Seed Savers Exchange's (SSE) rich array of heirloom plants served as a backdrop for an official presidential town hall meeting Monday.

The second stop on a three-day tour of the Midwest, President Obama conducted an open and frank discussion with an audience of over 500 farmers, small business owners, citizens and SSE supporters in Decorah.

"I want to thank Diane and everyone at Seed Savers Exchange for this unbelievable setting," said President Obama, referring to SSE co-founder Diane Ott Whealy. "They gave me a pack of seeds for Michelle's garden-I'm going to be in good stead when I get home."

The president's visit to Heritage Farm is part of a three-state tour of agricultural communities in Iowa and Minnesota. SSE executive director John Torgrimson and Ott Whealy greeted the president upon his arrival. They presented President Obama with an array of historic heirloom seeds, which came from President Thomas Jefferson's collection in Monticello, Va. The gift included vegetable seeds such as asparagus pea and tennis ball lettuce; ornamental flower seeds such as red spider zinnia and snail flower, as well as seeds from SSE's "Seeds to Grow" fundraising program for schools.

"We were honored and humbled to host the president," said Torgrimson. "President Jefferson wrote that 'the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.' Here at Seed Savers Exchange, we agree with Jefferson's sentiment and feel that it's equally important to save and preserve our biodiversity for future generations."

President Obama was briefed on the mission and work of SSE, which focuses on protecting the nation's diverse but endangered garden heritage for future generations.

He responded by stating that the White House garden is flourishing, with enough produce to feed the White House. The president also accepted a signed copy of Ott Whealy's recently-published memoir, "Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver."

The president's visit came at a time of unprecedented growth and renewal for the 36-year-old membership-based organization. In addition to annual grow-outs and its work to cultivate an international community of seed savers, SSE's current innovative programs include:

• CORE - a groundbreaking new initiative to consolidate, verify and organize the stories behind each seed in SSE's collection of thousands of heirloom and open-pollinated crops.

• The planting of a new orchard that will collect and protect over 300 rare and historically valuable apple cultivars.

• Educational programs that give farmers and gardeners the skills they need to preserve heirloom and open-pollinated crops.

"The president's visit demonstrated that the work of preserving heirloom crops is critical," reflected Torgrimson.

"In today's difficult economic times, saving seeds saves money and gives farming and gardening families more control over their own future. We're thrilled to have had this opportunity. It will simply reinforce our dedication to protecting the thousands of varieties of heirlooms we have in our collection."