At the end of June, just when the currants and gooseberries were setting heavy on the bushes, the POP team made a trip out to Elmer, NJ to visit Nate Kleinman at the Experimental Farm Network. Here is the official report back.
Contained within the shell of a seed are whole worlds. Worlds containing the stories of people and the traditions of their cultures. Seeds hold the lineage of the past, waiting for someone to let them tell their story once again – to let them spring to life, inviting us to interact, engage, take part, eat! Yet, since the 1900s and the onset of Industrial agriculture we have lost 75% of our plant genetic diversity. Farmers have been guided to replace local and landrace varieties with foreign, genetically uniform, high yielding crops. Crops that can be produced at a large scale and shipped globally “to stop world hunger”. Crops that depend on constant tillage, chemical inputs, and the buying in of patented seed year after year. This type of agriculture is both quickening the pace of climate change and making us more vulnerable to its effects. In fact, 75% of the world’s food now comes from just 12 different plants and 5 different animals according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The Experimental Farm Network (EFN) started as a direct response to this broken food system. Breeding is generally aimed at how to increase profits for seed and chemical companies – EFN aims to breed for climate mitigation instead. EFN breeds for higher nutritional content, flavor, and more resiliency to pest, disease, and stress pressure.
Experimental Farm Network co-founders Dusty Hinz and current POP Board Member Nathan Kleinman met at Occupy Philly in 2011. They both had a background in urban farming, political organizing, and a charisma that invites others to join in. They decided to put their organizing efforts towards working to reclaim food sovereignty from corporations by building up a grassroots network of volunteers, building up agricultural cooperatives, and regional economies. A network that strives “to facilitate collaborative plant breeding and sustainable agriculture research in order to fight global climate change, preserve the natural environment, and ensure food security for humanity into the distant future. “
In 2013, after posting about their idea on Craigslist, EFN found 3 acres of land for their project in Elmer, NJ which they continue to steward today. It is at this spot that they practice plant breeding for climate mitigation. It is where they grow seeds from communities threatened by war, poverty, sea level rise, global capitalism to multiply and someday rematriate the seeds. It is the headquarters of their research and seed-saving that is being replicated by volunteers across the country and increasingly across the world.
Kleinman had been collecting rare seeds for several years before starting the project and securing land. A lot of the plant and seed material has been sourced from the National Plant Germplasm System – a seedbank funded by US Congress and led by the US Department of Agriculture to safeguard genetic diversity. This genebank is held and maintained through a network of federal, state, and private agencies at 20 different locations – each with a unique living collection of plants that collectively represent over 15,000 different species. acquire, evaluate, conserve, document and distribute seeds and plant materials to improve breeding lines and cultivars in an effort to ensure food security. Researchers, seed-saver groups, and public gardens are all able to request access to the plant material for research, education, and rematriation (the return of seeds to the community of origin). Requests from individuals for home use is considered inappropriate use of limited resources.
The 3 acres is divided into annual and perennial production. The annuals take up about a 1/4 acre boasting rich sandy loam soil and is where most of the seed saving projects take place. The perennials were heavy with fruit and included many POP favorites – currants, gooseberries, beach plums, and black raspberries. Now that these perennial crops have begun to fully establish – Kleinman is beginning to take cuttings, make divisions, and save seed from these too.
While on our visit, Kleinman shared with us some of the current trials and projects underway. One plant that Kleinman went on a deep dive with us on is the New Jersey Yucca – a plant that is native to the coastal Southeastern US, but has naturalized across much of the eastern seaboard. A member of the asparagus family, yucca has edible flowers, fruits, and stalks with its roots being used to make soap. But the real showstopper for this plant is the way that it has evolved with its one and only pollinator, the yucca moth. We were lucky enough to be present during bloom while these pollinators were active for their short lived 4 day adult life cycle. Just one example of the delicate ecosystems that must be held in balance in order for a diverse robust plant kingdom to survive.
Kleinman shared some Nothern Maypop Passionflower divisions with POP on our visit that are now being grown out at our nursery in the Woodlands. Maypops are the only passionflower variety native to the Mid-Atlantic region and are most often used as a calming nervine sleep-aid and anxiety reducer in tea form. These perennials are prolific and need more assistance being contained than propagated.
EFN is a non-profit that funds its work through the running of a small-scale seed company rather than through grants and fundraising. Part of the charm of the seeds that EFN offers is how they appeal to your imagination. They peel back the cover on how rich and diverse the plant kingdom can be. And part of how EFN does this is through growing out landrace varieties. Landrace refers to varieties that have been selected and saved by farmers associated with a specific place and/or tradition. These varieties have been adapted to thrive in a specific bioregion with low input. Instead of being uniform, they contain a wealth of diversity that allow the plant to be highly adaptable and resilient, especially important qualities when breeding for climate mitigation.
The Ayote Squash is one such landrace variety. Coming from Guatemala, the ayote squash is traditionally grown in the corn-bean-squash growing system in climates ranging from warm-dry to warm-humid, and enjoyed for its seeds and mesocarp (fruity flesh). Kleinman is growing out this crop in Elmer NJ, selecting for plants with dark green flesh and for earlier maturity.
One of the key tenets of EFN is climate mitigation through breeding perennial alternatives to annual monocrops. While industrial agriculture quickens climate change by adding as much if not more to carbon emissions than transportation, perennial crops (plants that come back year after year) sequester carbon instead of releasing carbon with annual tillage. Perennial crops in general improve water quality, habitat preservation, erosion control, and decrease changes to weather patterns. And in this vein, the Monkey Puzzle Tree, a relative of the pine tree from the Andean mountains in Chile, captured Kleinman’s heart.
The Monkey Puzzle Tree grows to be hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of years old, producing nuts resembling huge pine nuts with fantastic flavor starting when it reaches approximately 20 years old. The Monkey Puzzle tree is of great historical and social importance in its native range being both an important food source and favored lumber. And while it is a long lived species that has already survived huge climatic swings, it now stands threatened due to forest fires, logging, and grazing.
This entire project hinges on being open-source. It is by the people, for the people. You can join EFN to grow rare seed varieties and increase seed banks. You can participate by proposing a project – a project in plant breeding or in developing sustainable agriculture best practices, or by volunteering to participate in a project by growing out seeds and plant materials to the specific directions of the project. Find details here.
This edition of POP Tips prepared by Education and Outreach Coordinator, Corrie Spellman-Lopez.
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