The Outsize Importance of the Tiny Organic Seed
A benefit in California wine country honors our nation's public plant breeders—by putting their work on a plate.
Photographs by Brown W. Cannon III; Produced by Monica Michael Willis
Parsley. Frank Morton is talking about parsley, possibly the least sexy, most maligned herb imaginable, often relegated to the role of garnish. And he’s excited.
“Parsley could be the new kale. You laugh, but I might make this happen,” says the owner of Wild Garden Seed, who’s spent much of the past 30-odd years living off the grid in Philomath, Oregon, where he breeds new lettuces, quinoas, and other edible plants. Morton is currently experimenting with parsley samples from around the world, sending them to chef-friends for taste testing, in the hopes of creating exceptionally flavorful, hardy varieties that won’t bolt prematurely.
Tonight, one of those parsleys, a flat-leaf from the Republic of Georgia, has migrated from the edge of the plate to headline a granita prepared by Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred SPQR. The occasion: a dinner at the St. Helena, California, farm of Kit Crawford and her husband, Gary Erickson, who founded Clif Bar & Company. The event, benefiting Seed Matters (an initiative of the couple’s nonprofit Clif Bar Family Foundation), aims to push the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table fundraiser a few levels deeper.
“The problem with the farm-to-table thing,” explains Matthew Dillon, who oversees Seed Matters as the director of Clif Bar’s agricultural policy and programs, “is that it jumps into the story halfway.” Long before a sprig of parsley or an ear of corn is harvested—much less cooked and eaten—the right seed must be planted. And the outlook for the people who do the work of developing that all-important source material? Bleak, at best.
During the past century, as agriculture has become more and more industrialized, flavor and genetic diversity have been sacrificed in favor of efficiency and yield. The result, says Cornell University professor Michael Mazourek, is the bland, “one-size-fits-most crops” that dominate today’s culinary landscape. He is among the plant breeders gathered in St. Helena to showcase the work of Seed Matters, which helps fund his research. Mazourek’s chile peppers, including the ‘Habanada’—“It’s a habanero without the blistering heat. Get it?”—were paired with burrata cheese for an appetizer. “But this is not just about what we’re eating now,” says the scientist, who teamed with New York chef Dan Barber to create the squat ‘Honeynut’ squash. “It’s about what we’re leaving for future generations to build upon.”
Unfortunately, the seed business has consolidated in a few corporate hands over the years, and the Monsantos and Syngentas of the world patent their proprietary horticultural product. That’s why Clif Bar underwrites university endowments, fellowships, and grants, supporting the kind of public research that produces open-source varieties any breeder can access. Seed Matters also emphasizes the importance of organic methods. “Seeds created in a conventional, chemically dependent environment,” Dillon explains, “yield far less resilient plants.”
Another downside of privatization: Corporate control has given plant breeding a bad rap. “People think it means ‘genetically engineered,’” says Lane Selman, a researcher at Oregon State University and the founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which connects breeders and chefs. “The heirloom boom of the nineties helped people see the value of preserving seed, but they don’t understand that it can get even better.” Traditional breeding methods, she says, hit the sweet spot between heirlooms and GMOs, producing flavorful, nutrient-rich edibles that are also disease resistant. “We want to show that plant sex is not a four-letter word.”
Bill Tracy certainly doesn’t shy away from the subject. “Corn is extremely promiscuous. We have to keep our plants isolated to prevent cross-pollination,” says the University of Wisconsin–Madison professor and one of only two public sweet-corn breeders in the United States. He and the other scientists at the Seed Matters benefit—Jim Myers of Oregon State University, Washington State University’s Stephen Jones, and Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin–Madison—represent our nation’s best hope for better-tasting food. It would be hard, in fact, to underestimate the collective brainpower gathered here under an autumn sky. Thao Pham, the vice president of community at Clif Bar, jokes: “We are in earthquake territory. What if something happens?”
“Public plant breeding was on life support for a while,” says Tracy, whose ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ corn starred in a creamy gelato accompanying a cake made with Myers’s ‘Tromboncino’ squash. Preceding the dessert: sublime gnudi created by John McConnell, executive chef at the Clif Family Winery, that incorporated Mazourek’s ‘Honeynut’ squash and Morton’s ‘Lacinato Rainbow’ kale. Chef Accarrino served Goldman’s Danvers and Nantes carrots four different ways: roasted, raw, puréed, and pan-fried.
If the festive atmosphere tonight is any indication, Seed Matters is breathing new life into traditional plant breeding. Morton, for one, says he’s noticed a great deal of enthusiasm among the next generation. “They’re realizing seed is just so primary. There used to be clubs for people who saved seeds,” he adds. “You don’t hear about them nowadays, but I could see it catching on in a second.”
VIDEO: How the Clif Bar Family Foundation showcased the work of the plant breeders the program supports at a benefit dinner:
VIDEO: Meet Matthew Dillon, who oversees the Clif Bar Family Foundation’s “Seed Matters” initiative:
VIDEO: Meet plant breeder Frank Morton:
VIDEO: Meet chef Matthew Accarrino from San Francisco’s SPQR: