The Long Island Seed Project

Why Grow Diversity?

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Long Island Seed Company:  1978- 1993
1982 Long Island Seed Catalog on Growing Diversity

November, 2007

Long Island Seed Company: 1978- 1993

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 business.

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 many purposes

 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 Quisenberry).

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.

<>Why Grow Diversity?


(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 uniformity."

"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."

Last Modified:  November, 2007