Sowing Diversity, Seeding Change

This month, Stone Barns Center will host more than 40 small farmers for the annual meeting of NOVIC—the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. Wanting to learn how to participate in seed trials on their own farms, these farmers are coming here to learn from professional seed breeders while seeing how we’ve conducted seed trials for more than eight years.  We participate in seed trials to not only enhance the diversity of what we grow, but also to serve as a laboratory from which other farmers can learn—and hopefully, find inspiration, too.

We’ll report more on the impact of this meeting down the road, but we thought we’d step back and take a moment with Jack Algiere, our Four Season Farm Director, to ask him a few questions about seed trials, growing experiments and why he’s such a passionate advocate for seed breeding.

How did you first get involved with seed trials at Stone Barns?

A year or so after we opened Stone Barns, I got introduced to John Mishanec, the Cornell Extension expert for eastern New York. He was really interested in testing new and diverse plants in small-farm settings. John drove down here, opened up the trunk of his car and he had about 25 different varieties of potatoes in there. He asked me if I could grow them out and see what we thought about them—and that was the beginning of a great relationship doing seed trials and experiments with Cornell.

Beyond the trunk of potatoes, did John and Cornell give you access to other seed gems?

Yeah, I got access to their whole seed locker! It’s pretty amazing, as is the guy in charge, George Moriarity. As a public breeding institution, Cornell’s Plant Science Department has thousands of seeds—new and old—stored up and waiting to see the light of day in a trial. Industry may not be interested in them, so they get stuck there. Because I showed up and said “I’m willing,” I was given a direct line to so many experts in the department.

Why should more small farmers be engaged with seed breeders and trials?

You can gain insight into new crops and be in on new varieties early on, yes—all positive. But the real issue for me is that, if small farmers don’t work with breeders, then breeders at Cornell or Bejo [the Holland-based seed company] or others are only getting the ear of industry—and that constantly redirects the energy away from the organic business and small farms. We have to be in on seed trials. It’s like voting or not voting. If you participate, your voice is heard. Don’t complain about the system if you’re not willing to vote or participate.

Is that why you’re hosting the NOVIC gathering in August?

Absolutely. The more voices, the better. The 40-plus farmers coming to the meeting can learn from our experiences. We have trials set up all over the place, some set up just for NOVIC. The goal is to get more farmers engaged in on-farm breeding programs around the country.

What do seed breeders offer that seed catalog companies do not?

A real live human-being partner. Someone who’s going to be there to share information and feedback with. Otherwise, what do I know? I look at a seed catalog with a two-sentence description about a plant.  It could be right or wrong for my place. But when I deal with a human being plant breeder, there’s a real information exchange.

Beyond the greater good, what does seed trialing bring to this farm?

Increased diversity—and that’s important for farmers and consumers. Small farmers in general deal with high diversity. I don’t know anyone working with single varietals of pretty much anything except maybe corn. You want to grow multiple varieties and compare them, always seeking new flavors, what’s going to succeed in your particular place, hedging your bets when one crop doesn’t work out. Striving for diversity is one of our resilient agriculture principles.

What’s the difference between a seed trial and an experiment?

Trials are when we grow out someone else’s seeds. These seeds aren’t on the market yet, and breeders need to test them on real farms. The point of a trial is to grow seeds out in my crop rotations and give the partner, like Cornell or Bejo, my evaluation of how they performed.  An important part of what Stone Barns Center can offer a seed-breeding partner is end-user feedback—like what the chefs and diners at Blue Hill at Stone Barns [our on-site partner restaurant] and our CSA members think. This year, I’m so glad we have a CSA up and running so I can gather more feedback from members: how did you use a vegetable? Did your friends like it?

Seed saving and crossing plants [i.e., developing hybrids] are experiments for us. Whenever we fool around with the fertility or a growing method or physically manipulate a plant to create a new cultivar, that’s an experiment. The purple snow pea, polenta corn, Honeynut squash: those all resulted from our long-term experiments.

Do you see much confusion in the public between a hybrid and GMOs?

Yes, I do get those questions sometimes, so that’s why we try to be really clear that hybrids occur in nature, and when a farmer or breeder crosses two different plant varieties to create a hybrid, it’s just mimicking what nature does on her own. When we cross-pollinate two plants, we’re seeking to bring out a certain characteristic or value, like disease-resistance or flavor or structure. Genetically modified organisms are just that: genetically modified.

So you crossed different squash varieties in an experiment to get the popular Honeynut?

Yes, the winter squash now known as Honeynut began as a trial but turned into a long-term experiment. We found an unnamed squash seed in the Cornell vault that sounded interesting but no one knew what to do with it. I took it and grew it out one season. After that, we selected individuals that we liked and crossed them in subsequent seasons until we arrived at the Honeynut. Now High Mowing [an organic seed company] is selling it, so it’s on the market for a lot of farmers to grow.

What current trials are you particularly excited about?

The Tiara cabbage is a really cool one, along with a still-unnamed cabbage. Both are from Bejo. These are summer cabbages, bred to be small and with a very light-textured skin and mild flavor. The idea is that it can replace lettuce in mid-summer, after it’s bolted [i.e., flowered and gone to seed]. They’re doing well with our CSA members and Farm Market customers. We’re also in the early stages of some really interesting trials with rice and wheat, but that’s a topic for another conversation—after we have some results to share.