Dear readers of Eat More Butter - Jamie and I would like to introduce you to Doug Muller, Ken Greene, and the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Last fall, the guys graciously made time for us and allowed us to explore their farm in Accord, NY. We got to ask Ken a ton questions about their business and see it all first hand. It was quite an education! Being that winter is coming to an end and it's at last time to order seeds, do take notes!
Ken (seen at right) started the seed library while he was working for an actual library and he thought it would be a neat idea for the public to be able to "check out" seeds and then "return" seeds later in the season, harvested from the grown plants. Interest grew and more and more people were keen to be members of this seed library. Ken says, "The last year I did this at the library we had 65 people involved. The first year it went online we had 500 people involved. And then this last year we had about 700 members but then we had thousands of people just buying the seeds." Besides membership, growers can order individual seed packets from the Hudson Valley Seed Library website, some retail shops and from farmers markets like New Amsterdam Market. The guys have a great thing going, and it's obvious when you hold their seed packets in your hand, plant the seeds, eat the resulting vegetables and save the seed for next year.
There's something unique and special about this seed company that makes you want them to succeed and thrive, not only because it is local and the vegetables are great, but because it's a throwback to the days when farmers saved seeds from one season to the next and grew varieties that were best adapted to their location. Ken put it this way, "Most seed growing is done in a very different climate. All the seed companies have moved out west basically because it's cheaper, it's a better climate for growing seeds in terms of diseases, you have a longer season, it's drier but it also means that we're losing the regional adaption of those things. They're still calling them a 'New York heirloom' but it's been grown in California for the last 20 years. It may have had history here but it's no longer adapted to here." It's a disturbing trend but I love that Ken and Doug are standing against this current and going in the opposite direction, to the way things used to be done. They are such a terrific, and indeed, crucial resource for growers in the Hudson Valley and beyond.
The guys live on a communal property under a high canopy of trees. It's a mix of dilapidated and new buildings, the dilapidated ones are relics of an old resort up in the Catskills. The seed library itself is housed within the old concession stand. I find it amazing that food still comes out of that concession stand, though instead of hot dogs, hamburgers and sodas, seeds emerge for Spotted Trout Lettuce, Piracicaba Broccoli, Ruby Queen Beets and New England Pie Pumpkins.
The workspace was tiny and yet I'm not sure what I expected. I had never seen a seed library before and my imagination thought that maybe there would be greenhouses, perhaps some file cabinets with seed envelopes arranged like card catalogs. At the Hudson Valley Seed Library, half of the concession stand was devoted to a couple of computers and a desk by the window. The other half of the concession stand was the seed refrigerator - an insulated space cooled by an air conditioner. There were row after row of glass jars filled with seeds and floor to ceiling shelves of seed packets.
When we walked in, Doug was at the computer frantically putting some changes into their website in anticipation of a NY Times article. Doug's mother sat by the window, loading small glasseine envelopes with sweet pepper seeds, a smile on her face. The guys were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the 2011 art packs from the printer. Every year they have an open call for artists, and from those submissions they select the new seed package artwork. Some of the older art packs were framed on the walls, opened up they looked like pressed flowers beneath the glass, and no doubt that design was intentional. I often buy these art packs to give away as gifts, and of course I buy some for my own garden. They beg to be planted and cherished.
In a field beyond the seed library is the farm where the magic happens. A carpet of arugula led us through the gate, a result of an accident when harvested seeds fell off a tarp on the way out of the field.
The farm was spectacular to our eyes. There the seeds germinate, sink roots down into the soil, seedlings push up through the earth and reach for the sun and keep reaching and reaching. Leaves emerge, roots spread out and the plants gather enough energy from the sun and the soil below to give off flowers, which get pollinated, and result in fruit. Left long enough, the fruit become dried out seed pods, waiting to be collected for the next growing season. What an incredible place the field was - looking a little tired from a summer of production but still full of color and shapes and smells and flavors. Ken and Doug were growing some food for themselves, but mostly they were experimenting with new seed varieties and of course, growing seeds for the rest of us. We delighted in the rows of kohlrabi, kale, sting beans, tomatoes, mustard greens, fennel, okra, squash and cabbages. The rain misted down and clung to the vegetables, which looked quite happy to be in the Hudson Valley.
Nearby was an open building where the seeds were drying, hanging in big tarps from rafters, or drying on screens, with effort made to ensure that the seeds were out of reach of mice. Ken made the point that they love the seeds as much as he does. And he really does love the seeds - there's something inspiring about someone who ends up doing what he loves. And yet, it can be a struggle. "It's a mixed bag because when something is your side project it's really fun", Ken said, briefly imitating friends and family cheering them on as their fledgling business developed. "And then when you're in your third year of business and you're like 'we haven't made any money and we don't have any money and this year it needs to make money or else we can't keep doing this and then I'll have to get a job' and suddenly it becomes stressful. And so we've been really trying to make sure that we're still enjoying what we're doing."
Ken described the status of their business as "almost making it". Looking around at all he and Doug had achieved and thinking about the gardens around the country and world that grow their seed, we couldn't stomach the thought that they might fail. Open-pollinated heirloom seeds are precious. At my garden in New Jersey, we've taken the pledge to no longer grow hybrid seeds from big seed companies, and instead favor small seed companies like Hudson Valley Seed Library to encourage this trend back to the traditional, natural way of agriculture. Also, with each purchase it feels pretty good to take an active role in helping the guys go from "almost making it" to "making it."
The Hudson Valley Seed Library offers over 60 varieties of locally grown seed. Membership starts at $20 but is not required. Seed packets are $2.75 each and the art packs are $3.50 each. Discounts are available to members. Spread the word. http://www.seedlibrary.org