Seed Library All About Preserving Good Stories

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

Founder Offers Seed-Saving Workshop at NOFA-NY Conference

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Ken Greene isn’t just trying to preserve old seed varieties for their growing benefits or uniqueness.

To him, it’s a socio-economic and political mission to combat the control he believes large multi-national companies have gained over world food production by consolidating seed resources.

In 2004, Greene founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which works much like a regular library by encouraging farms to donate and share locally raised seeds with other growers.

“Every seed comes with a story,” he said. “Which of these stories do you want to tell on your farm? Genetically engineered? I don’t want to tell and feed that story.”

More than 50 people turned out for a workshop Greene led at NOFA-NY’s 31st annual Organic Farming and Gardening Conference, Jan. 25-27, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Using colorful illustrations of antique catalogs, Greene traced more than a century’s worth of commercial seed production in New York state.

“There was much more diversity 100 years ago, a lot more seed companies,” he said. “If they were doing it 100 years ago, that means we can do it today. We just have to bring these varieties back.

With a sampling of photos, he also quizzed participants’ knowledge about different fruits and vegetables, and offered tips on the best ways to save their respective seeds.

“Your attitude needs to be about trial and error,” he said. “Each time something happens on the farm and we have a loss, we learn something. Some plants didn’t die. We need to ask why. Without these challenges, without these failures, it’s difficult to get where we need to be. It’s not always going to be perfect all the time. That’s OK.”

His small farm, a former resort property in the Catskills, produces 30 to 60 varieties of seed on less than two acres. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds are the only ones grown, nothing hybrid or genetically engineered.

“I didn’t come from an agricultural background where I was always told, you can’t do it. Because I didn’t know I couldn’t do it, I did it.”

Greene has taken a highly creative approach to farming, making the most of everything he’s found at the old resort. Wood-frame storm windows cover plants, allowing them to winter over instead of being pulled up and wasted. He used an old metal bed spring to grow a row of peas.

“Most of the seeds that are produced are from industry or chemical agriculture,” he said. “Monsanto owns most of the seed resources on the planet.”

His goal is to help people take back control of the food they grow, right from the start. The online seed library has nearly 1,000 members and thousands of customers who buy its Art Packs (seed packets featuring contemporary art) and heirloom seeds each year.

Greene gave listeners advice about ways to implement seed saving on their farms.

“Let plants go, give them space,” Greene said. “You learn a lot just by looking at your plants. Your most viable, healthiest seeds are the ones that stay on the plant longest.”

Growers should make sure they don’t harvest seeds too early or too late.

“Plants are amazing, plants are resilient,” he added. “They’re very sensitive to micro-climates.”

Hot, humid conditions can foster disease and are a major challenge to Hudson Valley growers. If rain is in the forecast, it might be a good idea to pull plants and hang or bag them, which will help prevent fungal-type disease from setting in.

It’s possible to capture seeds from crops such as broccoli, parsnips and lettuce. However, people shouldn’t attempt this with carrots, Greene said, because they can easily cross-pollinate with Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot). That seed can actually produce a carrot with health risks.

“We’re not going to take any chances with that,” he said.

While trying to save and bring back old seed varieties, Greene said the goal isn’t necessarily to keep them exactly the same because, just like oral traditions, they sometimes get better with age.

“Every time that story is told it changes a little bit,” he said. “It changes as you pass it on. Climate changes and growing tactics change. Seed varieties should change, too.”

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