Saving Seeds, Saving Ourselves

Our seed diversity is in great danger. Meet the East Enders working to preserve it.

It all begins here, at the American Legion Post 419 in Amagansett. Suffering from my annual bout of farm withdrawals, it was with great pleasure that I entered the veterans’ hall for the first “Hampton Seed Exchange” last month.

All of my favorite farmers were there, smiling, under one roof.

Serotonin flooded my brain, even with fluorescent light shining down instead of sunshine. Seeds, packaged by hand, were scattered on round banquet tables for anyone to pick up and hopefully plant next spring.

A brown envelope, with 25 wild milkweed seeds inside, was marked “monark friendly,” in crayon, with a picture of a cactus-like plant and an orange butterfly, by students at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton.

But it wasn’t the cute packaging, it was the magical world of  seeds that drew everyone there, and pizza. Everyone loves pizza.

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Adam Kelinson, owner of Around the Fire Catering.

Adam Kelinson, owner of Around the Fire Catering in East Hampton, placed an organic delicata squash and shisito pepper pizza, straight from his portable wood-burning oven onto a table.

“I’ve wanted to do a seed exchange for a long time,” he said as everyone gathered around to grab a slice.

Kelinson, an early supporter of “Seed: The Untold Story,” wanted to screen the independent documentary at the East Hampton Cinema and thought a seed exchange would tie-in nicely.

“It was the perfect dovetail,” he said, “Throw something out there and it leads the way.”

He found the venue and gave East Hampton artist Scott Bluedorn all the details needed to create a flyer. “Now it’s really happening,” Kelinson said, “I had to get the big player.”

Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm and author of “Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds,” was the big player. “If I didn’t have Scott in my corner,” Kelinson said, “It wasn’t going to be a prize fight without him.”

The folks at Quail Hill Farm, the oldest CSA in the state, came through big, with pounds of seeds. I picked up a nice variety of hot peppers.

Other heavy hitters included Bette Lacina and Dale Haubrich of Under the Willow Farm in Sag Harbor, who came with their own corn kernels. Haubrich planted three flint corns and cross pollinated them over three years.

“Then I started selecting the plants with the tallest, straightest stalks,” he said. They grind the corn and sell the cornmeal at their honor-system farm stand on Sag Harbor – Bridgehampton turnpike.

The couple also gave away paw paw paw seeds, a sub-tropical, yet native fruit. I can never get enough of the banana-mango flavored flesh when they offer it at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market at the end of the summer. “Keep the seeds in the refrigerator until spring,” said Haubrich.

Paul Hamilton, of Fireplace Farm and founder the Springs Farmers Market, brought baskets of Jerusalem artichokes. Jonathan Snow from the Hayground School stopped by with a big fluffy artichoke seed in hand.

Petra Page-Mann, founder of Fruition Seedswon the prize for the largest variety of seeds offered. Fruition has developed 300 varieties of organic regionally adapted vegetables, flowers and herbs, in the Finger Lakes, New York. “Perfect seeds that thrive in a short season,” she said.

“Most seeds are genetic dead ends. Most foods we find in our grocery stores come from patented hybrids,” Page-Mann said, “It’s really important for seeds to be in the public domaine.”

Page-Mann will have a lot more to say on the subject at the Northeast Organic Seed Conference, “Owning Our Seed,” part of the 2017 Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York Winter Conference, “Long Live the Farmer: Diversity and Biodiversity” in Saratoga Springs, New York, this January. 

After filling up on pizza, the farmers headed over to the East Hampton Cinema to see the “Seed” documentary.

In a shocking montage of macro shots, vegetables emerge from a darkened background to tell a sad story. “We have lost 94-percent of our vegetable seed varieties in the 20th century.”

There were 544 cabbage varieties, 28 varieties remain; out of 158 varieties of cauliflower, nine remain; 55 varieties of kohlrabi, three remain; 34 artichokes, two remain; 288 beets, 17 remain; 46 asparagus, one remain. Between 94 and 98-percent of carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, peppers, radishes and watermelon have disappeared.

In short, our seed diversity is in great danger. Saving seeds is our only salvation.

After the film, Kelinson moderated a panel with Ken Ettlinger, a founder of the Long Island Seed Consortium, the first to organize a significant East End seed swap, two years ago at the Suffolk Community College in Riverhead, Page-Mann and Chaskey.

“Now that there is an increasing focus on local, organic, and healthy foods, my hope is that many people will now take the next step and take an interest in where our food comes from,”  Chaskey said, “And the seed is the beginning of it all.”

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Kelly Ann Smith lives in East Hampton between Gardiner's Bay and Accabonac Harbor. She's been writing about the East End since 1995. Her weekly column, "A View from Bonac," can be found in the East Hampton Press.