A Cape Ann farmer muses on seeds on the cusp of the growing season
Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the life of a Cape Ann farmer.
Some weeks ago, a few packages of seeds arrived. The boxes on the porch looked so ordinary, but finding them felt momentous. Each parcel was light in hand, smaller than a shoebox, and worth hundreds of dollars. I skimmed the contents, imagining ten long beds of fall carrots, thousands of pounds of cabbage and greenhouses full of winter-sweetened spinach. A whole growing season here in Essex at Alprilla Farm, held in just a handful of small, neat envelopes.
Moments like this, holding seeds in hand, give pause in the rush of a busy farm day and I am overwhelmed contemplating the power of seeds.
A broccoli seed, for example, is the size of a pinhead — round, easy to plop into a seedling cell because it rolls right off my finger. Broccoli is technically the same species as cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale … and yet this small black speck holds the directions for a particular variety, say Solstice.
Given some soil, warmth, water, and light, the seed germinates, grows into an enormous leafy plant, and culminates in a small cluster of tasty florets. With time, the broccoli we love blooms and sets another batch of seed.
This process is crazy and wondrous when I stop to ponder it. Seemingly something coming from nothing — and yet, it’s exactly what defines life on this planet.
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The vegetable farmers I know are obsessed with seed.
Until we have the actual plants to care for, we think about seeds all winter, and we tend to them all spring. The arrival of seed catalogs in the mail in late fall signals the beginning of a whole new season. Anyone who curls up with a seed catalog in January knows her vegetables like old friends.
When I visit farmers over the winter, the catalogs are everywhere: muddy in the truck cab, wrinkled from wetting in the greenhouse, and gingerly highlighted and annotated in the toilet rack. They are read completely, the descriptions scanned, the pictures pored over, each novel offering dwelled upon, and the old staples nodded to in respect.
In a circle of farmers at a potluck, it’s not uncommon for talk to turn to varieties: gossiping over new ones, reminiscing about past ones grown, or upbraiding others. We work so closely with these well-proven strains — from labeling flats in the greenhouse, to observing them in the field, checking them off the harvest list, and talking them up with chefs and customers — we have them nearly all memorized.
At Alprilla, we’ve probably grown over 125 different varieties. They are chosen for taste, source, season, ease of growing, and aesthetics. Every year we try a few new ones and there’s always a couple that don’t make the cut. Part of the reason it’s easy to fall in love with seeds, aside from their obvious and awesome power, is their character.
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The names of seed varieties offer hilarious personality to the vegetables they deliver. Who ever thought a gnarly old celeriac would be called Brilliant? Or what about King Richard, the sweetest and stoutest of leeks?
Some vegetables have themes: cabbage varieties tend to be a bit plain, Storage #4, Super Red 80, whereas cauliflower can be overstated, Amazing, Denali. Some speak to their breeding locale: The Danvers carrot or Waltham butternut are Massachusetts examples.
Gunma is a superb sauerkraut variety from a cabbage-growing prefecture outside Tokyo, and Chioggia names varieties of beets, radicchio, and pumpkin as they all hail from the same small town along the Adriatic coast.
Many are named after fantastical ladies: Natacha, Juliet, and Sugar Ann (escarole, red cherry tomatoes, and snap peas). Some just say it how it is: Early Wonder Tall Top beets. Certain varieties represent seed breeders with a clear marketing streak, like Mortgage Lifter, a depression-era tomato, Paydirt, a rich golden sweet corn, and Cha-Ching, a prolific zucchini.
Perhaps my favorite category consists of vegetables named after actual people, like Jaylo, a sublimely curvy eggplant. Jimmy Nardello, the sweetest of red frying peppers, is a variety brought to Connecticut from a small village in Italy in 1887 by Jimmy Nardello’s mother (why the son gets the credit, no one knows).
Paul Robeson, born in 1898, was an African-American linguist, scholar, world-famous singer, athlete in the NFL, actor as Othello in the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, and, among other things, was a communist sympathizer — which inspired the Russians to name a delicious dark-colored tomato after him.
We farmers might not label these beauties as such at the farmer’s market or in the CSA barn, but the consumer should know the selection is not just some standard carrot or fennel: it’s a type carefully chosen and scrutinized for a reason, and we’re probably excited to talk about it — at length.
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Here at Alprilla, we buy most of our seed from either Johnny’s Selected Seeds, an employee-owned company, or Fedco, a cooperative seed house, both in Maine. Each of these sources has its own personality. Johnny’s is professional, glossy, catering to the mid-size vegetable grower. Fedco’s endearing black-and-white illustrated catalog, tailored to the avid gardener, is filled with poetic and anecdotal prose about each variety offered; however, the company doesn’t always ship the right thing at the right time.
We’ve started buying some seed from High Mowing, a small all-organic company in Vermont. We also tend to read several other catalogs, like Seeds from Italy, Territorial, and Baker Creek Heirlooms, just to see what’s out there, and to satiate our seed catalog-reading hobby.
Per season, we spend over $4,000 on vegetable seeds for the five acres we cultivate. The value of seeds is sometimes surprising or unexpected. For example, a pound of arugula seed only costs $27, which is enough to plant several week’s worth, at our scale, of this fancy specialty salad green. Gold beet seed, on the other hand, is a rarity that costs $150 per pound, a quantity we carefully ration for a season.
With our modest buying power in mind, we try to face the global seed market with as much knowledge as possible. And, it turns out, there’s a lot to know.
We have to make a myriad of choices. For example, we’ve decided to steer clear of genetically modified crops on principle. We also avoid varieties that have “utility-patents,” which are intellectual property rights slapped on certain traits of a plant, something as simple leaf color in lettuce. To us this signals a woeful disregard and corporate appropriation of the bounty and diversity that nature, well, naturally provides.
Other decisions are more nuanced. We appreciate the vigor that comes from a hybrid seed (the offspring from a cross of two different parent varieties), and we do grow some hybrids. We remain wary, though, of the reality that these seeds are not open source: any seed saved from a hybrid cross will not be true-to-type in the next generation.
Because a hybrid’s parent lines are secret, the farmer remains dependent on buying from the seed companies every year, and generally these varieties are much more expensive. We’ve made a push to grow open-pollinated varieties, which produce offspring with the same traits generation after generation. We do this whenever feasible because we respect the fact that we, or farmers like us, could grow the seed ourselves.
We buy organic seed (produced from an organically-grown parent crop) whenever available and like to purchase from lots produced by small and domestic seed growers. At the end of seed-buying season, we feel somewhat exhausted from navigating a politically-charged global industry that is capitalizing on the need for people to grow food to eat.
We buy most of our seed because saving all our own is far from practical: we grow a diversity of crops, many of which are biennials that take extra effort to save seed from, and our wet climate isn’t famous for seed-saving ease.
That said, with some crops, saving seed makes perfect sense. Selecting the best specimens over the years allows us to choose the genetics that do particularly well in Essex. We’ve got our own stores of Warthog wheat, Hampshire Red popcorn, Garland Flint corn, Midnight Black Turtle beans, and that unknown, unnamed hardneck garlic variety that gave us 17,000 heads of garlic this year, all the progeny of a dozen heads my partner, Noah, got in college. Through selection every season, all these specimens are getting their own Alprilla flare.
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While seed saving isn’t something we devote a lot of time to in our busy growing season, seed diversity and sovereignty is something we care deeply about.
This year, Bill Braun of Ivory Silo Farm, a fellow grower, friend, and seed saver in southeastern Massachusetts, asked us to take on a seed saving project. We acquiesced and got this assignment: the Macomber turnip, a New England heirloom (three cheers for plant dorks!). We planted some precious seeds of these hearty, sweet roots last year and chose some vigorous individuals to store in the root cellar over the winter. We’ll replant the roots this spring in order for them to shoot up seed stalks for us to save.
In preparation for our new, and far-off-seeming winter CSA share, our seedling greenhouse is already piling up with dozens of trays — onions, leeks, parsley, celeriac. Crops that are technically propagated from tubers and rhizomes, not seeds, are still receiving grand attention: the potatoes from Maine — nine different varieties this year! — are laid out in crates under the benches, sanitized and inoculated with groovy soil microbes to get a jump start on the spring, and our Hawaiian ginger has been at a snug 85 degrees for the last two months, to coax it to life for the decidedly-not-tropical New England growing season ahead.
Working with seeds in the greenhouse always makes me feel giddy, no matter how many years I fill flats with potting soil. Seeds are both natural and miraculous; innocuous and political; tiny and potent. They speak to culture and heritage, taste and climate. The science behind the selecting could take volumes to explain. They hold so much in their small shells.
In the plant world, a seed is both where it all begins, and also, where it ends. And for a farmer in spring, seeds are the auspices of a season to come.
✸ Alprilla Farm, 94 John Wise Avenue, Essex, (978) 273 9339
Sophie Courser grew up on a small family farm in central New Hampshire. After focusing on Environmental Studies at Vassar College, she joined the Alprilla Farm crew in 2013, where she manages the CSA, keeps an eye on the beef herd, and is the resident ox teamster. Paul Cary Goldberg is a Gloucester-based photographer whose work is in the collections of the DeCordova Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and many others.