The son of an alfalfa and potato farming family, Emil Zivney enrolled at Oregon State University in 1929 seeking a degree in agriculture. He caught the seed-collecting fever after he won an OSU seed identification contest in 1932. After graduating in 1936, he worked for five years at the Umatilla Field Station in Hermiston, Oregon, spending weekends and spare time collecting and identifying seeds and pods of about 1500 species, mostly grasses and local native plants, including five species that had not been listed botanically before. In 1939, he purchased a potato farm near Stanfield, Oregon and collecting took a back seat to farming for the next 39 years.
Upon retirement in 1978, he was able to once again pursue his passion for collecting seeds and pods. Over the next twenty years, he and his wife logged over 200,000 miles in the quest for seeds, traveling to every U.S. state, Central and South America, Europe, Tahiti, Fiji, the Canary Islands, Australia and New Zealand. He visited many notable collections, corresponded with collectors including the renowned German botanist Felix Hohmann, and by trading with other collectors was able to further enrich his collection.
Emil and his second wife, Hazel, welcomed visitors of all ages at their home in Lincoln City, Oregon. Although several arboretums around the country were interested in the seed collection, he chose to give it to OSU because his alma mater was where he was first inspired to collect seeds. Zivney donated his collection and funds to build display cases in 1992 and the collection of seeds and pods was picked up from their home in Lincoln City, Oregon in 1993 and installed at the OSU Seed Lab.