Meet The Chef Who’s Saving High-End ‘Culinary Treasures’ From Extinction
Chef Dan Barber has a question he asks when he meets a seed breeder: “What are you throwing away that keeps you up at night?”
Often, the breeder moves to open a desk drawer or cabinet, where some seeds have been collecting dust. The breeder can’t bring themselves to throw them away.
Barber’s seed brand, Row 7, relies on a network of 55 breeders who, as Barber describes, have “come out of the woodwork” to commercialize the kinds of vegetables and grains they adore but haven’t been able to grow. Barber finds that more often than not, these strains are the most flavorful and sustainable of a breeder’s collection even if they didn’t find a home before he arrived.
Barber explains this phenomenon from his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which tops many world’s best restaurant lists from its perch on an experimental farm in Tarrytown, New York. He’s clad in chef whites and deep inside the kitchen — at one point Barber stops halfway through a response to make a plea to his staff, “Can you put that crab on ice?” Then he’s back to his point: “Even in the hands of the best farmer, with the best soil, with the best rotations, if the genetics aren’t there to be expressed, then the cake has already been baked. It’s too late.”
Barber and his cofounder Michael Mazourek have been trying to reinvigorate the seed industry with a model hinged on “true seasonality,” as Barber boils it down. Now, Row 7 is expanding its markets. The Badger Flame Beets, squashes named Honeypatch and Koginut, along with a cornucopia of other varieties, are hitting more stores this fall.
The high-end produce is carving out a niche among shoppers who see the ultimate luxury as hyper-local, terroir-driven sustainability. That’s hard to come by at your typical grocery store. Barber’s seed business suggests a revolution in the way food is currently done in the U.S. As forests have been cut away into commodity cropland and the kinds of food grown has been reduced to a handful of key crops, crucial biodiversity has eroded. Row 7 offers a path to an expansion of flavors and a widening of choices on a regional level without reliance on pesticides or other chemicals — in short, stronger farms with a better chance at thriving amid climate change.
Customers are willing to pay for it. The produce will sell at prices slightly above bulk-bin organic. Barber says prices have to be high because the brand is shelling out for a lot, including some of the first home-compostable packaging in use in America. A pound-and-a-half bag of his Badger Flame Beets will cost around $4.49, while the same sized bag of Upstate Abundance Potatoes will cost $5.49. Koginut Squash will sell for $2.49 per pound. A two-pack of Honeypatch Squash will sell for $4.29.
Says Barber: “We are on the high end, but not in a gross way.”
Row 7 produce will now test its popularity across some Boston and other Northeastern locations of Whole Foods, which calls them flavor-first “culinary treasures.” That may represent a small overall footprint, but that’s because that’s how much Row 7’s farmers can handle. “The retail caught us by surprise,” Barber says, “the interest that was there.”
Row 7’s produce certainly is different. Decades of prioritizing speed and efficiency over healthy foods have stripped many breeds of their flavor and even their nutritional content.
Most of the seeds sold today require farmers to comply with certain kinds of farming, and grow breeds that could withstand traveling long distances and spending weeks if not months in warehouses. Often, it necessitates the use of non-organic fertilizer, herbicides and other chemical inputs, which contribute to the pollution of waterways and degrade soil.
“It’s closing a loop and fixing some gaping holes in our food system,” Barber says. “If we’re not thinking about seed, we’re missing a huge part of the story.”
Row 7 seeds are bred to naturally withstand harsh conditions without chemicals. Row 7 also guarantees its farmers with a contract to purchase what they can produce at above-market rates.
Says Barber: “You change seed and the whole system starts to change.”