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The roots of the Long Island Seed Project goes back to the company that
Ken Ettlinger formed in 1978 after selling his backyard produced tomato
seed at the local Islip Town Garden Show in 1977. He marketed the
first blend of seeds there so that his customers would experience the
diversity of many varieties in their garden and so that they would have
a greater degree of success than if they had grown only one
variety. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Ken was
In 1979 he purchased Flanders Bay Farm, a 17 acre farm located on the
Peconic Estuary where he began to evaluate thousands of different
cultivars from all over the world. Long Island Seed raised crops
of 500 different kinds of open pollinated tomato seed at one time.
That's Zak Ettlinger on the 1993 catalog cover, the last year the
company sent out a catalog.
Flanders Bay Farm is a managed for it's ecological diversity, it serves
Long Island Seed Company, which started out as a hobby and outlet
for Ken Etlingers breeding work was unusual because it was one of the
few seed companies that maintained a seed bank and produced a large
portion of their own seed as opposed to retailing. It maintained
a very loyal "grower's network" who shared in profits from their seed
marketed by the company. It bucked the popular trend by
emphasizing non-hybrid seeds, advocated that gardeners should
produce food as well as seeds for the next year. Long Island Seed
raised seed crops of 100's of unusual and hard to find cultivars,
including the first extensive list of "heirloom" tomato varieties (the
first seed company to sell seed of "Brandywine" other than Ben
Long Island Seed also sold "genetically diverse" seed blends with the
intent of giving gardeners access to a greater number of varieties than
they might otherwise have. A packet labeled "Summer Squash Zucchini
Blend" often had 20 or more different kinds of zucchini varieties
in it. "Hot Pepper Blend" contained 30 different kinds. Ken
explained how home gardeners could use such packets to become backyard
seed breeders and select seed from their favorite plants from the mix
to save for next year.
Zak and his cousin, Skye making hay while the sun shines.
Ken was at constant odds with the USDA which enforce the federal seed
laws which at that time made vegetable seed blends difficult to legally
sell in the U.S. Notices of violation were received regularly in
the 1980's until 1993. Long Island Seed was mandated by law to
list the percentages of each "named" cultivar on the packet label along
with the percentage by weight. At that time, Long Island
Seed was illegally selling (according to USDA) a chard blend produced
from seed of Thompson and Morgan's "Five Colour Silver Beet" (complete
with yellow, orange and pink types) and dozens of other seed blends,
many with unnamed cultivars. While a footnote in the
chronicles of the seed business, Long Island Seed Company introduced
dozens of new varieties of vegetables, had an active breeding program,
collected local varieties from other farmers such as the Long Island
Cheese Pumpkin, exchanged breeding material with public and
private vegetable breeders, and introduced an extensive list of
vegetable seed blends to the gardening public for the first time.
In 1993 Long Island Seed Company sent out their last seed catalog and
the retail seed business ended the following year.
Zak putting up the support lines on the kiwi trellis
When Ken's son, Zak was in junior high school he opened the door
to the then neglected seed room and began to grow out many of the rare
heirloom seeds under grow lamps in his room. The abundant harvest from
those seeds started a new phase in the history of the farm and for
several years Zak, his father and grandmother operated a small seasonal
farmstand that served the local community and restaurants. Operating
the farmstand made Ken more aware of what consumers wanted from their
local farms. With Ken back in the business of raising vegetables and
saving seed, he received an offer from NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers
Association). The New York Chapter was releasing breeder seed as part
of the Organic Seed Partnership with the goal of producing varieties
adapted to organic growing conditions.
...and that started a whole new chapter of farm activity. While the
farm stand is on occassion open to distribute some items from the
gardens, most of the activity centers on seed breeding and limited seed
production for the Long Island Seed Project. The farm is open to
visitors. By parking at the Flander's Memorial Park, a foot trail
through the undeveloped part of the farm to the salt marsh and bay is
open and many local folks use the trail as a way of getting from one
neighborhood to another. There are permaculture plantings of
nuts, berries and beach plum and we ask visitors to respect the crops.
(excerpts from the LISEED 1982 seed catalog above)
"We've given numerous workshops and lectures on why and how gardeners
should save their own seeds. Simply; if you do, you could be growing
the best crop you ever harvested next year. Why? Because when you save
the seeds of your favorites: the biggest, tastiest, most
productive, most unique, hardiest, most vigorous, most beautiful, you
are the plant breeder, the seed-saver. You are selecting a
variant based on the unique growing environment of your garden and with
your personal ideals in mind. The result may really surprise you! And
the satisfaction of participating in the entire growing cycle only
enhances the wonder and joy of growing your own food."
"Why Diversity? It just makes more sense that for home gardeners
and small-scale growers. Uniformity is designed for mechanized
agriculture, planned spraying programs, scheduled irrigation and mass
harvest and marketing of produce. Federal seed laws require the
uniformity of seed crops sold as a variety for seed sold in the U.S.
And we agree! Traditional and Organic agriculture requires uniformity.
But for the home gardener or small grower, diversity may be better. If
all the seeds in a packet grow up with the uniform sameness they will
probably be uniformly susceptible to plant pests and diseases and they
will have the same tolerance (or lack of tolerance) to cold, to drought
or to excessive moisture. Total uniformity increases the possibility of
total crop failure.
Go anywhere in the world where hand labor is used in the field,
resources are limited, the environment is variable and where the people
could starve if the crops fail and you will still see diversity in
their fields, markets and seeds (although this is rapidly changing).
There, they can get by without the heavy use of fertilizers and pest
controls and harvest is extended over a greater period of time
providing less of the "feast or famine" dilemma that comes with
"Most of all, for the home gardener, by planting diversity you will
experience all the colors, textures and flavors inherent in a kind of
vegetable. From the seemingly random work of nature to the experienced
eye of the professional plant breeder, a packet of genetically diverse
seed contains a large selection of genetic material not usually
available to the home gardener. Contained within are dozens of
cultivars; old favorites, treasured heirlooms, the best of the new
introductions and experimental varieties. We know that each of
our seed blends will make your gardening experience even more rewarding
and exciting than it is now."