Farm-to-table has become part of our lexicon over the last decade. More than just a phrase, it has come to define a movement and our expectation for fresh and local food. But in truth, the characteristics and flavors of the food on your plate are pre-determined even before they are planted in the fields.
“The beginning isn’t the farm,” said Dan Barber, chef and owner of Blue Hill and co-founder of Row 7. “The beginning is the seed, because that’s the blueprint that sets the stage of what the farmer is able to do with good farming.”
But in today’s food system most seeds are optimized for yield, shelf stability and uniformity, not flavor. Barber is hoping to change that with the introduction of Row 7, a seed company with operations in Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes, N.Y., that focuses on creating seed varieties that emphasize nutrition and flavor.
The work that Row 7 is doing is a continuation of what Barber has been doing for years at his two New York restaurants, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill in New York City. Like most chefs, the James Beard award winner has a fascination with ingredients, but his culinary style is about allowing the ingredients to fully express themselves. The dishes he creates are an ode to nature’s bounty and reflect the sprawling 138-acre farm in Great Barrington, Mass. that has been in the Barber family for four generations.
With this intense focus on ingredients, seven years ago Barber asked Michael Mazourek, co-founder at Row 7 and associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, to create a better butternut squash. The result was what they call the 898 squash, which is small enough to fit into the palm of your hand but has concentrated sweetness and beta carotene.
While his own restaurants have been ground zero for this taste innovation, he is hoping that Row 7 will make flavorful and nutritious food more accessible by becoming part of the larger food system. “The intent of the whole thing is that it starts with chefs, and it gets into the everyday food culture,” said Barber. “The point of doing this is not to create varieties just for the temples of our white tablecloth restaurants.”
The company is engaging an undisclosed number of breeders across the country to produce its organic, non-GMO seeds. To start, the company is offering seven varieties, which are available now exclusively on its website. It hopes with this launch, it can start a dialogue with other breeders to expand the company’s offerings.
Row 7 said it will not patent its seeds or put any restrictions that will inhibit research, which is in stark contrast to the big agro players that hold hundreds of patents on their genetically modified seeds. “The world of seeds is increasingly about patenting ideas, and in this case, we are talking about patenting life and biology,” said Barber. “We would rather stay away from that.”
The past 20 year have been transformative for the seed industry. It used to be comprised of small family businesses, but in that time it has experienced massive consolidation and is now dominated by agrochemical giants like DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. Today, six companies control 71 percent of the global seed market, according to ETC Group. Once the Monsanto and Bayer merger is complete, and if the trend continues, the multibillion seed industry could end up being controlled by just a few players.
“If you are a chemical company that is also producing seeds, I don’t know exactly what your motivation is to produce a healthy, strong and really delicious plant,” said Barber. “Strong and really delicious plants by definition are difficult for pests to attack.”
Compared to competitors, the Row 7 seeds will be a bit pricier. “We are a little more expensive, but on the other hand, all of our seeds are bred and packaged in the United States,” said Barber. “Part of our ethic is about the local and regional farm-to-table movement, and we are extending that ethic to the seeds.”