earth News magazine but they had an article about some smaller towns that are local-centric and into sustainability. Decorah or maybe Fairfield, IA could’ve easily been featured. I think they cheated a bit by putting Denton, TX and Lawrence, KS on the list since they’re both around 100,000. I’d rather see the ones in the 50,000 or less range.

  • Rottenclam

    Wow – thats pretty crazy that you remember our conversation about camo from 2005. And I thought that *I* had a good memory. hah.

    Interesting info on that subject, and a very interesting anecdote about the enemy more likely to engage the Army rather than the Marines (and how camo style/type may have played a role in that)

    Maybe I’ll check out that Mother Earth News issue where they talk about smaller local-centric towns. Assuming that we’ll move again someday, I want to find either a very small city (Rapid City, S.D. or something like that), or a very big town. Something with a sub-100,000 population.

    By moving from San Francisco to Pittsburgh we’re going from a city with a population of 800,000+ to a city of 300,000+. I had originally wanted to go to a sub 100,000 city / town (Santa Fe, N.M.), but my better half was not willing to make that concession. Now that we’ll be living in Pittsburgh, I’ll be checking out West Virginia some more. It is the least populated state East of the Mississippi, has the highest amount of rainfall, is full of caves, etc. Very survivalist, heh. Maybe we’ll fall for Morgantown, W.V.

    • Ryan

      I’ve never been to Rapid City, but I know a lot of people like that area. I think one thing that I wouldn’t like about Rapid City is that “civilization” is a long ways away if you want it. More or less all of my needs are met one way or another here in Des Moines, but I have the option of spending a few hours on the road and going to Minneapolis, KC, Chicago, Omaha or anywhere in between. It’s not something I do every day of course or even all that often, but psychologically I like knowing these places are there if I want them.

      As far as similar-sized cities to Rapid City goes, I like Duluth, MN. The winters there can be brutal though. It’s very distinctive – very northern, outdoorsy, slightly bohemian and the port on Lake Superior (largest inland port in the US) give it some character. I hear Dubuque, IA (on the Mississippi and not far from Decorah) is nice too. Bloomington, IN sounds kind of cool and they’re really into the whole urban homesteading/local agriculture thing there.

      I like the Des Moines area though. It’s a good size (200,000, about 500,000 or 600,000 in the metro). It’s small enough that things like traffic and crime aren’t that bad but big enough to offer some of the cultural things and job prospects you would expect to find in a bigger city. It’s not on the same level as New York or even Minneapolis by any means, but I think it offers more than most cities this size. There’s a “shit that people from Des Moines say” video out there and one thing they keep repeating is “per capita…” and “for a city this size…” and it’s kind of true – we definitely have a chip on our shoulder about these kinds of things. It’s definitely improved a lot in the past ten years.

      I’ve never been to Appalachia and/or the Pittsburgh area, but I’ve heard good things about Pittsburgh – good luck there. Do you have any connections to that area or did it just fit your criteria?

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