Field trip to the seed library

| 13 Nov 2012 | 06:08

“This is not tasty. It doesn’t smell good either,” says Ken Greene, gesturing to a trellis drooping under the weight of three-foot-long Japanese cucumbers. Most of the behemoth cucumbers have turned yellow and soft and fallen onto the ground along with their vines, where they are beginning to rot. They look like hell, and they’re just about ready for harvest.

These cucumbers aren’t going to end up in a salad or a pickle jar. The flesh is destined for the compost; what Greene is after is the seeds, and cucumber seeds, he explains, aren’t viable when the fruit is ready for eating. Even as the fruit turns to mush, the seeds are still sucking up nutrients.

These Japanese cucumbers are among 30 rare plant varieties, all at least potentially well suited to the Northeast, growing on a small farm in Accord, Ulster County. The crops that do well will be processed for their seed, packaged in packets decorated by local artists, and offered – along with regionally adapted seeds from local farms and responsible seed houses – for sale to thousands of northeast gardeners through the Hudson Valley Seed Library. At season’s end, the approximately 1,000 library members are encouraged to send seeds back to the library for seed credits.

Ken Greene, 40, started the Hudson Valley Seed Library eight years ago. It began as a community project at the Gardiner Library, where he worked as a librarian. Four years ago, the operation moved here, to a former Ukrainian kids’ camp. Greene co-owns the property with four other people, including his business partner and boyfriend Doug Muller. The trailer out front, where Muller is doing germination testing on a paper towel on a late summer afternoon, is the operation headquarters.

There’s nothing particularly complex or at all high tech about what goes on here. Humans have been saving seed for 12,000 years, without any special training or equipment, Greene points out. At the seed library, they do the threshing (beating on a fruit until the seeds come out) in a plastic garbage can. Greene collects all sorts of household variety sieves, strainers, and screens to winnow the chaff from the seed. They keep track of what’s growing where in their one-acre plot with a pencil and a big sheet of graph paper.

Collecting seed was once as ordinary as harvesting ripe fruit, but we’ve gotten out of the habit. Seeds are cheap, after all, and easy and kind of fun to buy. As we’ve left off preserving seed from one season to the next, what we have inadvertently done is put our food heritage and future in the hands of for-profit companies, and lost a lot in the process.

In the last few decades, the number of non-hybrid vegetable varieties on offer in seed catalogs has plummeted. Once, there were 7,000 varieties of apple available. Now there are 1,000, according to Organic Seed Production and Saving, by Connecticut farmer Bryan Connolly. There may be some amateur growers still growing the lost crops, but much of that genetic diversity is probably gone for good.

That’s why, small and simple though it may be, the seed library is actually an enormously ambitious venture. Its goal is nothing less than to reclaim regional seed sovereignty from big seed companies, by propagating the seeds and stories that have nurtured and been nurtured by the Hudson Valley. Like the black soybean, donated by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester, which was not available commercially before now. The library doesn’t just collect granny’s heirlooms, either. It’s evolving and forward-looking, seeking out varieties from afar with potential to do well here, like shiso, an Asian herb in the mint family that’s turned out to be a miracle crop.

Greene discovered shiso back when he was a librarian in Gardiner. One of the library regulars, a Korean woman, used to feed him sushi, kimchi, and a leaf she called sesame. Intrigued, Greene tried growing sesame. He learned two things: one, you can grow sesame here; and two, what he’d been fed was not in fact sesame. A little more research brought him to shiso, which turns out to grow unbothered by insects, mildew, or critters, and mulches out competing weeds on its own. Shiso earned its place in the seed library’s garden. Will it become a Hudson Valley staple?

“Probably not,” Greene laughed, but that doesn’t squelch his interest in the slightest. The library’s goal is to increase the variety of what’s available, he said, “so that we don’t wind up focusing on a narrow number of varieties, which is what’s happening in the seed industry.”

There’s power in seeds. This year Greene got a glimpse of just how crucial his little library could be when he found himself flooded with orders from all over the country for Brazilian Piracicaba Broccoli, a cut-and-come-again variety that’s heat resistant. He’d bought the seed from Fedco, a regional seed company, and had been experimenting with growing it on his farm. When Fedco didn’t offer it this year, Greene’s trailer in the Catskill foothills was the only place in the country stocking Piracicaba Broccoli seed.

But just because their goods are in high demand doesn’t mean the Hudson Valley Seed Library is making money.

“When we’re packaging our own seed, we can’t compete with how cheap bulk seeds are,” said Greene. “It’s been a real struggle to figure out how to make a living. Each year we’ve made enough money to put back into the business and grow. We just haven’t made enough money to live on.” This is a crucial year because Muller and Greene are out of their own money to fall back on. But then, Greene added, “We’re pretty stubborn.”