Seeds Only a Plant Breeder Could Love, Until Now
When his children were small, Irwin Goldman wanted to give them a beet to snack on — a beet so pretty and swirled with colors, so juicy and delicious, that they’d crunch on it raw.
So Mr. Goldman, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, grew the beet himself. He used traditional breeding methods, cross-pollinating flowers, selecting for sweetness, mild earthiness and mellowness.
It took him almost 15 years to develop the Badger Flame, a stunning oblong beet with swirls of deep orange. That’s when he hit a wall.
“I might have a novelty I’m really excited about, but unless a seed company wants to market it, it doesn’t go anywhere,” Mr. Goldman said. “It’s a huge gap in the business.”
Row 7 Seed Company, a new business co-founded by Dan Barber, the executive chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., aims to fill that gap by developing, promoting and selling seeds for new vegetable and grain varieties that might otherwise never find an audience.
Plenty of companies, small and large, work with university plant breeders to distribute new seed varieties. But Row 7 aims to give breeders the chance to reach a big market with their most esoteric and groundbreaking work — by connecting them with chefs.
As they develop new varieties, plant breeders will kick around ideas with chefs across the country, using feedback from the kitchen to guide their research. While Row 7 will consider the needs of regional growers, its founders say that flavor will always come first.
“Part of the goal of the company is not only to increase the flavor of vegetables: It’s to look at how we, as chefs, can change the culture of eating,” said Mr. Barber, who started Row 7 with the seedsman Matthew Goldfarb and the plant breeder Michael Mazourek.
Starting Tuesday, Row 7 will sell organic seeds, developed in the United States, on its website, row7seeds.com. At first, it will sell seeds for the Badger Flame; three varieties of squash (including one that announces its ripeness on the vine by changing from dark green to a rusty orange); a small, creamy potato; a pleasingly bitter cucumber; and a floral-tasting habanero pepper without even a pinprick of heat.
Row 7’s founders are betting that as plant breeders and chefs conspire to grow what’s most delicious, they will grab the attention of home gardeners and small- to mid-scale farmers, who can order the seed in bulk. Their new varieties may then pop up at farmers’ markets and high-end grocery stores, and, if demand is high enough, in national supermarket chains and manufactured foods.
It sounds ambitious for a new company with such a small selection, not to mention one whose prices are high, from $3.50 for 100 seeds to $4.95 for just 12. But the founders have seen what happens when high-profile chefs flex their marketing muscles.
EIGHT YEARS AGO, Mr. Barber asked Mr. Mazourek, an associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, if he could develop a better butternut squash. Mr. Mazourek had been working on what he calls “squash innovation” for many years, and came back to Mr. Barber with the Honeynut.
Like all breeders, Mr. Mazourek had reached plenty of dead ends throughout his career. He didn’t see why this miniature squash should be any different, even if it was notably cute and tasty.
But Mr. Barber pitched the new variety, calling it out by name at food conferences and cooking with it at his restaurants, where the servers tell diners detailed stories about ingredients. The squash elbowed its way beyond an elite dining scene, through more and more restaurant kitchens, from social media and articles in Vogue and Cooking Light, right into the aisles of national grocery chains and onto dinner tables across the country.
In about five years, the Honeynut had risen from academic obscurity. (That’s fast for a squash.)
“The Honeynut could not have happened without chefs,” Mr. Barber said. “They Instagrammed it, they talked about it, it was on their menus, and it went from zero to 60.”
Mr. Barber, Mr. Mazourek and Mr. Goldfarb all wondered what might happen if more chefs had a say in which new seeds went to market — if they played a part in shaping their own food supply.
Was it a freakish anomaly, or could the Honeynut effect be repeated over and over again? Could chefs create a demand for new varieties that were more experimental and interesting and diverse, more nutrient-dense and more thoroughly delicious, from root to stem to leaf?
Mr. Mazourek’s colleagues — plant breeders with creative streaks, experts on the substance of cauliflower, corn and carrots — found all of these questions exciting. When Mr. Barber spoke to chefs, they were just as enthusiastic. Row 7’s partners brought in investors, including Walter Robb, a former chief executive of Whole Foods Market, and Adam Neumann, the chief executive of WeWork.
Row 7’s seeds are not patented; the company’s founders say they don’t believe in patenting life, and want researchers to have access to information. “As the climate changes and pests and disease evolve, we have to keep up,” Mr. Mazourek said.
For now, all profits from the seed sales will be used to support each plant breeder’s research. (Later, the model could look more like that of other seed companies, which pass only a portion of profits to breeders, or license out particular seeds for royalty fees.)
Michael Sligh, the director of a sustainable agriculture program at Rural Advancement Foundation International, said that as the seed market has become more consolidated in the last two decades, there has been an alarming decline in the number of public plant-breeding programs.
“So part of what we’re dealing with is, how do we reinvent this pipeline from seed development all the way into the marketplace and to the point of consumption?” he said.
He has seen a flurry of what he calls participatory plant breeding, in which plant breeders, farmers and others collaborate to build new supply chains and address their own regional needs, such as the Bread Lab at Washington State University.
Mr. Sligh said that a seed business with chefs in the picture had potential. “It’s a new and exciting linkage that would be cutting edge,” he said. “Chefs have great public access, which plant breeders and farmers don’t have so much.”
WHEN MR. MAZOUREK FIRST ASKED the Boston chef Ana Sortun to imagine editing a vegetable, any vegetable she liked, Ms. Sortun was stumped.
“Why would I want to change something in nature?” she said. “Nature is perfect.”
But tasting some of Mr. Mazourek’s squash trials gave her a sense of the possibilities. “It had just never dawned on me that I could talk to a seed breeder and have a conversation like this,” said Ms. Sortun, who has served the Honeynut at her restaurants for years.
She is one of dozens of chefs who plan to cook with Row 7’s new varieties as they’re available. They include Mashama Bailey, of the Grey in Savannah, Ga. Ms. Bailey was drawn to Mr. Mazourek’s work with another variety of squash, bred to have stems that taste too good to throw away.
“I like the focus on utilizing the entire plant,” she said, “and on reducing waste.”
Heirlooms, which are older varieties of open-pollinated plants, are prized for their origin stories and their flavors — though they can be risky for growers. The newer seeds that plant breeders produce, whether open-pollinated or hybrid, are manipulated to thrive, and aren’t idealized in the same way, except by the breeders.
In interviews, some described the work as beautiful, as both an art and a science, practiced in the lab and the field. Mr. Goldman said that like many of his peers, he considered every plant to be imperfect and unfinished — a work-in-progress on a continuum that stretched all the way back to each plant’s domestication.
Mr. Mazourek kept working on the Honeynut, even after its initial success, selecting for higher yields on the vine and longer storage. The palm-sized 898 squash is his latest version, and among Row 7’s first group of trial seeds.
Every year or so, the company plans to release more seed varieties, and newer versions of previously sold seeds. But that’s not the only reason Mr. Goldman, who worked for more than a decade on his sunset-colored beet, continues to tinker on a new generation of the Badger Flame, even as the seed goes on sale.
“It’s like a raising a kid,” he said. “You’re really never done.”