A Seed to Share : New Worlder

“I am not a farmer,” insisted chef-entrepreneur-turned farmer Christian Puglisi during the opening of his latest project, Farm of Ideas, a 30-hectare plot of land, roughly an hour outside of from Copenhagen. He said it half-jokingly, but there’s an ever-present seriousness about it. “If I was the farmer here, all this wouldn’t exist. There are people running our farm.”

If there was a meaningful prize for Copenhagen’s top restaurateur, the 35-year old would be a top contender. The ‘product’ of perhaps the most important restaurants of our time, Noma and El Bulli, is behind four standard-setting establishments that make ten thousand meals a year. In different ways, Relæ, Manfreds, and Mirabelle have opened new horizons to professionals and amateurs alike. His restaurant Bæst is arguably the best pizzeria outside of Italy and, arguably, better than any Italian. Yes, they make their own mozzarella there – never refrigerated and always made that day. Puglisi is half Sicilian, after all. The goal, though, is much bigger than outdoing his fellow Italians.

On his Farm of Ideas, Puglisi-led teams grow lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, asparagus, and strawberries, to name a few of the 100 or so different crops. There are 20 different breeds of cows (among them the Jersey breed, praised for their high fat and protein milk, hence the fresh mozzarella) and a family of properly lazy Mangalitsa pigs. The farm provides depending on the season.

“Some years we get 100 percent of our vegetables from here, some only 30. It depends on each particular harvest,” he said.

Apart from just self-sustainability, what Puglisi is aiming for is a learning curve for the entirety of his company, as well as seed preservation.

“We’ve lost more than 75% of original crops because seeds are a resource corporations trade with today. These crops are gone.” – Matthew Goldfarb

“The farm is set up in a way that we can experiment and see what works out,” he says. “Learning is very important as it brings us forward. If you have a huge mortgage you can’t experiment and you are thinking in a classic way. We don’t have a mortgage. And we experiment with the goal of looking for higher quality.”

That goal is offset by multinationals that are looking to monopolize what and how we eat. All cows seem happy at Puglisi’s farm, so do the vegetables. Yet the global food map is very much without happiness. It’s actually very bad.

Strolling across the green Danish hills, I vividly remembered the words of Matthew Goldfarb at the Basque Culinary Center conference on biodiversity at another farm, a chinampa in Xochimilco outside of Mexico City, a month before.

“We’ve lost more than 75% of original crops because seeds are a resource corporations trade with today,” he said. “These crops are gone.”

Surrounded by the likes of chef heavyweights, such as Joan Roca, Goldfarb, the world’s leading authority on seed preservation, and himself a sustainable farmer for more than 20 years, then warned: “We’ve lost seeds very much because of an extreme investment and energy put into hybrid seeds, which then stopped allowing people to save their own seeds. So, all of the resources, development, and the energy was going into developing seeds that couldn’t be saved. There is lots of money and interest in play. And when money pours in, it is for profits, not for diversity or flavor.”

All of a sudden, Farm of Ideas seemed more like inspecting what’s left of Noah’s Ark rather than a casual press tour on a sunny day followed by craft beers or natural wine.

The farm is fully organic, of course, Relæ being one of a few true champions of organic restaurant certification in Denmark. Yet, it has sustainability at its core and seems to answer some of these crucial food issues at stake. As one would never grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Burgundy, carrots, potatoes, and cauliflower will never see the light of day here.

“We don’t have a soil for that. We will never grow these,” Puglisi says adamantly. He prefers to think small scale and focus on growing things that can provide high value such as herbs, aromatics, and varietals that adapt well to clay soil. There is an accent on preserving some old Danish varieties such as beans, for example. Some of the future cultures planted might even come from what the visitors of the farm brought themselves from across the world, part of the seed exchange organized at the opening. “We will see what people brought and try and cultivate some of them next year,” Puglisi proudly says.

The world’s seeds – hence the world’s diversity in nutrition – are an endangered species. If one took a chile and grew it on different sides of the same valley for a hundred years, one would get two genetically distinct chilies. They would taste differently, they would grow differently, and would have a different genetic makeup. This is a world – today a highly romanticized one – which the human race has mostly lost. Seeds have been tampered and played with – though not for the sake of the little man, as multinational corporations are there to limit the access to seeds.

“What we’ve lost are all those tiny little adaptations, the genes and the genetics, mutating slowly over time,” said Goldfarb. “We’ve lost these unique subtleties. Maybe now we think we can live without that pepper or that type of corn. But it’s not really about us today. It’s about the future, when all of sudden there will be a new disease, a new pest, when it is 3 degrees warmer.”

As if this wasn’t enough reality for a day, he also pointed to the fact that in his part of New York (between Ithaca and Rochester) there used to be more than 100 seed companies a century ago. When he decided to set up there was only one, which was run by a family from Indiana and investors from Chile.

Awareness and education being the key, Goldfarb is actively working with both home gardeners and professional chefs. Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns is one of his clients. He is talking seed preservation, promotion, and daily use as part of his company Fruition Seeds.

If one took a chile and grew it on different sides of the same valley for a hundred years, one would get two genetically distinct chilies.

Farms of Mexico and Denmark might be continents apart, but the ideas presented were not. The goal is for them to adapt and replicate, just like seeds.

“We have to go to farmers markets and give farmers seeds,” said Charleston chef Sean Brock at Farm of Ideas. “If you tell them that these are of cultural significance, of missing out on your culture, they will grow it.”

As for both Puglisi and Goldfarb, food and the preservation of its roots is a great source of pride for Brock, too. “Food brings the community together,” he said. “Back home we compete on who has better beans. That’s the power of food!”

And what’s his seed claim to fame? Well, the Virginia-born chef has been growing an original Appalachian corn varietal since 2007, which proved to be quite an investment. It took Brock a decade to serve it in his restaurant, Husk, for the first time.

“We’ve had no income from that project for ten years,” he said. “But those seeds represent cultures. There is a direct correlation between culture and cuisine.”

The roles of influential chefs and farmers as leaders, educators and those raising awareness get more important by the day, as more questions reach the headlines. Can chefs really be superstars, as their groupies claim in numerous Instagram selfies? The world of cultures, Brock warns, is under a direct threat from corporations. The failure of conglomerates to control authentic varietals, which will not grow in just any place, resulted in them creating cheap, genetically modified seeds which they then give away to farmers.

“When it comes down to feeding your family month and again, how much choice is there left?” asked Brock. “Can you preserve your traditional varietals despite the burden of putting bread on the table?”