It takes a village to raise a Honeynut squash. Just ask Jack Algiere. At Stone Barns Center, Jack oversees the cultivation of over 200 varieties of produce year-round on 6.5 acres of outdoor fields and gardens and in a 22,000 square-foot minimally heated greenhouse. Since Stone Barns Center opened its doors in 2004, Jack has been collaborating with chefs, plant breeders, and seed companies to identify the most flavorful, nutritious, and resilient plant varieties that can be grown in the Northeast.
As an educational farm, Stone Barns Center is less vulnerable to market pressures than other small-scale, sustainable farms. In addition to being a source of fresh produce, the Center’s fields act as living laboratories where farmers like Jack carry out innovative experiments that would prove too risky or expensive on most commercial farms.
Partnering with stakeholders like the Hudson Valley Seed Library, Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, Bejo Seeds, and the department of Plant Breeding & Genetics at Cornell University, the farmers at Stone Barns Center save seed from varieties ranging from Panther edamame to Black Krim tomatoes to Otto File corn—each season, selecting for flavor and disease resistance.
“By participating in seed saving, trial growing, and experimentation, I gain a much deeper relationship to the plant material that I’m working with,” Jack explains. “Participating in trials is a risk but it also means that I have a voice in the conversation—that the small-scale, sustainable farmer essentially has a vote.”
For Michael Mazourek, Assistant Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics at Cornell University, sharing seed with farmers is an essential part of the plant breeding process. He explains, “Sharing seed with growers gives us an invaluable perspective. They can find hidden potential and point out further needs for improvement that we missed.”
In 2006, the Plant Breeding & Genetics department at Cornell University introduced Jack to Honeynut squash, a combination of butternut and buttercup squash types. Stone Barns Center has been conducting seed trials with the variety ever since.
A healthy row of Honeynut squash can speak wonders about a variety’s resiliency but when it comes to flavor, Jack turns to Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, for feedback. Roughly fifty percent of the produce grown at Stone Barns Center is sold to Blue Hill and the restaurant plays an important role in evaluating the flavor of varieties like Honeynut.
Over the last six years of trials— from seed to table—the flavor, nutritional value, and disease resistance of the Honeynut squash has gradually improved but there are other important traits that suggest a variety is “finished.” Michael explains, “A certain amount of uniformity is needed and the variety must be relatively true breeding so that we can have a consistent seed stock. Honeynut is special because it is stable and self-fertile which allows for seed saving.”
When varieties like the Honeynut begin to excel in seed trials, plant breeders partner with seed companies to ensure that the new varieties are accessible to the farming community at large. In the case of the Honeynut squash, that meant bringing High Mowing Organic Seeds, an independently-owned, farm-based seed company, into the conversation. On a 40 acre farm in Wolcott, Vermont, High Mowing Organic Seeds produces varieties like the Honeynut squash that might not otherwise be available to organic farmers.
At 500 grams or 17.6 ounces, the Honeynut squash is celebrated for its small size, sweetness, disease resistance, and high levels of beta-carotene—but it could just as easily be celebrated for the compelling story it tells about collaboration and the dynamic relationship between farmers, chefs, plant breeders, and seed companies.
The health of small-scale, sustainable agriculture may very well depend upon healthy relationships. “I’m never going to be a plant science geneticist,” Jack explains. “I depend on plant breeders and as a farmer, there are ways that I can reciprocate for their extraordinary work. We’re going to need these kinds of relationships to reinvigorate small-scale farming.”