Starting in the late fall and continuing through the winter, when gardens are dormant, the seed industry blossoms. Catalogues arrive filled with the latest collections of heirloom tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, Asian greens, multicolored beans, even varieties from Italy. So when I heard about another seed company - launched by no less than star chef Dan Barber of New York's celebrated Blue Hill at Stone Barns - my first thought was: Do we need another one?
But that question arose from my vantage point of a gardener with a family plot in Washington and a plethora of choices from specialty seed companies. Many farmers, especially those of scale, don't have access to a vast library of seeds, if you consider the way the industry has consolidated and seed diversity steadily declined. Nor are they likely to plant the seeds that I may choose, which may taste great but produce modestly. If the seed doesn't meet the criterion of a high-yielder, it often gets pushed aside for a more profitable crop.
The company Barber is co-founding, Row 7 Seed Co., is taking a novel approach to the business. By bringing plant breeders and chefs together, the company hopes to develop new varieties driven by flavor and nutrition that have a chance to make it in the wider marketplace. Such collaborations have occurred before - think of the work by Charleston, South Carolina, chef Sean Brock and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills to locate long-lost Southern seeds - but this venture takes that movement a step further.
Breeders will use traditional techniques to marry the flavor of heirlooms with the vigor of modern plant varieties. Think of it, a company slide-deck says, as seed to table. The seeds also will be bred to perform well in organic farming systems, where agrochemicals can't be applied. In this age of widely privatized seed, these selections will be available for others to improve upon as farmers have done since the dawn of agriculture.
In the conventional food chain, breeding is "built around three things: yield, uniformity and shelf life. Those are the determining factors," Barber said. "There's breeding going on, but the question is, who's at the table and what are they asking for? What's the intention? Without chefs at the table you're not asking for flavor, which is ironic because chefs curate for flavor every day."
Barber has enlisted more than 50 top chefs in the United States and overseas to join, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, Renee Erickson in Seattle and Anne Quatrano in Atlanta. In the Mid-Atlantic, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and A Rake's Progress in Washington has signed up, too.
Gjerde said he was interested because for the past decade he has visited with farmers, paging through seed catalogues around kitchen tables to discuss what they might grow. But in that time, he has never talked with a seed breeder about what might be possible. "For me it kind of restarts a conversation that has trailed off - a conversation about what can and should be grown in a region like ours," Gjerde said. His dream is a locally grown potato that can be stored for months, because supplies get thin this time of year. When he mentioned it to Barber, his reply was, "Let's work on that."
The first chapter in this trajectory to recapture flavor began with heirloom vegetables, such as the Brandywine tomatoes you find every summer at farmers markets. For the most part, supermarket tomatoes are bred to withstand trucking from Florida, Mexico or Canada and can't match locally grown varieties. But what heirlooms miss are other qualities farmers often seek - high yield and disease resistance. In their absence, farmers need to charge a higher price to make up for lower production. That's why Brandywines can hit $5 a pound.
When heirlooms were first bred - some more than a century ago - they were likely well-suited for the environmental pressures they faced. Indeed, that was the reason, along with their superior flavor, that they were passed from farmer to farmer. But threats evolve, such as the devastating late blight that wiped out the tomato crop on the East Coast several years ago and has periodically reappeared ever since. That's where plant breeders come in.
Michael Mazourek, an associate professor and breeder at Cornell University and another co-founder in Row 7, said that researchers have long had a laser focus on disease- and pest-resistance, but as for taste, no one ever asked him about it until he met Barber. The company will now merge flavor and vigor not by using genetic engineering (these are non-GMO seeds), but rather by mating one plant variety with another as breeders and farmers have done for millennia so the offspring have a suite of attributes.
There's another benefit, too, that's often unappreciated. "These plants have better flavors, and it's usually because they have a higher nutritional content," Mazourek said.
Row 7 is the brainchild of Mazourek and co-founder Matthew Goldfarb of Fruition Seeds, but it has attracted investors as well. "No one else is doing it," said Richard Schnieders, an investor and former chief executive of food service giant Sysco.
In the university setting, this has been frustrating work, if only because breeders may develop what they consider a marvelous variety suited for sustainable farms but then have little or no leverage to enter the marketplace and attract growers. These seeds get overwhelmed by the flood of options every year. But by partnering with chefs, the breeders now have marketing sway. Mazourek saw this with a dwarf butternut squash he bred, Honeynut, that was celebrated by Barber and can now be found in places including Trader Joe's and Blue Apron. "Without someone like Dan to tell the story, it gets lost," he said.
The 7082 cucumber (named for its trial plot) in the company's catalogue is another case in point. Mazourek explained that downy mildew has become a global epidemic for cucumbers since the disease mutated into a novel form, around 2004. It overwinters in Florida and other regions, multiplies in greenhouses, then travels by wind through the eastern United States. I see the result in my own community garden, where, by August, nearly every cucumber plant has withered or died.
At the same time, much of the flavor in cucumbers has vanished, especially in the great-looking but watery-tasting hydroponic varieties found in the supermarket. What Mazourek sought to do with variety 7082 is breed a cucumber that could fill a room with fragrance - something your great-grandparents might recall, especially if they hailed from the Middle East. He found those qualities in two foreign varieties and mated them. Since then, he has also bred two cucumbers developed at Cornell in the 1970s which proved resistant to the most recent mutation of downy mildew disease. "We now have cukes that will produce up to frost," he said. The next step will be to mate the resistant variety with 7082 to bring in the flavor quotient.
The cucumber is an "experimental variety," which means variation is expected in the plants. Mazourek hopes that farmers and gardeners will participate in helping breed better versions of the cuke by sharing their results back with the company.
And it is one of just seven seeds the company is releasing at launch, all of which were developed by Mazourek and plant breeders at other land-grant colleges.
In this day and age of shrinking public seed breeding, that isn't an insignificant point. More than three-quarters of all agricultural research is privately funded; the USDA and state bodies account for the remainder, and their share has fallen steadily, according to a USDA report. The point of commercial research and development is to develop a proprietary plant, but when a seed is patented, farmers can't save it, breed it or hope to improve it in subsequent generations. They have to buy new seeds each year.
At Row 7, however, "democratized seed" is a part of its mission. Anything Row 7 develops will be publicly available for breeders to re-use; the company would "encourage, hope and suggest" - but not demand - that other commercially minded breeders pay a licensing fee back to the innovators in recognition of the work - just as the company is doing, Mazourek says. But none of the seeds will be patented. All can be improved independently.
"That's part of the appeal," said Schnieders, the investor. "It's participatory breeding, not independent of farmers, but with farmers. That also allows farmers to have more economic control of what they are participating in" - bringing them with chefs and breeders into the seed-to-table food chain to help create something new.
- - -
This piece was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit journalism organization, where Fromartz is editor in chief.