This darkest, coldest part of winter is of course the time when seed catalogs begin to arrive in the mail. The seed companies know that our vulnerability to brightly colored pictures of shiny vegetables and the purple prose that accompanies them is at its peak as we count the days until we can venture back into our gardens and get our hands dirty again. But the number of options can be dizzying, even daunting; finding seeds that thrive in our short season can be a challenge, and choosing seed sources that are not tied to industrial agriculture can require a lot of research. Wouldn't it be great if there were one-stop shopping for conscientious gardeners?
In Accord, right at the base of the Catskill foothills, on the site of a 27-acre former resort and Ukrainian summer camp, in a construction trailer parked among ramshackle buildings in various states of restoration and decay, sits the headquarters of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Since its inception in 2004, at the Gardiner Public Library, this small business has become one of the leading seed banks in the country, offering an increasingly diverse range of new and heirloom open-pollinated seed varieties to its customers, as well as extensive educational programming in its test garden and throughout the region. This humble and unassuming compound, jointly owned by five people, is a key fortification on the front lines of the battle against Monsanto and the other agribusiness giants bent on controlling the world's seed—and thus, by extension, our food—supply.
Monsanto is the company that manufactured such delicacies as Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT. They are also a leader in genetically modified seeds and designer hybrids, all of which they have patented, thanks in part to their own personal Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, who worked for Monsanto in the 1970s; in 2001, he wrote the majority opinion in a decision that found seeds to be patentable. Unlike open-pollinated seeds, hybrids do not reproduce true to type; they cannot be saved and must be bought again each year, creating an expensive cycle of dependence for farmers—bread and butter for the huge conglomerates. This situation begs an overwhelming question: Why is a company that exploits farmers and manufactures poison increasingly in control of our food?
The Business of Growing a Growing Business
Ken Greene, 40, started the Seed Library, and in 2008 he and his partner Doug Muller, 34, turned it into a business that has grown dramatically over the last few years. "We've basically doubled every year," Greene says. "It's been really fast, and more than we expected or prepared for." Besides Greene and Muller, the Library now has three full-time employees and four to six people working part-time in the winter packaging seeds and filling orders. Though the business grossed approximately $300,000 last year, Greene admits that it has been a challenge to pay themselves. "We've been profitable since year one, but all the money has gone back into the business since we grew so fast. People talk about sustainability, but what does that mean? We're a small business, we support the local economy and create jobs, but it's not sustainable for us personally. This is the year we prove that it can be for the long term."
While many of us are conscious about sourcing ingredients, Greene says, "seed growing is basically invisible; even really dedicated consumers aren't engaged with their seed sources. It's harder and harder to know where your seed dollars are going. There used to be regional seed companies all over the country focused on breeding for those regions. As agriculture changed and industrialized, the same thing happened to seed companies." As a result, there were fewer and fewer varieties, all bred for early ripeness, shipability, and shelf life, but not for flavor. "Today, the largest owner of seed resources on the planet is Monsanto, which is a chemical company. They're not about food, nutrition, biodiversity, or food justice. That's not who I want in control."
The Library currently has about a thousand members. Members receive a five percent discount on orders and can participate in the Community Seeds program, where members all grow one crop and save the seeds, which the Library then distributes to schools and community gardens throughout the region. Members can also swap seeds among themselves. All member-donated seeds are strictly segregated from the seeds in the catalog to ensure quality control; the Library conducts extensive germination tests to be sure that each batch will perform well. They welcome mailed donations of heirloom or unusual seeds, especially those that have a history in the area or that produce exceptional produce.