Tomato Lady

“Stop me if I get too passionate,” says Stephanie Gaylor. If one were to follow that directive, Gaylor’d be stopped every five minutes, because the subject is seed saving, and Gaylor has made it her single-minded purpose to get local farmers, and gardeners, to stop buying seeds from catalogs or seedlings from big-box stores.

Her passion has led her to form the Long Island Regional Seed Consortia, which encourages farmers to cultivate plants from their own stock. In doing so they will create varieties specifically adapted for their soil, their microclimate, their particular insect and disease pressures, in short, for their farm.

“It’s small right now,” she says. “We have a test group to see how it works. And if it does, it’s going to be a tremendous asset to our local food system.” The reasoning behind the venture is so entwined with history, food safety, nutrition, loss and diversity— and potentially so helpful in giving farm communities a hedge against climate change and consolidation in the seed business— that it’s hard to explain in a tidy way why seed saving is so important.

It’s as messy as the process itself, which for tomatoes (Gaylor focuses on nightshades: tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) requires leaving the seeds to ferment in their own juice until mold forms on top and the smell rivals a barn in need of mucking out. But it’s also exacting. Gaylor has to isolate the varieties she wants to perpetuate by either planting them far apart to prevent cross-pollination or by bagging the flowers and pollinating them herself.

The results of these efforts are on display at Invincible Summer Farms, an acre of experimentation that she rents from the Peconic Land Trust at Charnews Farm in Southold. In late September last year, many of the vines were still laden with fruit in colors ranging from yellow to green to red, of course, with stripes of purples and blues wrapping the orbs, which came in as many sizes and shapes as colors. Small shrubs of peppers were still displaying tiny cones in shiny red or even smaller in purple. Of the 250 different varieties she planted, Gaylor says she was able to isolate 100.

Gaylor had already become famous for the heirloom tomatoes she sold at the Greenport Farmers Market that summer. This spring she wants to expand on that to sell seedlings from her saved seeds to farmers and home gardeners alike. The seedlings will go on sale in May at the farmers market and at Charnews on the weekend. Gaylor says she will only sell them when it’s time to put them in the ground. In this way, says Gaylor, Long Island farmers will be able to recoup what has been lost to grand-scale farming and work to avoid the dangers of monocropping, which led to the Irish potato famine.

Large-scale industrial farming uses hybrids, and hybrids are the only seeds allowed on the commercial market, says Ken Ettlinger, a natural science teacher at Suffolk County Community College, who has been saving seeds his entire life, starting in the garden with his mother.

In a way, commercial seeds from companies like Burpee are the equivalent of frozen foods and TV dinners. People used them because they were modern, and the old way of doing things, with local and fresh food, went the way of making your own soap.“Farmers since the beginning of agriculture had to set aside part of their crop for seeds,” says Ettlinger. “It’s become radically phased out.”

Ettlinger became famous in the seed-saving community for having brought back the Long Island cheese pumpkin. A vegetable, he says, that was once grown by every farm out here and gradually lost to time. As does Gaylor, Ettlinger researches old farming almanacs, seed catalogs, local newspapers and newsletters to see what used to grow on the East End.

At the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, he says he found, in a collection from the late 1800s, a list of all the vegetables submitted to the county fair. “There were dozens of watermelons,” he says. “None are left today. Even the cabbages; there are only a few left now.” What makes Ettlinger excited for Gaylor’s project is that it may be able to step in, if even just a little bit, for the land grant colleges that used to develop varieties specifically for their area.

We all remember the Rutgers tomato, which came from the laboratories of that university, tailored for the climate and soils of the Northeastern United States. “That doesn’t happen much anymore,” says Ettlinger. “The money has dried up.” And new varieties are needed due to changes in temperature, rainfall patterns and pests.

Ettlinger admits he probably won’t be saving as many seeds this summer as he has in the past, because it’s hard work and “I can’t bend over anymore.” That’s where the younger farmers come in. Ettlinger is encouraged by those who have agreed to participate in the consortia, including Early Girl Farm in East Moriches, Biophila in Jamesport, Deep Roots in Orient and Lone Acre, which can also be found at Charnews.

“Managing to get farmers working together is tough,” he says. “They’re very independent.” But it seems Gaylor has the touch. Patty Gentry, who owns Early Girl, found Gaylor’s pitch hard to ignore. “She kind of put it like, ‘It’s not so hard. Don’t be a crybaby. People have been saving seeds for thousands and thousands of years,’” says Gentry. “She inspires you.” And, she says, the act of saving seeds has made her more observant of what she’s growing. “You’re in the field with the plants all day, and now I’ll be on the lookout for the healthiest plants. I’ll make the choice.”

In prior years, says Gentry, she spent up to $3,000 on seeds. Now that’s over. “[Gaylor] started this fire inside,” says Gentry. “Now I want to help keep generations of healthy plants alive and well, and be a part of a community of farmers doing the same thing.”

Eileen M. Duffy, Edible East End’s deputy editor, holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the International Wine Center and writes from her home in Southold.