By Michael Hill
ACCORD, N.Y.—Drying corn stalks wilt in late summer sun as Ken Greene tours his crops. Calendula flowers are past bloom and brown. Melon leaves lay crinkled by the dirt. Plants have, literally, gone to seed.
A perfect picture for an organic seed harvest.
“It looks like hell now, but it’s actually good for the seeds,” said Greene, co-founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library.
The small business 70 miles north of New York City makes seeds the old fashioned way. They are largely plucked, winnowed and packed by hand. They sell only heirloom seeds or varieties naturally pollinated by the wind, insects or birds — about 400 choices like Red Russian Kale, Thai Basil and Flashy Butter Oak Lettuce.
Essentially, the Hudson Valley Seed Library is an organic seed business cross-pollinated with a mission to preserve agricultural diversity.
Greene and his partner Doug Muller get about half of their varieties from like-minded growers, with the other half grown on a three-acre organic farm hemmed in by wooded hills. Flowers, vegetables and fruit here stay in the field past their “edible moment,” even if they shrivel.
On a recent morning, head farmer Steven Crist and another worker slowly progressed down a row of calendula to retrieve seeds from desiccated blooms. Collection methods can differ by plant. Lettuce is threshed. Tomatoes are pulped and the gel surrounding the seeds is fermented. Corn cobs are fed through a device that strips off the kernels.
There are some nods to modernity, like the shop vacuum used to help draw away chaff. But much of the work here is done like in the day of your great-grandparents, or even your ancient ancestors. Crist demonstrated how he rubs dried pea pods in his hands over a screen just big enough for the seeds to fall through.
“It’s really good to have them crisp for this part of it,” Crist said.
Select varieties are spooned into packs with plant-themed art works on the front. The eye-catching packs — which run the gamut from folksy to surreal — have become a trademark for the business.
The business grew out of Greene’s love of gardening and what he considers the lack of transparency in where most seeds come from. In 2004, he was a public librarian who started a novel program in which patrons could “borrow” seeds for planting and then return seeds produced by the plants months later. Four years, later he and Muller launched the current business.
The for-profit Hudson Seed Library borrowing program is a bit different. About 2,000 people paid $10 to become members who are encouraged to all grow one variety they borrow. This year it was zucchini. The hope is that they will share the seeds, return them or even improve the variety though cross-pollination, as in days gone by. The goal is to educate and encourage seed-saving.
Beyond that, the business has about 14,000 retail customers annually and 250 wholesale accounts through the likes of garden centers and museum shops.
The library and like-minded enterprises are a virtual acorn compared to the soaring oak tree of the U.S. seed industry. Jim Gerritsen, a Maine-based organic seed grower and president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, estimated that there are 500 to 1,000 commercial organic seed growers nationwide. The number of suppliers has been growing along with demand from organic farmers and home gardeners.
“These are the same people when they go the grocery store they want to buy organic food for their family,” Gerritsen said. “It makes sense to them that they then want to search out organic seeds.”
Hudson Valley’s small scale here fits with their philosophy, though Greene and Muller are still trying to strike a balance between sticking to their seed-saving mission and staying sustainable.
People who think little of paying a premium for local, organic kale might flinch at paying $3.95 for a pack of organic kale seeds. Part of the issue might be people are less likely to draw a connection between the food on their plate and the seed in the ground. Greene, who sees himself as an educator, talks about a time he was selling seeds at a New York City farmers’ market and a man insisted there was no such thing as lettuce seeds.
“He was like ‘I’ve been eating salad my whole life and not once have I found a seed,'” Greene said with a laugh.