Startup seed company looks to diversify your dinner plate

05/02/2014 7:00 AM |
Stephanie Gaylor, holding Hawaiian tomato seeds inside her greenhouse. (Carrie Miller photo)

Stephanie Gaylor, holding Hawaiian tomato seeds inside her greenhouse. (Carrie Miller photo)

Picture the most unusual, visually appealing tomato salad you’ve ever seen. Not just a sea of your typical shades of red. We’re talking blue tomatoes, white tomatoes, even speckled and striped tomatoes. These varieties aren’t fruits of the future, but rather heirlooms of the past, grown from seeds that have been handed down for centuries from grower to grower.

Mattituck farmer Stephanie Gaylor has long feared that if farmers don’t continue growing these varieties and saving their seeds, many species could be lost forever. Seeds lose their vigor over time and are typically unable to grow a plant after about 18 months. 

With support from two local nonprofit groups, Ms. Gaylor has launched a new company called Salt of the Earth Seed, which will work to gather seeds from across the North Fork and internationally, and then sell them to interested growers. She expects there will be an emerging demand.

“I have always been a seed saver,” Ms. Gaylor said. “We’re hoping to get other growers involved in saving their own seed. We would not be reinventing the wheel. We’re doing what has been done for centuries; what people are still doing [in other countries].”

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But with all that saving, she’s found little time for sorting and selling. Now, with help from two nonprofits, the Long Island Seed Consortium and the Long Island Plant Initiative, and business partners Cheryl Frey Richards and Kate Moriarty, Salt of the Earth Seed will soon be marketing seeds and getting them to growers who want to offer customers produce they won’t find at the supermarket or even at the average farm stand.

The owner of Invincible Summer Farm in Southold, Ms. Gaylor began saving seeds in 2011 and now has seeds for more than 6,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables in her portfolio — amounting to hundreds of pounds in seeds.

“We have about a thousand different types of peppers … everything from weird squashes to kale, radishes and lettuces,” she said. “We [also] need to have a year-round food system that can sustain the winter, so we have winter lettuces like January King Cross,” Ms. Gaylor explained. “We’re growing it and it did amazingly.”

“It’s really kind of interesting how our choices in produce have shrunk,” she added, explaining that growers have increasingly turned to big corporate catalogues to purchase seeds instead of saving their own.

Related: In the works: a North Fork tomato

Ken Ettlinger, a botany professor at Suffolk County Community College and a Long Island Seed Consortium member, has been educating people about saving seeds for close to 40 years. He said the practice of seed saving has become something of a lost art, negatively impacting the diversity of the country’s food supply.

“When you look at the history of farming, 100 years ago you find that every farmer would be saving their seed,” Mr. Ettlinger said. “The result is that you’d have a lot more diversity and a lot of varieties grown by farmers in a certain area. Farmers today don’t feel it is their role to produce seed … but to produce the product for their customers. But the scary thing is they are declining local diversity.”

He said that relying on the limited collections available through even the largest commercial seed catalogues makes produce much more vulnerable to disease and insects, because everyone is growing the same varieties.

Instead of diversity, Mr. Ettlinger said, commercial growers are often looking for uniformity in their produce so it can be easily packaged, shipped and marketed.

Lyle Wells, owner of Wells Farm in Aquebogue, said those uniform results are best achieved through hybrid plants, or combined variations of plants, to produce a predictable fruit or vegetable from each seed.

“Most of the produce that we grow are hybrids — we’re not able to save the seeds from them,” Mr. Wells said. He explained that if saved and replanted, the hybrid seeds may yield an unpredictable second generation the next year because both male and female genes may not be present in the saved seeds.

He said he spends between $20,000 and $30,000 on new seeds each year.

Local growers said these hybrid plants have been bred to produce high-quality fruits and vegetables that can better withstand external stresses like insects, drought and over-watering.

“There have been tremendous improvements bred into new plants — and those new plants, with those new improvements, can only be acquired through new seeds — they simply aren’t there in saved seeds,” said Tom Wickham of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue.

Mr. Wickham said he spends up to $1 on a single seed for some varieties of tomatoes he grows.

“While there is a place for heirlooms among people who really like it, they are not going to feed the world,” Mr. Wickham said. By using hybrid seed, he added, “You get a healthier plant and you don’t have to use a lot of pesticides that you would otherwise have to use.”

But both longtime local growers said they recognized the significance of keeping historic first-generation seeds.

“That’s important,” Mr. Wickham said. “All of those all varieties have one quality or another that is sort of unique. And probably there are farmers who will prize those qualities and will want them.”

Should farmers start saving and producing their own seeds, Mr. Ettlinger said, it will allow them to develop varieties suited to their individual farms, soil, farming style and their own population of insects and diseases.

Ms. Gaylor said that as varieties are lost — local ones especially — so are the genetic materials allowing them to flourish and adapt to different conditions. She points to a little-known wild Long Island tomato as an example.

The Shinnecock Native, a mid-sized cherry tomato, was first discovered growing on Shinnecock tribal land on the South Fork more than a century ago.

“It wasn’t being grown here, so I went looking for it,” she said. “I could find only one person that is saving it.”

That was five years ago, and she found it through a grower on the nonprofit Seed Saver Exchange, a nationwide coalition of seed savers and sharers.

“It’s a very sweet tomato,” she said. “Every year we grow a population of 50 plants. It produces like crazy as soon as the [seeds] drop to the ground.”

To explore the variety of seeds available for sale through Salt of the Earth Seed, visit the company’s website at northforkseeds.com.

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