Growing and eating food is serious business on the East End, and I’m not talking about packaging or profits. It’s serious because we know that what ends up on our plates (and in our bodies) is a direct result of our soil and what gets planted in it. Salt of the Earth Seed Company, an offshoot of Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, which specializes in growing and selling unique and endangered heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables, herbs and flowers to local restaurants and the public, now sells the seeds for those varieties.
Stephanie Gaylor, owner of Invincible, started the seed company this year with help from the Long Island Seed Consortium, the Long Island Plant Initiative and business partners Cheryl Frey Richards and Kate Moriarty in order to add much-needed diversity to our unique agricultural area of the East End of Long Island. As she grows the produce for Invincible, and hears feedback from customers and chefs, Gaylor then saves the seeds from outstanding rare varieties that do well in our environment (as opposed to most commercial seeds, which, even if they are organic, are limited in their variety and produced from as far away as Idaho, California or even China).
Currently, Salt of the Earth offers 14 varieties of tomatoes, as well as beans, snow peas, fennel, celery, radish and chicory.
Gaylor hopes to use Salt of the Earth like a regional seed bank and get other farmers interested in planting local varieties and saving seeds, as all farmers on the East End used to. “You breed a better variety for your area if you save seeds that perform the best for that area,” she says. For instance, every farm could have a different variety of kale unique to that farm and its microclimate.
Lovers of local produce, as well as gardeners, might be surprised to know that Gaylor is not against hybridization. “I think there’s a disconnect between what we commonly know as hybrids and heirlooms,” she says, explaining that breeding for resilience (creating hybrids) is optimal, as long as the breeder is “improving the variety and using open sourcing, with other heirloom breeders sharing each other’s knowledge.” It’s a subtle but extremely important distinction between seeds born of that process and the overbred hybrids made by one company for just a handful of traits, which are then supplied to all.
“There’s no conversation about what you are growing, or what has nutrient density,” says Gaylor. “People think it’s either heirlooms or Monsanto, and that’s not true. Human beings have been tinkering with crops for centuries, and American farmers have actually stopped doing that and now use only a narrow spectrum of seeds.”
There are many local varieties—uniquely beautiful, delicious and resilient—that are quickly falling off the farming radar that we’d do well to save and reclaim. They are varieties that would enable farmers to adjust to climate change, among other factors.
Ken Ettlinger, a professor of botany at Stony Brook University, who belongs to Gaylor’s seed consortia and brought back the rare Long Island cheese pumpkin from near extinction, applauds the formation of Salt of the Earth Seed Company. “There are very few companies who do this, who look for diversity and a large gene pool,” says Ettlinger. “To grow the vegetables, and offer the seeds for those vegetables, is amazing and unique. It’s a difficult but great endeavor.”
FIND OUT MORE The Long Island cheese pumpkin has made a comeback. Find out more here.