A LOT OF WHAT I LEARNED about gardening, I learned from seed catalogs, always gravitating to ones featuring the odder varieties the better—plants promising lots of both personality and productivity. So when I got introduced to the nonprofit cooperative called Experimental Farm Network recently, I felt right at home.
My annual Seed Series continues with this seed source that is all new to me, including many unusual varieties available nowhere else but Experimental Farm Network dot org, the nonprofit cooperative whose co-founder, Nate Kleinman, was my latest radio/podcast guest. We talked about the EFN mission and the fascinating assortment of goodies they offer, including a whole stash of perennial edibles in their 2020 online catalog.
A core belief at EFN: that agriculture can and should be used to help build a better world, not help destroy it. Co-founders Nate Kleinman (in New Jersey) and Dusty Hinz (in Minnesota) grow most of EFN’s seeds. Each year they’re adding more growers to their roster, including inspiring plant breeders who often work in relative obscurity. Nate helped shine a light for us on these players, and some old and new varieties, that I think you’ll be as excited about as I am.
Read along as you listen to the January 29, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
perennial edibles, landraces and other unusual seeds: a q&a with nate kleinman
Margaret Roach: Welcome, Nate. I’m so glad to meet you.
Nate Kleinman: Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here.
Margaret: “The odder, the better,” is my motto. [Laughter.]
Nate: I like it. That should be ours. We should steal it. [Laughter.]
Margaret: So, I’m so glad to have made your introduction and we have so many seedy friends in common, I’m surprised we haven’t crossed paths before. But let’s start with an explanation from you of what the Experimental Farm Network is and how it got started.
Nate: Sure. And yes, we’ve only been around for a few years, so it’s not too surprising. People are definitely still learning about us. We were founded in 2013. Dusty and I met actually through the Occupy Wall Street movement in Philadelphia.
Nate: We were involved with Occupy Philly, and a group called Occupy Vacant Lots, which was working to basically transform vacant lots in the Philadelphia area into productive food-growing spaces. And Dusty and I were farming in small lots, and had been urban farmers and backyard farmers for some time, but we both decided we wanted to expand and get some land and try and grow on a bigger scale.
And I had also been collecting rare seeds for a few years at this point. I had a growing collection, and not enough places to grow them. We started talking about, “Should we start a seed company? What do we want to do with all of these seeds?”
And it was actually at a … I went to a conference and I heard a talk from a guy named Eric Toensmeier from Massachusetts, who’s an author, and he wrote some great books, one called “Paradise Lot,” another called “The Carbon Farming Solution” [Amazon affiliate links], and he gave a talk on perennial industrial crops and how perennial staple crops could be used to fight climate change.
And I had known the story of perennial wheat, and the attempts to develop perennial wheat through the years, but there were … He mentioned crops that I knew about, but had no idea the potential that they might have, as potential sources of energy, of industrial crops, industrial uses, fiber crops, and of course food crops.
And there were all these stories about how through the last century, people had made a lot of strides toward things like perennial wheat, and then for whatever reasons, they had to abandon it or they worked for a university and eventually they retired, and nobody was there to pick up the slack.
So at the same time, I had been working with Occupy Sandy, which was a grassroots hurricane-relief organization that grew out of the Occupy movement following Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York. And so we had a … This was a really successful effort that mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers, and was in neighborhoods that the government was not in and the Red Cross and Salvation Army, that we were able to fill a lot of holes and impress a lot of people, including the people involved with it, for being amateurs, doing something that is normally reserved for professionals and doing a great job at it.
So I started thinking, “Well, if we can apply this same kind of ethos to some of the problems in plant breeding, some of these things that have been nagging at people for generations, like developing viable perennial grain crops—if we could create a collaborative, horizontal model where people are working together in a decentralized fashion, that maybe we could drive innovation and help to create some of these crops that really need to exist.”
So, that’s the genesis of the whole thing.
Margaret: And so, besides the seed catalog online that we’re going to get to in a second, there are these projects that you’re doing. For instance, seeking improved genetics of the native beach plum, which I think is … What is it, Prunus maritima? Is that what that is?
Margaret: Or the native maypops, the native passionflower–is that incarnata, Passiflora incarnata? Did I make that up? [Laughter.]
Margaret: Sometimes I make up Latin names. And so, there’s all kinds of projects besides the seeds that are in the … where people can shop and get things. There are these projects going on, too, like you just talked about perennial grains and so forth, but for some native important plants as well, yes?
Nate: Yes, we’re working with a lot of native plants that have potential as domesticated crop plants, which people just need to put the work into it. And we figure if we’re all working together we can do a better job. I mean, plant breeding is … I often say, “Plant breeding is looking for a needle in a haystack.” You’re trying to find that exact correct collection of genes and traits, and so if you have more people looking through the haystack, you’re going to find the needle faster.
Margaret: Yes. So I have listening lots of starving-from-winter gardeners who want to buy seeds, and shop for seeds, and find crazy things to grow, and whatever, so let’s go to the storefront, and I think you just put up your list recently, early January, for 2020 and I think you have more than 200 offerings. And a hundred, I think, were new to you.
There’s a few common threads running through the listings, and one of them, as I said in the introduction, is perennial edibles. And I thought let’s talk about some of those. And I see that on Instagram you say:
“Many of these will be perennials as a major part of our nonprofit mission is encouraging farmers and gardeners to plant more carbon-sequestering perennial crops.”
So that’s the mission behind the perennial edible thing, yes?
Margaret: You plant it once, and it does its job for a long time.
Nate: Yep, and because you have a perennial, you’re not tilling the soil. And that active tillage is what releases so much carbon into the atmosphere.
Nate: It’s not just the tractors and the equipment and the chemicals people use, but just the very act of tilling.
Nate: Yes, I love the … One of my favorite seeds we sell is the ‘Tracy’ rhubarb, which is a name we gave to a variety of rhubarb that … It may have had another name originally, but for all we know, it was a seedling, potentially, that was planted by friends of my family, who were an elderly couple who since passed away. And after they died, their daughter-in-law took me to the property. She wanted to find the rhubarb and dig it up because they always made delicious baked goods with it.
And she was pacing around the backyard looking for it underneath the … In the grass, and they’d had somebody mowing the grass every couple of weeks while the house was on the market. And finally she found this pencil-thin stalk with a quarter-sized leaf at the end of it and said, “Oh, there it is. That’s the rhubarb.” [Laughter.]
It was very unimpressive, pathetic-looking little plant, but it had survived under the mower blades for a couple of years. And when we put the shovel to the ground, we found a huge root underneath the ground, and I was able to dig it up and right away divided it into three chunks, and each chunk became a plant in my friend’s backyard in Pennsylvania. And then we started splitting it up even more, and I sent some to my sister in Michigan, and a friend in Baltimore, and I planted it in New Jersey, and then pretty soon we realized that this was a really extraordinary rhubarb. It had really thick stems, so it’s very easy to use in the kitchen. It has enormous leaves, which shade out all the weeds within a 3-foot area around the plants. So, it’s very easy to grow.
And then one of the most exciting things about it is that compared to all the other rhubarbs that we grow, it’s the least attractive to the Japanese beetles.
Margaret: Ah, good, good, good.
Nate: If you have a Japanese beetle problem where you live, you may know that they-
Margaret: They love it.
Nate: … seem to just love rhubarb and they can really decimate a plant in the summer when they’re at their peak. So this one survives through the summer really well, it’s early, and it produces another flush in the fall, and it’s just delicious, too. It’s not deep red. It’s got red at the base of the stalk, but enough to make any jam or pie that you make have that nice pink color, and it’s just delicious.
Margaret: So there’s some things I’d never heard about, something called Caucasian mountain spinach that’s hardy to Zone 3, genus Hablitzia. Don’t know. It’s not a spinach exactly, but you use the leaves as spinach-like. Is that correct?
Nate: Exactly. Yes, it’s a relative. It’s more closely related to amaranth, but it’s used in-
Margaret: Yes. Oh, that makes sense.
Nate: It’s a vining plant and it’s incredibly cold-hardy. This has become a really popular perennial edible. It dies back to the ground every year, but it grows … it turns into this clump and sends up all these tendrils so it really can keep you in greens most of the year. And then it’s an interesting plant.
You know that it comes from cold places because it actually needs cold to germinate. So, we instruct people to put the seeds in some soil in a Ziploc bag or even in a flat right in the refrigerator. And we leave it in the fridge for about a month, and the seeds actually start to sprout inside the fridge. Or if you don’t see them sprout within a month, you take them out of the fridge and they sprout right away. But once they get going, it’s very easy to grow.
Margaret: So speaking of leaves, foliage greens, except not green: I was startled to see my unfavorite turf weed, plantain, but you have a red-leaved plantain [above], and that you say that plantain is edible. Why didn’t I know this since I have the world’s collection of plantain? [Laughter.] So, what’s that red plantain about?
Nate: Absolutely. Yes, plantain is a plant that has … It was actually eaten for a long time and we just lost our appreciation for it. One of these plants that, much like dandelion greens, has a little bit of a bitter flavor, and bitter often means it’s healthy, but we tend to ignore those plants. But if you pick the leaves when they’re small, they’re … that first couple of bites might be bitter, but then it disappears and you can eat plenty of it.
I like to make salads with plantain, you can blanch the leaves a little bit and boil out some of the bitter. And it’s really a delicious plant, and then it has medicinal uses as well. People use plantain in all kinds of balms and skincare products. If you just chew up a little plantain and rub it on a cut or scrape, or especially a bug bite, or any kind of itch, it works almost immediately and soothes that itch.
And then this red plantain is just a naturally occurring mutant that has these beautiful dark leaves, and it makes a great accent in a salad, and it’s also easy to see, and it’s a plant that’ll reseed itself if you want to have it around. I like having plantain in the yard because it always means that there’s some free food there and free medicine.
Margaret: Yes, yes. So, another word that I came upon on the online catalog at Experimental Farm Network, and when I talk to seed breeders, it always comes up, is this word landrace. In your catalog you have lentils, a landrace of beans [below], a landrace of squash. What’s a landrace and why does it matter that … Yes, can you explain it quickly, what a landrace is?
Nate: Sure thing. So a landrace, the way botanists use the term is it describes an unimproved population of cultivated plants. So, if you think about … It also often has a connection to a geographical region and to traditional farming systems.
So a landrace wheat would be the collective name for the wheats that are grown by a group of farmers in a particular region. And because those seeds are not the product of an intensive plant-breeding program, they have a lot more diversity in them.
Nate: So if you plant a handful of landrace wheat seeds, you’re going to get plants that have some common features, but they’re all going to look a little bit different from each other. And landraces are incredibly important for plant breeders as a source of genetic diversity.
Nate: So, almost every variety that exists now, that has a name on it, that we call a cultivar, originally it has roots in a landrace somewhere.
There are places like Turkey that are loaded with landrace wheats. Down in Mexico, there’s all sorts of landrace corns and beans and squash.
And there are also what you might call a synthetic landrace, which is an artificially created landrace that’s born of bringing a great diversity of cultivars or other landraces together. And so, we sell a mix of those. We sell some landraces that are the original landrace. We sell something called ‘Kandahar Pendi,’ which is an okra landrace from Afghanistan [below], and it has some beautiful diversity in it. Some plants make red pods, some are pale, some are short, some are long. It’s a great thing for home gardeners to use, especially if you’re in a climate where there are not big seed companies growing seeds adapted for you, because if you get a landrace and you save the best plants for three or four years, by the end of that, you have a completely different population than you started with-
Margaret: That’s really suited to-
Nate: … and it’s perfectly adapted for your area.
Margaret: Right, right. Like I said, I noted from Edmund Frost, whose work I admire at Twin Oaks Community or Common Wealth Seed Growers in Virginia, I saw that you have the … I think it was from him, you have … was his the pumpkin?
Nate: Yes. We have some pumpkin, some squash from him, I believe, and some cucumbers. Edmund is amazing at breeding cucurbits, especially for resistance to downy mildew. [My past interview with Edmund Frost about breeding against downy mildew.]
Margaret: Yes, Lofthouse. Yes, yes.
Nate: And Joseph is an amazing plant breeder growing in a really unforgiving climate. He’ll gather together hundreds or even over 1,000 different varieties of a crop like beans and grow them altogether, and then just save the ones that work for him. And over time, he has these amazingly beautiful, incredibly diverse populations that work for him in this extreme environment, and therefore they work well for people pretty much anywhere.
So, we’re really excited to be selling his seeds. And he used to sell stuff on his own website, but we’re now the near-exclusive purveyor of his seeds to give him more time to work on his plant breeding projects and do yoga and have fun out there in the mountains.
Margaret: So of course, all of the offerings that you’re listing, they have great stories. There’s a Kousa squash from Homs, a Syrian squash [above], a Syrian heirloom, and you tell this … And this is this war-torn place and you’d tell the idea that you’ve managed to get seeds to Syrian refugees who have small farm at their camp in Lebanon and these sort of rematriate, I think you used the word, seeds back to the farmers in Homs itself eventually in a time of peace one day. And the story of this Algonquin … I think it’s Algonquin squash, ‘Nanticoke’ [below]. Yes, it may have been the parent of many of our familiar favorite heirlooms, but I’ve never heard of it, as many squashes as I know, and all kinds of great things.
Do you want to tell us in the last couple/few minutes about some of the new things that you’re excited about or some of the things you’re excited about that you listed this year?
Nate: Sure. Yes, so we do our best to get seeds from all over the world and we do have a focus on, what we call, seeds from threatened communities. A lot of those are war-torn communities, or communities that are threatened by climate change, or sea-level rise, or economic out-migration due to young people leaving rural areas, as it’s happening all over the world really.
So, we are growing … One of the plants I’m excited about, we’ve actually offered before, is this melon from the Maldives [photo, below], which are these low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean. They’re likely to be one of the first countries to disappear due to rising sea levels. And it’s this gorgeous melon. The USDA actually thought that it was a cucumber for years while it was in their own collection, because when it’s young it looks a lot like a cucumber, and it can be used just like a cucumber.
And then as it gets bigger, it’s this long thin, thin fruit and the typical melon flesh is very thin and flavorless, but the gel around each seed is what the main event is. It’s this beautiful peach color, kind of sour-tasting, melon-y gel that, from what we’ve heard, there’s similar varieties in Indonesia and other places in Southeast Asia, and they’ll eat it with other fruits or with sugar, and people really love it. But it’s useful as both a cucumber and a fruit later in its life, right? It produces so much biomass that it’s probably great for feeding to animals as well, feeding the pigs or whatever else is around.
And then, yes, that Kousa squash, the ‘Homs Kousa,’ is one of our absolute favorite. Homs is a city that was really at the center of the Syrian Revolution before the war started, and it’s a city that’s been absolutely destroyed by the Syrian Civil War. So, we’ve really made an effort to get as many seeds from there as we could.
And so many of these seeds exist in the USDA collection, including this one, which is where we got it from. But it’s this small, pale, buttery-flavored delicious zucchini, grows on very productive sprawling plants. It’s not one of these tame little bush-type squash plants that produces a few fruit, and then dies off. This will produce all season and the fruits are absolutely delicious, and they’re even edible once they reach full size. They turn white rather than turning into these big green baseball bats that people get in their gardens that nobody wants to eat. These things are still edible for a few weeks when they’re white. You can slice it and grill it or stuff it like an eggplant. It’s a really wonderful plant.
And we’re offering a new sorghum variety we’ve never offered before called ‘Rahmetalla Gallabat’ from a place in Eastern Sudan. That’s a really beautiful … Actually, Edmund grew that out for us down in Virginia.
And I think we have over 20 growers this year, which really helps us to expand our offerings.
Margaret: And all of this, all of the … You have a great URL, an easy address: EFNseeds.com, if people want to go right to the seed selection, yes?
Nate: Yes, and we’re also on Facebook, Experimental Farm Network, and Twitter, @ExpFarmNetwork. I just made a post on Instagram that should be cross-posted to the other two about the golden black raspberries–
Margaret: Oh yes, I saw that, too [above]. All right.
Nate: … which is maybe the thing I’m most excited about, and is the first thing that comes up when you go to see the store website.
Margaret: Well, we’ll have to have a whole other segment to talk about [laughter] that because we’ve run out of time. But Nate Kleinman, as I said at the beginning, I’m so glad to make your acquaintance and I can’t wait to do some crazy shopping, and I hope that all the listeners will as well and get excited about what you’re doing. So more to come, O.K?
Nate: All right. Hey, thank you so much.
Margaret: Yes, ditto. O.K., bye.
more from experimental farm network
- The online EFN seed catalog
- Experimental Food Network on Instagram
- All the breeding and conservation projects under way at EFN (with opportunities to volunteer to participate/help)
- The overall website of the nonprofit
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 20, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).