Hartland-Based Seed-Saving Catalog to Change Hands

  • With his daughter Athena in tow Brian Stroffolino plants arugula seeds at his farm in Hartland, Vt., on May 12, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sylvia Davatz of Solstice Seeds says hello to Athena while being carried by her father Brian Stroffolino while working at his farm in Hartland, Vt., on May 12, 2017. Stroffolino and his wife are taking over the Solstice Seeds business from Davatz.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With his daughter Athena in tow Brian Stroffolino hoes a row at his farm in Hartland, Vt., on May 12, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hartland —The ancient art and science of seed saving relies on knowledgeable people passing on the basic elements of plant life, often from one generation to the next.

Similarly, the Hartland-based Solstice Seed Catalogue will pass on to the next generation when Brian Stroffolino, 30, takes over the business, which has been run by his neighbor Sylvia Davatz, 71.

Stroffolino decided he wanted to take the reins after Davatz announced in January that she planned to retire the catalog, which she started in 2009 as a way to spread rare, diverse seed varieties around the world.

“We’d brought it up a few times over the years in our conversations, but just as a funny thing, like, ‘Hey, I’ll do the catalog.’ It was never really serious,” said Stroffolino, who owns HeartLand Farms on the property adjacent to Davatz’s and co-runs the Hartland Farmers’ Market with his wife, Melissa. “Until now.”

The timing to bring this hypothetical idea to fruition “couldn’t be any better,” he said. He and Melissa had decided not to offer Community Supported Agriculture shares this year due to the birth of their first child, Athena, now 5½ months. Since Stroffolino is Athena’s primary caregiver while Melissa teaches at Hartford High School, he said working on the catalog is a better, more flexible fit for their family than the CSA would have been. Davatz is finishing out the 2017 season at the helm of the catalog, but Stroffolino is in the throes of preparing for 2018, when he will officially take over.

And for Davatz, it was time to shift gears.

“What can I say? I’m getting older,” she said in a phone interview last week. Now in her 70s, she wants to focus more time and attention on passing along her knowledge of seed saving, which is the 12,000-year-old practice of preserving reproductive materials of plants from year to year, rather than purchasing new seed annually. “At this point, I want to make sure I place as many varieties as possible in the hands of people who can continue to maintain them,” a goal that will entail more teaching, writing and outreach on her part, she said.

Stroffolino’s desire to take on the catalog is a heartening sign for the future of seed saving, Davatz said. She believes that the knowledge will be passed down only if the younger generation is interested in learning it.

Preserving a diversity of seed varieties is fundamental to life on Earth, which Davatz and Stroffolino said is what motivates their work.

“In the simplest sense, biodiversity is one of the major underpinnings of life,” Davatz said. “Loss of biodiversity narrows down our ability to respond to diseases that might emerge, or changes in climate if we suddenly experience more drought or rainfall. Are we going to have varieties that will adapt, or have already adapted to these conditions?” Major seed companies, like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, tend not to offer enough varieties to support a biodiverse ecosystem, since they aim for quantity of seed over quality, she added.

She pointed to the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century as an example of what is at stake in sacrificing biodiversity for short-term convenience.

“Most farmers were only growing one variety of potato, the Lumper, and it was very susceptible to blight,” she said. When farmers began looking to older, heritage potato varieties for blight resistance, they were able to selectively breed that characteristic to help avoid mass blight in future harvests.

The hard takeaways of the Irish potato famine reinforce the importance of seed saving, Davatz said. But she emphasized that it’s not just about risk avoidance. It’s also about upholding a long and meaningful tradition.

“When I take part in preserving these varieties, many of which are truly ancient, I feel connected to an unbroken chain of farmers and growers, stretching back to the beginning of domestic agriculture,” she said.

And so Stroffolino, by assuming leadership of the Solstice Seed Catalogue, takes his place as the next link in that chain.

The transition of the catalog is also deeply rooted in their bond; he has been avidly studying the art and science of seed saving, both under Davatz’s tutelage and on his own, since they first met when the Stroffolinos moved to the Upper Valley in 2011.

“Most people will tell you that lettuce seeds, for instance, can be saved for three to five years before they’re no longer viable,” Stroffolino said. “I’ve had seed from Sylvia that was eight, nine, 10 years old and still produced 100 percent germination. So it just depends on the quality of the seed and how it’s stored.

“It’s incredible to be a part of keeping something alive,” he added.

Davatz said it’s clear Stroffolino shares her passion. He calls her his mentor.

They share an easy, bantering relationship based on common values; on a recent sunny Friday at HeartLand Farms, Davatz carefully avoided stepping on a trayful of Stroffolino’s tiny green sprouts.

“Oops, probably shouldn’t trample on the lettuce — I mean, the spinach,” she quickly corrected herself. “I knew that, for the record. That was a test.”

“Yeah, sure, Syl,” Stroffolino teased. “Who’s teaching who again?”

And on a walk-through of the farm, Davatz pointed out potentially teachable moments where she saw them.

“You know that needs to be kept very moist, right?” she said, gesturing toward one tray in Stroffolino’s greenhouse.

“I have been,” Stroffolino replied. “Believe me, they can’t get much moister.”

Though Davatz, who has 20 years of seed saving experience under her belt, will serve as a resource to Stroffolino while the catalog changes hands, Stroffolino also brings his own set of strengths to the table, she said. This includes permaculture techniques that he has been imparting to Davatz, and plans to incorporate into his seed saving.

“I have age on my side, and strength and energy and time, and we have more land to work with,” said Stroffolino. He added that this creates a “huge potential for growth,” both in terms of the size of the Solstice Seed Catalogue’s collection and in the way the catalog markets itself.

While many of Davatz’s seed sales have arisen from her involvement in seed saving communities, and while the catalog’s online presence essentially consists of a PDF file that makes the yearly rounds on food and gardening websites, Stroffolino’s vision for the catalog includes gaining traction on social media and creating a website where people can order seeds online.

Because of Davatz’s space limitations — she still grows all of her plants from her home garden plots and greenhouse — she has never aspired to grow her customer base far beyond the approximately 450 people she currently serves, or her selection beyond the roughly 170 varieties she currently offers.

But Stroffolino owns 30 acres, which opens up more possibilities for seed saving, and he said he plans on adding a handful of rare varieties to next year’s collection that are unique to his own seed-swapping network and travels.

For example, two years ago, en route to Albuquerque, he met an indigenous man from the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. After striking up a conversation, Stroffolino left with seeds for a rare type of chili pepper that the man’s family had been growing on their land for centuries. Stroffolino has also acquired seeds for Chinese five-color peppers, which he described as “real cute little things” that are bright in both flavor and hue; Okinawa spinach, a medicinal vegetable; and Osaka Purple mustard greens, which produce broad leaves that are tolerant of the cold.

For Stroffolino, the process of collecting these rare and diverse seeds, and sharing them with others who are passionate about the past and future these seeds hold, is what it’s all about.

“Just to be preserving that life, and those genetics that have been around for thousands of years, is so empowering,” he said. “It’s such an honor to be able to do that, and now to be in the position to offer that life forward.”

To view the 2017 Solstice Seed Catalogue, contact Sylvia Davatz at sdav@valley.net or 802-436-3262. The deadline for placing orders is June 1.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.