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Saving the Future, One Seed at a Time


KEN GREENE BECAME A twenty-first-century small-scale seedman to keep seeds “where they belong—in the dirty hands of caring gardeners.” He wants them out of the grasp of corporations, like Monsanto.

As founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, a local seed exchange that morphed into a tiny, mission-driven seed business in 2008, Greene, a soft-spoken, sociable man of 40 driven by idealism, champions “offbeat” vegetable varieties that perform well for regional home gardeners and market growers and thrive in the peculiarities of the valley’s climate and soils. Greene cherishes the traditions they embody. “People talk about the loss of food culture in America,” he says, equating the homogeneity and lack of nuance in the standard American diet to the narrowing of choices in the mass-seed trade. “What we see on grocery store shelves is extraordinarily limited in terms of flavor and nutrition—small seed companies like ours will be able to preserve diverse varieties and further food culture, as well.”

From the late 1800s to around 1920, New York hosted more seed companies than any other state, but that’s far from the case today: Most of New York’s seed companies went out of business or were gobbled up by “larger and larger conglomerates,” Greene says. Over time, the seed trade migrated west to California, Oregon and Washington, where large, flat fields and arid conditions are more conducive to seed propagation.

With the consolidation of the seed trade by national and global firms, seeds have become a generic commodity, grown for use everywhere. Regionally adapted seed, as well as university- and industrial-breeding programs focusing on regional needs, once commonplace, have ceased to exist.

About a decade ago, Greene came to the realization that the rapid consolidation of the seed industry into the hands of just a few agrochemical giants was jeopardizing our heritage. Seeds are at once livings organisms and cultural artifacts that generally have been considered common property. However, through genetic modification, corporations have claimed ownership and have been allowed to patent living organisms and, by extension, seeds and even individual genes.

Since the advent of agriculture, people have developed an immense variety of cultivated plants, many of which, over time, adapted to specific environments. Yet, within only a couple of generations, this tremendous biodiversity has been vanishing at an ominous rate. Within living memory, seed companies have dropped thousands of varieties from their catalogues because they don’t grow fast enough, don’t have a long enough shelf life or don’t ship well. Attributes like flavor and vitamin content, and agronomic traits like performance under less-than-optimal soil fertility, and resistance to pests and disease fall by the wayside. “The way the seed industry has been moving, we could end up in a situation where we’re a hundred percent dependent on multinational corporations, like Monsanto, telling us what we can and cannot grow,” Greene warns. He contends that corporate decisions are driven by a seemingly insatiable desire for control and profit, rather than by valid concerns like the health of the planet or human nutrition.

For Greene, the issue comes down to independence. Others are calling it the right to food sovereignty.

Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threat, Greene, an avid home gardener, learned to save seeds. Inspired by the possibilities, he began to get others to save and share seed, and sought donations of local family heirloom seeds. He had taken a part-time job at the Gardiner library while pursuing a graduate degree in special education, and in this supportive environment his seed exchange project tentatively took root in 2004.

Within the year, Greene received his first gift of a family heirloom from Peg Lotvin (who, as the Gardiner library director, also was his boss). While helping her mother go through the contents of the house, she discovered a tin containing her late father’s locally famous white beans, and immediately recognized their significance. She had grown up eating them in a beloved baked bean dish—whenever there was a community event in Ghent, where they lived, their neighbor Flossy would cook up big batches of the dish using her father’s beans.

When he was handed “Hank’s X-Tra Special Baking Bean” and told the story that went with them, Greene recognized the seed’s importance in a larger context. “It’s a quintessential heirloom—deeply connected to a place and very specific to the tastes of the people who grew it. It wasn’t commercially available—if we didn’t start saving it, it would disappear forever.”

By serendipity, Greene had been introduced to the seed library concept by one of the founders of the nation’s first such organization, the Bay Area Seed Library (BASIL) in California. Cofounder Sasha DuBrul had turned up in Gardiner as an intern at Four Winds Farm and the two men soon got acquainted around their common interest.

Patterned after the common model of book-lending libraries, seed libraries give their members access to an inventory of seeds, often heirlooms, to “borrow” and grow for their own use. In turn, they are encouraged to return seed from some of their plants, ideally replenishing or increasing the supply for other patrons. In the last couple years many seed libraries have sprung up; now, at least 75 of them conserve varieties and distribute their seeds.

But, where once seed saving shared a place with ordinary domestic knowhow, like sewing and butchering, for recent generations it is an esoteric art. Early on, Greene encountered “phenomenal gardeners—people who had been gardening for 30 years—who didn’t know how to save seeds, and had never tried.” If people lacked skills and confidence, Greene quickly learned that they wouldn’t save seeds and bring them back to the library. An adroit educator, Greene responded by writing, leading workshops and giving talks about the seed library “for anyone who would have me.” One of his first presentations was to the Rotary Club in New Paltz. Since then, he has focused on community outreach in order to continually reach new people.

About four years after starting the Hudson Valley Seed Library, Greene and his partner, Doug Muller, took the risk familiar to many new entrepreneurs—they quit their jobs and other work in order to transform their community project into a bona fide company. Both were ambitious gardeners eager to become farmers—Muller finished construction of their cabin, Greene cut back on his hours at the library. Both were busy as freelance writers on the side. They built their new home on land they co-own with several other households in the Roundout Valley town of Accord. Their property, previously a Ukrainian resort, became the site of their farm and business.

Surrounded by woods and fortified against hungry wildlife with assorted fencing, their main gardens, which totaled two acres in 2012, continue to expand. They ran trials to evaluate vegetables, herbs and flowers. (Their Skyscraper sunflower and Purple Peacock broccoli, for example—two of the varieties that stood out among those tested this past summer—will be offered in 2013), and experiment with crop improvement (the crew is playing around with Isis Candy tomato, using the variety’s heterogeneous gene pool as the raw material for selections). The seed library also has a separate, smaller demonstration garden, started by sales manager Erin Enouen, one of two employees. The former CSA farmer describes it as “my attempt to grow like a home gardener.”

At first, Greene and Muller squeezed “seed central”—where essential functions like seed packing and shipping take place—into a small shed (formerly a concessions stand for the resort). They eventually outgrew the space and converted a trailer into offices, warehouse, and a packing/shipping facility. The old shed now has a walk-in cooler for bulk seed storage as well as additional seed-packing room.

Despite a very challenging business model, the seed library has doubled its sales and expanded its offerings every year. In 2012, the company sold about 75,000 packets of seed, representing more than 200 different varieties. Presently, 30 percent of the seed varieties in the catalogue are locally grown, either at the farm or by growers under contract, and that proportion also increases annually. The partners continue to actively seek more farmers to become seed stewards for specific varieties.

Social and cultural goals figure as strongly in the vision of the seed library as do biological or horticultural ones. “Part of our mission is to support all the pieces that create sustainable, resilient communities,” Greene notes. This perspective has opened the door to unconventional strategies—like commissioning artwork—to boost the company’s visibility. What started as an experiment with Greene’s artist friends, the Hudson Valley Seed Library now hosts what Greene describes as a “pretty rigorous” annual competition for artwork used in the company’s signature “art packs.” For 2013, the program’s fifth year, 24 winners were selected from a field of over 200 artists from throughout the Northeast. The cycle—from soliciting entries to getting the seed packets printed—lasts almost a year, and it takes a lot of back-and-forth before the chosen artists’ pieces are finalized, but the competition and marketing strategy have earned The Hudson Valley Seed Library a distinctive identity.

This year, 78 art packs, each corresponding to a different vegetable variety, cleverly illustrate evocative plant names in all sorts of styles and media. Against a backdrop of flowers and flying creatures, for instance, a white-robed figure perched high on a ladder reaches for a “Moon Flower.” A canoe glides between shores vegetated with “Evergreen Scallions.” The pack for a superb Russian eating tomato called “Cosmonaut Volkov” features a portrait of the famed astronaut, a space capsule and emblematic Soviet symbols. “Kaleidoscope Carrot” brings forth a pinwheel of rainbow-colored specimens.

Although the seed library’s full complement of seeds can only be accessed online, a physical display of the seed packs—unexpectedly imaginative eye candy—beckons shoppers to look more carefully, if it doesn’t stop them dead in their tracks, a fact that has attracted the attention of about 100 retailers around the country, including numerous food co-ops.

Monetary compensation for the artists is modest, but they receive coveted opportunities for exposure—their original artwork appears in a dozen shows, large and small, from the Philadelphia Flower Show, to the National Heirloom Show in California, to the Seed Saver Exchange conference in Iowa, to the Capital District Arts Center in Troy and other area galleries. The shows also provide venues to sell art packs and fine-art prints.

When Greene and Muller transformed the seed library from a community seed exchange into a for-profit venture, they jumped into a new arena without having many essential skills in commerce and agriculture. Beyond having to learn the myriad skills needed to run a business, they had to make the leap from home-scale gardening to a considerably larger operation designed for seed production. They’ve been on a non-stop course ever since. “Neither Doug nor I were business minded,” Greene admits.

Four years into the company, the two say they are still trying to figure out how they can make a living as a small seed company. Business consultants have delivered a near-unanimous verdict: Hudson Valley Seed Library should stop growing its own seed.

Both Greene and Muller admit the farm, which always loses money, is a weak link in the company. “When we produce our own seed, we cannot compete—our seeds end up costing a lot more. But that hasn’t deterred us yet,” Greene says. “If we were just buying seeds wholesale from California growers and repackaging them [as the vast majority of seed companies do], we would actually be profitable,” he continues. Yet, Greene believes he’d lose his passion for the entire project if he was not growing seed and involving other gardeners in growing seed, too. “Where are your seed dollars going? Maybe company A, B and C all have the same variety, but who owns the company? Who produced the seed? How far did that seed travel? Are workers paid fair wages and working under decent conditions? With most companies you won’t get the answers to these questions. With us, the answers will make you proud of what you are supporting,” he affirms.

Economics also have emerged as a barrier for growers who would like to collaborate by growing seeds for the company. “It’s hard to make the money work,” Muller concedes. “Unfortunately, there’s only so much we can pay—hopefully that will change.”

It very well may. The partners never claimed to be experts and they’re upfront about learning as they go, with a big helping of trial and error. “Seeking more knowledge is part of growing up as a seed company,” Greene says.

Last year, Greene, Muller and company took advantage of educational opportunities in the seed movement—everyone attended either the annual Seed Savers Exchange conference in Decorah, Iowa, or a training program in plant breeding at High Mowing Seed Company, in northern Vermont. Returning “wide-eyed” with new ideas and deepened technical understanding, the group is hoping they’ll acquire tools and knowledge that could enable them to break through the financial obstacles.

This coming growing season, the seed library will unveil a new program designed to make seed saving more accessible to gardeners. “Community Seeds: One Seed, Many Gardens” will operate like a Community Reads program (in which a library or school promotes the reading of a single book so that participants can share a common experience and take part in a shared conversation). Everyone who joins the seed library will receive a free seed packet of the year’s “designated variety” (which will change each year). Gardeners will be able to follow the cycle of the plant in their gardens and get information and instruction on the Seeder’s Digest, the company’s blog. All the seed returned to the library will be pooled and donated to schools, community gardens and projects that grow for food pantries. “By encouraging every seed library member to grow the same variety in the same season, we’ll be able to connect all of our gardens into one big seed farm—growing enough seeds of this one variety to share with friends, family and our communities,” Greene explains.

For 2013, the seed library has selected the purple-podded pea, a Dutch variety with historical significance and much to recommend it. It’s good for eating fresh and as a dried pea—gardeners who save the seed will be simultaneously preserving their harvest for eating over the winter.

Despite its share of unfulfilled ambitions, Hudson Valley Seed Library has succeeded in carving out a niche as a small, rural business brimming with integrity. Invented to help tackle a looming global problem, it has not strayed from its original purpose. Using the power of beauty, storytelling, heartfelt enthusiasm and respect for the life forms it works with, the business continues to woo followers, one seed at a time.


How the seed savers save seeds

Late in the season, a seed garden won’t resemble a House Beautiful spread; many plants start looking wild and rough when their seed is ready for harvest. (If you’re a gardener, think about what happens to snap beans when you don’t get around to picking frequently enough.) “One of the cool things of being a seed farmer is allowing plants to go through their full life cycle,” says Ken Greene, director of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. “We have to let the fruit stay on the vine and pull all the nutrients out of the vines.” The vines yellow as all the nutrients need to go into the fruit. When the fruit starts to go soft and the seed is J-shaped, it’s ripe for picking.

When saving seed, you aim for the seed to be “true to type.” This often entails preventing one variety from pollinating another. With some plants, like bush beans, that’s easy because they’re not prone to cross-pollinate. For pole beans, which have a greater tendency to cross, planting patches at a distance from each other solves the problem.

For some plants that readily cross pollinate (like peppers), a system of exclusion is necessary. At the seed library, they exclude pollinating insects by constructing tunnels from metal hoops shrouded in floating, row-cover fabric. Isolation also can be achieved through timing. Brassicas, a family that includes everything from arugula to Brussels sprouts, are notoriously promiscuous, so the planting schedule is designed to have only one of these vegetables in flower at a time.

The basic rule of thumb in any seed saving is take the best of the plants and the best of its fruit. If selecting for earlier tomatoes, for example, save seed from the plant producing the first fruit. If saving seed from lettuce, spinach or another type of greens, beware of plants that go to flower and set seed first—you would be selecting for a shorter period of leaf production.

Some vegetables, like Brassicas in general, need a minimum population to maintain their robustness. The manual Seed to Seed, by Susan Ashworth, provides such critical details.

At the Hudson Valley Seed Library, pesticides of any sort are not used, and the motivations for this practice go beyond an allegiance to organic growing (even though next year they intend to apply for organic certification). Rather, they’re looking for natural resistance and resilience. “We want to see how plants are reacting to disease and insect pressure in the region,” Greene explains. If the farmers intervene with fungicides or insecticides, they won’t know how a given variety deals with disease outbreaks or pest infestations. Similarly, they’re interested in knowing how various plants respond to the increasingly erratic weather and changing climate in the long-term. “Plants have a lot of skills that are invisible to us and they don’t get to express those skills until they have to meet certain challenges,” Greene observes.

Much of the seed processing at the Hudson Valley Seed Library occurs using ancient methods in a makeshift outdoor operation set up under a shady grove of trees. Assorted pails and basins, screens and sieves of multiple sizes, along with other ordinary houseware items, complement the “furnishings”—an array of long plastic tables, a double stainless steel sink, a scattering of pallets and a garden hose. The method required to extract and clean seed depends on the particular plant. For example, tomato seeds must be fermented to remove a wet gel around them that contains a compound that inhibits germination.

During a NOFA-NY field day, Greene explained to a group of gardeners and farmers how the seed savers’ fermentation process used for tomatoes mimics what happens to the plant’s fruit in nature. “You can picture the tomato plant growing. If you didn’t pick the tomatoes, they would fall to the ground and get moldy. That allows tomato seeds to germinate.”

The simple procedure involves placing tomatoes in an open container covered with cheesecloth and waiting for white mold to form on top of the tomato slurry. (In a few days, it will start to smell bad, so this shouldn’t be done in the kitchen.) The viable seed will sink to the bottom. “You don’t want to let it go too long because the seed will start to dissolve,” Greene warns.

The number of seeds different varieties yield varies considerably, presenting an additional difficulty for contracting with local growers to produce seed. Ox Heart, an enormous, heart-shaped tomato prized by the seed library staff, contains very few seeds, which is one of its attractions. For certain other crops, like lettuce, peas, beans and members of the cabbage family, they have to beat on the dried plant material to get the seed pods to release the individual seeds. Sometimes they do this threshing in a plastic garbage can so as not to lose any seeds. Winnowing serves as the final step in cleaning dry seeds. Using either the wind or a box fan, the process separates the seed from the chaff and other plant residues, which retain moisture. Seeds lose some of their ability to germinate every year, and the higher the moisture level, the faster this decline.

Regarding all the handwork these tasks entail, Greene stresses, “We love that our seeds pass through our hands rather than machines. It’s important to us.”

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!