A Seed Library Grows in the Hudson Valley

There is a lot of talk these days about the need for more new entrants willing to fill in when older farmers retire (the average age of farmers in this country is 57 years old). But there has not been much discussion about rebuilding the support system, from infrastructure to community, that will keep those young farmers on the land.

The Hudson Valley Seed Library is an example of an effort that does both of these things–building community by supporting member-growers, employing local artists who design their seed packages, and holding events–like an art opening for this year’s “Art Pack” designs taking place at the Horticultural Society of New York this Thursday evening (more info below)–as well as providing a service to local growers: regionally adapted seeds. I spoke to Ken Greene this week about their work.

Could you tell me a bit about the Hudson Valley Seed Library? What does a seed library do?

One of the great things about seed libraries is that they are diverse as seeds. Every seed library does things differently. The Hudson Valley Seed Library is one of the few farm-based seed libraries. We grow many of the seeds in our catalog on our farm. Members can join, check out, and return saved seeds online. We also have a full catalog of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties that anyone can order seeds from.

Why are regionally adapted seeds so important?

As the seed industry has been heavily consolidated by large (mostly biotech) corporations, seed growing has moved to narrow areas, mostly California and Oregon. Seed growing is seed breeding. Seeds grown in California become more adapted to the specific conditions of where they are grown. This means that we lose much of the diversity, including resistance to certain climate related diseases and regional pests. Regional seeds are better adapted to the area where they will be grown and retain both the genetic, and cultural characteristics that make them unique.

What grew especially well this year? Are their seeds you are offering in your new catalog that are particularly exciting to you?

This was our best seed growing season to date! We grew over 60 varieties on two acres. Everything from the increasingly familiar heirloom tomatoes, to the unusual, like sesame and cotton. Our new fave for the January catalog is Doe Hill peppers–hearty, prolific, delicious, and damn adorable peppers that look like miniature pumpkins.

What advice do you have for food system entrepreneurs and other young farmers?

Be brave and be smart. It’s a bold and brave move to choose to become a farmer. There is risk involved. It’s hard work and it’s tough to make a living. You need to be brave enough to make the leap. At the same time there are ways to set yourself up for success. Don’t go it alone. Reach out to other farmers and farm organizations. If you don’t have land, get creative. If you’re working someone else’s land, get it in writing. Get to know your local resources. (The Greenhorns are a great place to start.) Work on a business plan and learn basic business strategies.

How we made it happen: we pooled our resources with a group of friends in order to buy land. We own the land cooperatively. Not everyone here farms, but everyone cares for and enjoys the property in their own way. We started the business by working with a local organization called the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation. They hired a consultant to help us write a professional business plan. With that plan in place we were able to get a Beginning Farmer Loan from Farm Start. It’s been more work than we ever imagined, but there is nothing else we can imagine doing!

What prompted you to work with artists to design some of your seed packages? and what role does community play in what you do?

Agriculture is cultural. We’ve lost more than local food with the mass transition from small diversified farms to industrial monocrop food systems. We have lost a sense of food culture. Part of the idea of the Seed Library is to help build strong local food systems that are sustainable because all the pieces, from seed to seed, come from our community. This means including not just farmers, but everyone who helps make it happen.

Artists play a vital role in the creation of community. We chose artwork over photographs for our seed packs because we feel that the artwork communicates what is important about seeds–that they come with stories. Saving seeds is about celebrating both the genetic and cultural diversity of the plants that keep us alive.

Please join the Hudson Valley Seed Library for Contemporary Heirlooms at the Horticultural Society of New York (148 West 37th Street, 13th Floor) for a preview party tomorrow night at 5:30pm (tickets can be purchased online here, or call (212) 757-0915). The preview includes local fare catering by Great Performances and drinks provided by Tuthilltown Spirits, an early chance to purchase limited edition fine art prints of the original artworks, gift baskets, and art packs, as well as a guided tour with Ken Greene. The general opening, which is free, will start at 6:30.

If you can’t make the event, you can still support these young farmer-entrepreneurs by purchasing holiday gifts from their catalog.

Photos: From the top, seeds in storage; Doug Muller and Ken Greene of the Hudson Valley Seed Library; the 2011 seed packs.

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