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Agriculture by design

Hudson Valley Seed Library packs designed by local artists

by Lynn Woods
November 18, 2010 12:39 PM | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
David Berube’s “Muncher Cucumber” seed pack.
David Berube’s “Muncher Cucumber” seed pack.
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The small, exquisite artworks on view at the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Arts, located at 108 Abeel St. in Kingston’s Rondout, are a bright burst of garden-inspired graphics. Each is the original design for 16 Hudson Valley Seed Library packets, which are for sale in the back room.

Ranging from the well-established to the still-in-school and mostly from the Hudson Valley and New York City, these artists, selected by seed library owners Ken Greene and Doug Muller from 70 submissions, bring a delightful imagining to the likes of patty pan squash, salad greens, zinnias, chard, carrots and tatsoi (an Asian green).

Three years ago, Greene and Muller quit their day jobs and devoted themselves full-time to farming, cultivating a two-acre spread in Accord on land — formerly a Ukrainian resort — that they own collectively with three other people. (One is artist Michael Asbill, who helps organize and curate the shows at KMOCA.) They also started their company, Hudson Valley Seed Library, as a way to preserve and expand New York heirloom seeds. They formed a membership exchange, in which, for $20 a year, members get seeds for free, returning seeds from the harvested plants to the exchange. Greene and Muller also sell seeds to 160 varieties of plants through an online catalog, www.seedlibrary.org.

The library has been issuing an annual limited selection of special artists’ seed packets for the past three years, printed in quantities of 2,000 for each variety, as a novel way of marketing, and including local art. “I wanted our seed packages to be different,” said Greene. “Because we’re going to be small, the packs need to be unique.” Also, the art relates to the “cultural part of agriculture, which has long been forgotten,” he said. “We understand farming as an art. We wanted to find a way to express to people the idea that these seeds come with stories.”

Collectively, the miniature worlds of the artist-designed seed packs reference a range of media and styles, from encaustic to watercolor to collage, the pre-Raphaelite to Chinese brush painting, conceptualism to cartoons. Lisa Perrin’s Velvet Queen Sunflower, for example, features the russet flower as a gorgeously outfitted regent holding a scepter, against a Delft-blue floral background. The carrots of Martha Lewis’ Kaleidoscope Carrots pack are depicted as precisionist shards of color in a radial that recalls the geometric abstractions of Kandinsky, while David Berube’s Muncher Cucumber’s sky-bound fantasia of grimacing, floating cukes, each clutching a bunch of balloons, pays homage to R. Crumb.

The all-over floral pattern, with a deep-blue background and accents of orange, of Christy Rupp’s Good Bug Blooms, is reminiscent of a sumptuous William Morris wallpaper, the superimposed fine, analytical drawings of flowers and insects in the style of period botanical prints. Jenny Lee Fowler’s white paper cutout depicts a cameo of a bearded gent, surrounded by four undulating leaves and silhouetted against a green background, for Ragged Jack Kale. Barbara Bash’s swirling black brushstroke and text inscriptions for Provider Green Beans is a more conceptual approach, as is the grid of small round leaves on Allyson Levy’s Tatsoi package (the artist encases organic materials such as moths and twigs in her encaustic works).

Sarah Snow’s giant collaged flowers in the State Fair Zinnia package and Giselle Potter’s pint-size, mustachioed gent, perched in a pot and plucking one of the tomatoes that arches over his head, in Tiny Tim Tomatoes are imbued with vintage, Victorian-era charm. The other artists who designed seed packets — all exquisite; space precludes describing each one — are Lynne Friedman, daupo, Ayumie Horie, Andrea Stranger, Sheryl Humphrey, Yann Mabille and Diana Adzema.

Each illustration was scanned onto a clover-shaped packet designed by Snow, a graphic designer with a specialty in green packaging; the recycled paper packet unfolds like a flower, after the seal is removed, minimizing waste and the use of adhesives.

Greene said he balances the varieties for the special artists’ packs, representing a combination of flowers and vegetables that did particularly well that year, with something old and something new thrown in. The seed packets are sold from the www.seedlibrary.org website, which also includes links to the artists’ websites and designs from past years. Costing $3.50 each, they also can be purchased as a complete set, packaged in a seed tray made of recyclable material, for $56. Each packet is also printed with information about the plant and the artist. “To me the artwork is part of the story,” said Greene.

Roots in the past

If the Seed Library’s aesthetic seems anathema to the stereotype of farmers as uncultured hayseeds, that’s not surprising, given Greene’s and Muller’s backgrounds as teachers — unusual preparation for their current life of hard labor. Greene got the idea for the seed bank when he was working at the Gardiner Library and started gardening at his home, then located in Rosendale. Having read extensively about the ills of agribusiness and the loss of genetic diversity globally and locally as a result of multi-national food corporations’ homogenization of crops, he wanted to do something about it. Seven years ago he started the seed exchange at the Gardiner Library: people checked out the seeds as if they were a book, returning the new seeds produced by the plants they grew from those seeds after the harvest. “I just added seeds to the library catalog,” he said. “There’s a lot of similarity between seeds and books. Seeds come with a genetic and cultural story. When we lose seeds, we lose those stories.”

He met Muller, an English teacher who was also interested in farming, around that time. After the two bought the property in Accord and finished building their house, they began homesteading and launched the company. Currently there are 700 members of the seed library, mostly based in the Hudson Valley. The “very mixed inventory” includes 60 varieties of seeds from their farm — a combination of vegetables, herbs and flowers — with an additional 15 varieties supplied by a growing network of area farms. The remaining hundred are sourced from quality wholesale seed houses, which Greene plans to eventually phase out. “It will probably take from four to five years to be 100 percent New York-grown,” he said.

Greene said some seeds have been donated by families who been saving them for 50 years. He also seeks out heirloom varieties he’s learned about from antique New York seed catalogs, which he collects. Seeds that he obtains from outside the area and are planted here eventually “re-regionalize,” adjusting to the local climate. “We want to provide seeds that grow well in New York,” Greene said, noting the area is distinctive for its shorter growing season, humidity, and slightly wetter climate. Plants that are well acclimatized to the area also are more disease resistant to local pests.

What was it like making the adjustment from librarian to farmer? “Initially it was a real struggle,” he said, noting that the company started right when the bottom fell out of the economy. (On the other hand, the resurgence of interest in home gardening and local sustainable agriculture has been an advantage). He said he’s never felt so fit. “I feel like a healthier person all around because of the activity, working the soil and outside. And when we sit down to eat, we’re eating well.”

The challenges mainly have been related to making a patch of marginal land suitable for cultivation, a huge task that has involved erecting deer fencing, building up the soil, erecting a greenhouse, and putting in an irrigation system. What is a minor task in a home garden becomes an enormous undertaking when bumped up to a two-acre scale, he said. Plus, the men are attempting to do most of the labor by hand, eschewing tractors and other mechanization. They’ve also wanted to keep their debt down and have only taken out one small loan.

Another challenge is that unlike most farmers, they don’t have the winter off. Right now they’re busy putting seeds into envelopes and have hired some local farmers to help with the job. In January the catalog comes out, so they’re busy taking orders. Greene also gives talks and workshops.

“It’s been more work than I ever imagined. During the winter we make our whole income for the year and farming starts in February, so we haven’t figured out how to find time for ourselves.” Greene, however, has no regrets. “There’s nothing else I want to do. I’m pursuing my dream.”

“Pack Art 2011” is on view at KMOCA through Nov. 27. Hours are Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. or by appointment; visit www.kmoca.org for more information.

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