Radical Roots: Michael Mazourek

It takes a few good plant breeders to fend off homogeneity and blandness across the American farming landscape today. Michael Mazourek is one of them. In the world of resilient farming, rare breeds like him occupy a special place in the pantheon of agricultural superstars—and in the hearts and minds of us here at Stone Barns Center.

Because of modern crop patents and the widespread use of commercial hybrid seeds, on-farm seed breeding is becoming a lost art. “Most seeds available to farmers are uniform and static,” says Michael, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. The simple act of a farmer saving the seeds of a crop and planting them next season is itself a rarity, and in some cases, radical.

“On-farm breeding allows farmers to restore diversity to crops,” says Michael, whose work focuses on breeding for quality and disease resistance in peppers, peas and cucurbit crops. “It returns plant varieties to dynamic, evolving and adaptable populations, similar to what would be found in nature.” As in the natural world, such dynamism and diversity are important to a resilient ecosystem.

For the past eight years, Michael has been partnering with Jack Algiere, head of vegetable farming at Stone Barns, and Dan Barber, Executive Chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, on several seed-breeding experiments that have resulted in the Honeynut squash, a purple snow pea and other varieties. Some projects aim for disease-resistant strains of peppers and cucumbers. It’s a unique partnership for Michael, in that seeds are grown out on our farm and then tested in the kitchen and on the plate at Blue Hill. Reactions from farmers, chefs and diners, as well as from our community-supported agriculture (CSA) members, give Michael vital feedback to help him refine his methods and selection in breeding the next round of seeds.

Sharing new seeds broadly with farmers is fundamental to the plant-breeding process for Michael, and it’s central to our mission of helping support the spread of resilient farming methods.

“The act of selecting seed is an exercise that provides farmers with a new perspective on the crops they grow and strengthens the linkage between them and their land.”