Creating a ‘mothership’ to collect, protect heirloom vegetable seeds

Since 2012, the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium has been saving thousands of local and international heirloom vegetable seeds, as well as some flowers, with an eye toward preserving a sustainable food culture. But those seeds need a secure home where they can be safely stored, organized and distributed to be grown by generations to come. 

Many of the varieties are “orphaned,” meaning they are the last of their kind, said Cheryl Frey Richards, a co-founder of LIRSC. Some types are endangered due to climate change, growing population, falling water tables and monoculture, according to the LIRSC.

“A lot of people give us seeds in hopes that we will hold them and bring them back,” she said. “We take that very seriously so we wanted to make sure we had a good storage facility for the seeds.”

Dubbed the “mothership,” a name born out of Ms. Frey Richard’s and fellow LIRSC team member Courtney Pure’s interest in science fiction, the seed bank will be housed in climate-controlled shipping containers at the organization’s farm in Southold. The idea is that the containers can be moved if needed, Ms. Frey Richards said.

LIRSC launched a Kickstarter campaign last Monday with a goal of $6,000 to set up the storage facility. The organization is confident the project will be done by the end of the fall, Ms. Frey Richards said.

The LIRSC saves heirloom seed varieties for local produce including the Long Island cheese pumpkin and the Shinnecock currant, a tomato breed. The seed consortium also keeps tabs on the history of regional varieties; the Shinnecock currant, for example, is believed to be a wild tomato that can be traced back to Mexico.

Heirloom varieties are plants that have a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to how treasured jewelry might be passed generation to generation, according the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that promotes endangered plant collection.

The LIRSC believes that seeds are our lifeblood, Ms. Frey Richards said. The goal is not just to store the seeds, she said, but to make sure they grow and flourish. She called Long Island the perfect area for the project, with its “excellent climate and really good soil,” as well as its history of seed production and agriculture, adding that the very first commercial seed company, for cabbage, wasstartedonLong Island in 1866.

“We have a lot of different varieties that are bred for Long Island that we want to protect as well,” Ms. Frey Richards said. “You create something and want to protect it; it’s kind of like your baby.”

But the seed bank represents the globe, including varieties from places such as Italy, Spain, Hungary and Thailand, she said. LIRSC tries to adapt whatever it keeps to the local region.

“This is for the community,” Ms. Frey Richards said. “We’re trying to stress that this is not for just gardeners or for farmers. This is for everyone — it’s protecting everybody’s food security and we find that’s really important.”

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