Turtle Tree Seed is a biodynamic seed initiative offering open-pollinated flower, vegetable and herb seeds, which has been running since 1998. They are based at Camphill Village, Copake (New York), an intentional community where adults with developmental disabilities and volunteers from around the world live and work together. In 2015, the company offered about 320 varieties on their website and in their catalogue, about 60% of which were grown at their seed gardens in Copake. The rest of the seeds came from their network of seed growers, all of whom are Demeter Certified Organic. The catalogue features information about all of their growers and makes it clear where each crop has been grown, so that customers can choose seeds from preferred growers or their bioregion if they wish. The company process over 45,000 orders per year from home-growers, CSA schemes and small-scale farmers. Customers like to buy from Turtle Tree because of their Biodynamic Certification, their growing practices, and because of the specific varieties that they offer: the catalogue contains many varieties that are not widely available in the US.
Lia Babitch is the head grower at Turtle Tree Seeds. She lives at Camphill Village, and together with her husband, helps to care for an extended family of adults with special needs. She works alongside a dedicated team in the field and the seed house, including co-general manager, Ian Robb, who has been with the company since it was founded over 15 years ago, assistant garden manager, Lisa Millette, and approximately 15 part-time employees and volunteers from the Camphill community.
What’s your name and what do you do here?
My name is Lia Babitch and I’m the co-general manager and garden manager at Turtle Tree. I’m co-responsible for the business and also responsible for organising the garden work and activities.
Why do you think it’s important to save seeds?
The short answer is, if for the past 10,000+ years people hadn’t been saving seeds, we’d be in a real pickle right now. The diversity of seeds is so rapidly dwindling that we really need to be aware of both the immense responsibility to the past but also our responsibility towards the future.
Which seeds in the collection are you really excited about and proud to have as part of it?
One of my favourites is a snow pea variety called Schweiser Reisen also called Swiss Giant. It’s a really nice pea. It’s a snow pea so you can eat the whole thing including the leaves and the flowers. The flowers are really beautiful. They’re purple and pink and are decorative in their own right. It’s also quite a tall vine. It grows to be 5 or 6 feet tall, and it’s really productive. It’s a fairly unusual variety. I think there are a couple of other places now in the US that carry it but our founders brought it to the US from Switzerland where its an heirloom variety.
Another one is our butternut squash which is just a standard butternut in many ways but we’ve been breeding it for a really long time to be a long storing variety. I’ve had butternut that was stored on a sunny windowsill that I ate the following September so about 12 months after it was harvested and it was still beautiful and delicious. I thought I better eat it because the next harvest was coming in!
How do you hope the business develops in the future?
One of the things that we’d really like to do is develop more educational outreach. That could mean a lot things from having more school groups come in to doing more workshops in the future. We do a lot of informal education on a regular basis with our crew and volunteers so we’re training people all the time but it would be nice to also train a broader portion of the public. Another thing that we’d like to do is more seed breeding projects. We’re doing a few at the moment but we’d like to work on more. We also want to continue to explore more interesting varieties and re-evaluate the varieties we have and continue to develop our catalogue and what we can offer so that it continues to be interesting and really useful.
In terms of the seed sector more broadly, what do you think it needs now to develop?
In the US in the last 2 or 3 years a lot of people (and a small portion of people who work in agriculture) have begun to do seed saving and lots of people have opened small seed companies, which is wonderful. Some of them are really knowledgeable and are really dedicated to doing good selection and good quality seed production, and others are really enthusiast but don’t have a lot of knowledge. I think if we can get the really enthusiast people well-educated so that they’re producing good quality seeds and maybe doing some breeding as well then that’s the next step that we need.
What’s your main advice to anyone starting a community seed project?
Education, education, education! Practise at home at first. If you do get crosses in your own home garden, you could come up with something really interesting, so a mistake can end up to be a really great thing – as long as then you know how to keep what you’ve got that’s really interesting so you don’t just loose it in the next generation because it crosses again!
www.turtletreeseed.org – including the full seed catalogue
www.camphillvillage.org – info about Volunteering, Admissions and Village life