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Dan Barber Wants to Revolutionize the Way the World Grows Vegetables

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A transcript of his appearance on the Eater Upsell

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Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns Daniel Krieger

On this week’s episode of the Eater Upsell podcast, chef and restaurateur Dan Barber laid out his plans to launch what could be a revolutionary seed company, Row 7 Seeds.

You can read about his plans here, or listen to the interview in full in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversations.

Amanda Kludt: Tell us about your new company.

Dan Barber: I’m starting a seed company that is based on developing new varieties of vegetables, eventually grains, that are focused on flavor. That’s the short of it. It’s vegetables that just have jaw-dropping, delicious flavor. That’s about a chef talking to a breeder who is writing the original recipe for this stuff. It’s something that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in for the last ten years, just really off the cuff, and by chance, and been meeting breeders along the way that are really fascinating, and developing these conversations, and then eventually trialling for ideas that they’re interested in it, and focusing on the flavor potentially of them. Which is something that they don’t often get asked to do.

Daniel Geneen: But I was gonna say, because people who have been to your restaurants, either in Manhattan or a little farther north, they’ve had your varieties of seeds, your varieties of vegetables, for some time. They’re presented with them at the table and explain, how is this different now?

DB: Well, we’re formalizing it. That just means money, money, money.

AK: Before we talk about that, can you tell us about some of the seeds or grains or whatever that you’ve done in the restaurant? You have the honeynut...

DB: Yeah. Well, this all started the conversation like ten years ago with a squash breeder named Michael Mazourek, who’s launching the company with me. He came for dinner, and just at the end of dinner I found him really interesting. During the dinner, he was asking all sorts of questions. He reminded me of a chef. At that point, what did I know from breeding? Actually, here’s what I knew of breeding. I brought him in the kitchen. We’re looking at a cook who was preparing a butternut squash. I was like, “If you’re such a great breeder, why don’t you make a butternut squash taste good?” Because butternut squash is just filled with water. Chefs heroically roast it and they add maple syrup and do everything to make the thing taste good. What he said to me, I’ll never forget. He turned to me. He was super serious. He was just like, “In all my years of breeding, no one has ever asked me to select for flavor.”

First, I was like, “Who the hell are you talking to?” But that was sort of lights out. It was a before and after moment, because I was just like, “That’s not only tragic, it’s also such an opportunity,” because here was a guy who was totally a foodie. But who was he talking to? He’s talking to the Walmarts of the world. And what do they want? They want uniformity, and they want shelf life, and they want yield; yield, yield, yield. Those are the determining factors.

The problem with those being the determining factors is that, by definition, you’re selecting against flavor. That’s the way it works. To make flavor a priority, you need a chef at the table. The company is being started by me because we’re formalizing what we’ve done. Yes, I’ve said that, but the future is actually to activate all these chefs, to have conversations around the country.

You know, one of the great things about this country is this land-grant university system, which is a system of colleges that’s in every state. Some states have two. This is a modern interpretation of what it was built for: It’s to adapt to local cultures and local needs and local ecologies, and to have breeders on hand who were adapting seeds to meet those needs. But this whole system’s fallen apart ... like everything else in the food system. Just totally operating in the breach. Our tax dollars are paying for it. That’s why I said it’s so fascinating, is these are public plant breeds really in the public trust. What we hope to do is activate chefs and their particular interests with local breeders, who also have particular interests all around the rubric of flavor.

AK: So you talked to Michael and inspired him to breed you basically a more delicious squash. Then did it cascade from there?

DB: Yeah, I challenged him jokingly. Yeah.

AK: You have a number now that you’ve made?

DB: Then fast forward ten years and there’s a thing called the honeynut, which is coast to coast. And from what I just heard, Blue Apron is planning for two million pounds to be harvested next year. It’s in Trader Joe’s. It’s going to Whole Foods. It’s crazy, this thing that took off. It took off in part because I was talking about it, so chefs started talking about it

You add a little salt and that’s it. Really, it’s one of those things chefs love ‘cause it makes chefs look like better chefs. They’re totally invested in that, and then it just took off. In a matter of just a few years, it went from zero to a couple farmers at the farmers’ market growing it at Union Square to tons of chefs asking for it, and then big C companies, distributorship, and all of a sudden, it’s ... I got an email from someone in North Dakota. It’s at a supermarket in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s crazy the way that works.

That all lifted off because chefs got excited about it and people tasted it. The most interesting part of that is that right when he got going, Michael, with this squash, this shrunken butternut squash, later called a honeynut, he took it to the big agribusiness people. He said, “This flavor, chefs are going crazy over it.” And the dude said something that I’ll also never forget. He’s immediately looked and he’s like, “Oh, no. We don’t have a SKU to fit that. We don’t have the box configuration that fits that definition of a squash, and therefore, it won’t compute. The logarithm won’t work. It won’t distribute, it won’t store. We can’t put it into our system.” The next guy said, “Well, that’s impossible. A shrunken butternut squash that’s 60% smaller and ten or 20% more in price, no one would ever buy that, comparing apples to apples.” Both were exactly wrong.

AK: Breeders like Michael, who’s usually funding their research? ‘Cause you said they’re not breeding for flavor. Who are they talking to?

DB: Yeah. They’re talking to the big agribusiness people of the world, who want the kinds of things that, supposedly, everyone in America wants, which is low, low prices, and stuff that’s uniform, exactly the same size. When you breed for that, you really are, by definition, breeding against the kinds of things that we advocate for.

The other part of this is I’ve been talking to chefs like crazy across the country. The conversation is just crazy interesting. I was just talking to Mashama down in Georgia. I was talking to a guy from Arkansas today. I was also talking to Thomas Keller. I met with Jean-Georges the other day. I’m thinking in all these conversations we’re gonna be talking about specific flavors. Like what can you get out of a beet? ‘Cause that’s what got me into this. But actually, all the conversations have been outward-facing.

They’ve been about, “Well, there’s some real climate changes going on down south. We’ve got some diseases that we can’t grow some of our favorite stuff.” Mashama’s talking about trying to repatriate the Edna Lewis larder. The seeds aren’t productive enough for farmers to be incentivized to it. Can we update the seeds? Spike in Baltimore is talking about a potato. He wants a great-tasting potato but he really wants a potato that’ll last until this time of year in storage, ‘cause he’s got great farmers locally and he wants the storage to last. I’m talking to potato breeders. Like, “Of course we can breed for that, storage, but nobody asked to breed for a storage potato, because that’s not in the vernacular.” No one’s asking for that in the food system. That’s where it seems like chefs have a real opportunity with their agency to promote change through flavor.

DG: About the honeynut, was that the first great hit? Do you get Spotify streaming off of these streaming rights?

DB: Yeah. I’ve become very famous off of honeynut, and I did absolutely nothing.

DG: But does-

DB: I mean nothing. I literally-

AK: But you’re asking if he gets a cut of it?

DB: Do I get a-

DG: Does someone get a piece of that one?

DB: Oh, you’re talking about economically.

DG: Yeah, yeah, the money.

DB: No, no. Yeah, the money, money, money.

DG: Money, money, money, money.

DB: No. I get nothing, no. The university gets 10% of it.

DG: Okay, but someone gets something.

DB: Yeah. Yeah, the university.

DG: Okay.

AK: Oh, that’s good.

DB: Which is the way it should be. That’s how the land-grant university system works. It’s 10% of the sales. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and it goes to breeding programs. It’s important; it’s definitely important. The point is, are we breeding the next generation of vegetables and grains that are meeting the demands of this emerging foodie population, which is taking over and very exciting? We’ve been talking about this for 20 years, about chefs and farmers and the farm-to-table movement and activating that. Of course, I’ve been talking about that too. I’m a chef with a table in the middle of a farm, so I’ve got skin in the game. But in many ways, what I’ve learned is that the cake’s pretty much baked when the farmer has the seed. The seed’s the blueprint. There’s only so much you can do if the genetics aren’t there. What’s happened is, you can have the best soil, the best rotations, the best climate in the world, and the most brilliant farmer. If you don’t have the genetics in the seed, forget it. You’re not expressing it. That’s the problem with the whole system now, is that over here, you have the Dan Barbers of the world and the high end chefs talking about old seeds, because that’s where the flavor is. The yield’s ridiculous. If it rains too hard, your crop’s lost. And you become, by virtue of that, just the most ... You’re the 1%. Then over here, on the other end, you’ve got the Monsanto maniacs, who are advocating for whatever. You know, feeding the world or whatever. But there’s an in between, which is, I think, recognizing what’s emerging, which is this food culture. Recognizing the regionality of the food culture, which is huge. Seed companies, we’re not thinking about them. We’re thinking about the American food system. Actually, it’s a very, as you guys know, regional distinct ... That’s what eaters are so great at exploring and advocating for: All these different tastes. Can we have a seed breeding program that’s recognizing that and advancing it? That’s a very exciting food future.

AK: And that can scale these seeds.

DB: And they can scale it. That goes back to that honeynut squash example. The reason it took off wasn’t because I was advocating it or the other chefs. At the end of the day, it was that farmers saw that this was scalable. You can grow this and make money. It’s a huge thing. It had great disease resistance, it has good yield, and the thing does well for a farmer. That’s not true of most of the stuff that chefs talk about, which is old seeds. So-

AK: Right.

DB: Yeah.

AK: You need something that’s delicious that you can also grow all over and that you can ship all over and-

DB: Exactly. And that’s a conversation starting with the chefs. I still believe it ‘cause we curate this stuff every night, and we should be at the table. But ultimately the hands of the breeder to say, “What can we select here that allows this to really sing for a farmer?” ‘Cause otherwise, it isn’t gonna go anywhere.

DG: How does the actual breeding of the seed work?

DB: There’s different ways to create seeds. A very popular one is to take two exceptional parents, put them together to create a baby. That’s called a hybrid seed. Our great, great grandparents were doing that. Everyone’s been doing that since forever. But the point now is that in the last ten or 15 years, there has been appropriate technology. When I say “appropriate technology,” I’m not talking about genetic modifications. I’m talking about computer programs that, for example, the genome of the squash has been mapped. That allows the breeders to look at how things are gonna play out several generations down the line. So what would have taken your grandparents a lifetime to create, no offense to your grandparents, we can do in a couple years, our breeders can do in a couple years based on that technology. That’s all in service of a very holistic and old world system. It’s just modernizing it in a way that’s appropriate.

AK: So you’re using advanced technology to pick out the right squashes to put together.

DB: Yes, yes. But you have to be directed. What’s the right squash? What is the right squash? That’s the question: What is the right squash? Well, to the food conglomerates, it’s breeding for water weight, because that’s where you make the money, shelf life, and stability, and a lot of yield for the farmer. For chefs, there’s other interests. We need a chef at the table. That’s the company saying. So I hope we can advocate for this in, I think, a very exciting way. Again, I think it’s this regional idea. As I talk to these chefs, you fly between New York and San Francisco. Well, you guys don’t, but so much of the media flies between New York, San Francisco, LA, or whatever, and these food cultures in the Midwest — the energy and passion for good food, it’s nuts. You just forget about it. Well, but who’s breeding? Who is selecting for that ecology? Literally, what breeder’s sitting down saying, “I’m gonna target Fargo?” I think, no. But-

AK: To get back to the breeding point, just so our listeners can understand, you mentioned this to me as a look, don’t touch approach. That’s the different than-

DB: I said that?

AK: Yeah. You were-

DB: That’s a great line. What was I talking about?

AK: When you were trying to explain how it wasn’t GMO. You are watching for certain ... You’re using the technology to see which ones to select and what features to select for, but you’re not going into a lab and injecting. So can you explain why you wouldn’t do that?

DB: Well, just to say it as simply as I understand it, because I’m not a breeder. I’m not a scientist. This is my ridiculously ... I also failed seventh grade biology. Here’s my absolute straightforward: The difference between what good, clean breeding work is and what genetic modification is, is that in genetic modification, you are taking a foreign gene, foreign material, from somewhere else, and injecting it into a plant. Which is to say that in nature, that would never happen, could not happen. Could our squash, our honeynut squash, have developed in nature? Yeah. It could have. A bird or a bee could have taken the pollen ... and then, oh, eventually it could have been there.

AK: That’s the line for you and your team?

DB: It may have 1,000 years. Right.

AK: If it could happen in nature, then we’ll-

DB: Yeah, yeah. Then it feels right. Then we’re doing what everyone’s been doing since domestication of plants, which is, you see something, you taste it, and you keep selecting for that trait. We’re doing it now in speeded up time, which I think is appropriate and makes sense, and actually is very exciting. But the genetic modification is to say, “I like a gene from a pig’s heart because it has a certain health benefit for us. Let’s implant that and we can get a boost of omega threes,” or whatever the hell they say. That’s weird stuff. Anyway, I actually shouldn’t be saying it’s weird. It’s not producing anything delicious to eat. If that’s the case then I’m not interested. There hasn’t been one GMO crop that’s been jaw-droppingly delicious. If that’s the case, then what is this for?

DG: Is that ‘cause there’s no chefs involved, though?

DB: Well, maybe. If there’s a company you know of starting with genetically modifying food and chefs, we might be trouble.

AK: Yeah, a rival seed.

DB: But I don’t think chefs are drawn to that, because ultimately it’s about dumbing food down, because you are looking for that scale and that yield and that one size fits all. You wanna seed that works well here in the Hudson Valley. You also want that same seed to work well in North Dakota and in Pacific Northwest and in Southern California and in Texas and in Mexico and, increasingly, in China and Southeast Asia. That’s not a way to breed a seed. Actually, that is the way seeds are being bred, and that’s why they’re dumbed down.

This approach turns it all on its head. It’s to say, “Actually, there’s this emerging regional context for flavor and we should explore that and celebrate it.” I don’t know what the business model for that is. I’m not going in here to make a gazillion dollars. I understand why, with all the investment that goes into seed work, why seed breeders are not looking to Fargo, North Dakota to launch. But there’s exciting chefs everywhere there and pockets of regional expression that aren’t being expressed in the seed. So that’s where we’re heading with this. But it’s a union of chefs for flavor. It’s not-

AK: How are the chefs going to work with you?

DB: Well, we’re figuring that out as we go along, because I think it just depends on where the chef is. What’s the ecological expression that is so interesting to a chef? Is it really hot, dry weather? I was talking to a chef in Australia, Dan Hunter, who was talking to me about some varieties that he’s excited about. But this lack of rainfall is really affecting his ability to plant things that he is used to growing. So, “Well, okay. Can you breed stuff for low water needs?” Yes, you can. You can, you just need to be asking. How we work with these chefs depends on the condition and the interest of the chef. We’ve just seen all what I’m struck by is how outward facing it is. While I’m saying this, the whole company’s about flavor, and it is. It’s also about-

AK: Climate.

DB: Yeah. It’s about everything that is attached to creating this great flavor. That’s a good way to go.

DG: The company, I assume, is going to make money off the chef in Fargo, though, right?

DB: Well, it’s a good question. I haven’t gotten that far with it. I think if the chef is gonna promote a seed that ends up working ... We’re gonna sponsor the relationship with the breeder and conversations and the work. We gotta do that. This is quite a bit of money. And then what happens? We get that conversation going and we get a seed, right? This is long term. Let’s just say that were to happen. Then what happens? Well, a lot of it’s gonna go back to the plant breeder ‘cause that’s where it belongs.

Remember, the spirit of this company is to shine a light on the plant breeder. But does the chef get involved financially? Yeah. We have to figure out a way to do that. It’s down the road, but yeah, for sure. I want to incentivize the chef to be ... Because those are the chefs that’re gonna be most interested and work on it in an extraordinarily passionate way. I can already see that developing. So we gotta create a mechanism to do that, and then we will.

DG: So you let them assist in the development of the seed.

DB: Yes.

DG: If it works in the area and it takes off, then maybe, eventually-

DB: We’ll see. Yeah, definitely. But for the initial, all the revenue-

DG: You’ll be selling to Walmarts all over Fargo.

DB: Well, that’s the north star, is to get it into Walmart. I might be down on Walmart for now, but the north star is to get it in there. I don’t want this to be in the cathedral of Blue Hill. It’s crazy.

AK: Yeah. Wherever people are shopping, you want these vegetables.

DB: Yeah. At everyone’s dinner table. That’s the point. The idea is that you don’t need the restaurant to be the place, the sanctuary for flavor. Democratize flavor. Democratize the seed. It’s very possible. It’s just a question of having the right people at the table who are thinking along these lines. That’s the spirit of the company. But in answer to your question, all the proceeds from the company right now are going to breeders, ‘cause that’s where it belongs. They have to be incentivized to do the work. After that, we need to figure out a model that lives as thing lives and breathes and changes.

AK: If I’m a farmer or an at-home gardener, how do your prices compare to other seeds that I’m buying?

DB: We’re more expensive.

AK: Okay.

DB: Yeah, we’re more expensive, but you get a lot of squash out of that squash.

AK: And potentially you could charge more for our squash, like the honeynut versus the butternut.

DB: But they are because the yield’s a little bit lower. You are making ... Again, it’s selected for flavor, so there’s some things there that are ... It’s picked ripe, which is another thing. It has a ripe called a ripe indicator on the squash. This is a crazy fact.

DG: Wait, what? Like Coors Light? When the mountains are blue or whatever?

DB: Well, okay, kind of. In other words, Michael Mazourek the breeder bred it so that, selected it so that when it is ripe, it turns color to a squash color. What happens when butternut squash-

DG: Waits until that moment-

DB: Yeah. What happens with butternut squash? It turns that color right away when it’s green inside.

AK: So you never know.

DB: So you never know. In fact, 100% of it is picked green. Not ripe. 100%. In the big food chain, 100%. No one’s gonna wait until it’s totally ripened on the vine and take the risk of keeping it in the field. Although, why would you? No one’s paying you to, actually, in the same way that no one paid you to wait until tomatoes were red on the vine until there was a vine-ripened tomato movement. That changed the game. But in the squash world, that didn’t happen.

Again, this is not technology that’s way out, it’s just selection for a ripeness indicator, which says to the farmer, “This is not ripe yet. You can’t pick it because you can’t sell it green.” It’s a prevention against selling bad-tasting squash. So 90% of the brilliance of this squash is that it’s freaking ripe. We don’t eat ripe squash. That’s crazy. And squash is considered a superfood. You’re not gonna go back to unripened squash once you’ve had this.

AK: Right, once you’ve had it.

DB: Yeah. And give us some money to invest. I was sitting on a panel not long ago with a Monsanto guy. God, he was arrogant. He was boasting about spending a million dollars a day on corn research. A million dollars a day on corn. I was just like, “Give me like 100 bucks, man, and let’s give these plant breeders money to work on this stuff.” That’s what it is. Really, that’s all it is. It’s money, and then direction. Who are you talking to? That’s what we’re putting together. We’ve got some investors that are totally angelic. So far, anyway. We have that guy who’s the former chairman of Whole Foods, Walter Robb, and the former chairman of Sysco Foods, the largest distributor of food in North America.

AK: Because they see this demand coming.

DB: Exactly. Exactly. That’s exactly right. That blew me away. They’re like, “Yeah. This is the problem.”

DG: Do they see it through squash or through everything?

DB: Everything. No, everything. No, no. They’re seeing this emerging; millennials. Just, we are not set up as a food system to service these people.

DG: Do you ever get these big Monsanto or Sysco players, and they come into the restaurant, and they just have these epiphanies? Has that ever happened?

DB: Haven’t had many.

DG: No?

DB: No. I paint ‘em in black and white. It’s more complicated than that. But a lot of it is us, man. It’s like-

DG: Well, it’s not much different than the bankers.

DB: Well, yeah, that’s right. But you can say, “Okay, they’re just after money.” I do think that the people I’ve met on the big food chain, they’re not just evil, like, “I wanna serve you squash that’s unripe and you’re unhealthy rats.” It’s us. The problem is us.

AK: Yeah, we’re buying it.

DB: Yeah. We’re feeding into it and we’re saying what we want and we’re voting with our dollars every day at the supermarkets and wherever else we shop. It seems to be like one way to change it is to get the chef’s voice advocating for this, ‘cause it’s quite powerful. Again, it’s this selfish drive for flavor that makes us look like better chefs. I think that’s a key, key component of this.

AK: Yeah, it makes your job easier if you’re a chef.

DB: Yeah. Oh my God, yeah. What am I doing? When I serve that honeynut squash, it’s, literally, I take it out the dining room in the pot. We roast it, we take a fork, we scrape it out like this, and we’re done. And then we take the pot out to the dining room and we just show them that we are not adding anything, and they stick their spoon, and that’s a course.

AK: That’s always the joke about San Francisco chefs, is they have such good produce that they just-

DB: Yeah, shopping. Yeah, shopping.

AK: Yeah, it’s shopping.

DB: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s a little bit like that. But it’s a deeper shopping experience ‘cause it goes to the seed.

AK: It’s deeper. It’s as deep as it can go.

DB: Yeah.

AK: Can you tell me about some of the seeds that you’re launching with?

DB: Yeah. We’re launching with the updated version of the squash that we’ve been talking about the last 15 minutes. This is the next generation. A lot of them are trials. This one is the trial for the next advanced on the honeynut. It has better yield, it can store longer. I think it’s better, but that’s ... I’m supposed to undersell and over-deliver, so I’m overselling. But not really. It’s really fantastic and I’m totally excited to release it. So that’s one. We have a beet ...

AK: Yeah, the beet one is interesting.

DB: From a brilliant breeder in Wisconsin. He’s a genius. I was just on the phone with him like eight years ago and I was complaining about people saying they don’t like beets. We have no menus at Stone Barn. So the captain is always talking the table before their order goes in. There’s an empty ticket and we create the menu for the table. It’s a different menu for each table. But at this time of year, we have 3,000 pounds of storage beets, so we need to put beets on your menu.

But it’s always like table prefers not to have beets in theirs. It just drives me nuts. I was on the phone with him eight years ago and I was like, “This is crazy.” He’s like, “You know, I’ve identified this cluster of compounds that actually makes you not like beets. It’s called geosmin.” In some varieties of beets, quite high. Some people are more sensitive to it. Children are especially sensitive to it. I don’t know. When I was a child, I used to choke down beets ‘cause I was forced to eat beets.

AK: Same.

DB: Yeah? Right. A lot of people had that experience. So he’s like, “I could select against geosmin.” It was so simple. It was like, “Select against geosmin.” Yeah, okay. So he did. Now we went through all these trials. It’s now called the Badger Flame beet. We serve it at the restaurant completely raw; naked. We-

AK: It’s sweeter?

DB: It’s so sweet. It is so sweet. It’s definitely got a taste of beet. Actually, a version that he had a couple years ago dialed the geosmin so low it stopped tasting like a beet. That’s interesting.

But it’s awesome, awesome. We slice it raw, we put a little salt on it, and yeah, it’s another one of those unplugged and just here it is. But it’s crazy what’s possible. Now, you could say, “That’s just a chef fooling around, having fun. What the hell is the point of doing all this work on a ...” But is it when you start to think about children who reject beets? Now, my kids, I give them a carrot, I give them a beet, and they eat it like a carrot. It’s sort of a gateway drug into beets. We should be eating more beets in this country. Not just for us, ‘cause they’re super healthy and tasty and chefs love them, in cold climates, they’re the best storage crop ever. And they’re a great crop for farmers.

If you start with the flavor, I think it leads to all these other possibilities. Maybe there’s a beet in every kid’s lunchbox, replacing the carrot. It’s a heck of a lot more nutritious, actually. I don’t know. Anyway, that’s exciting to me. We have a potato. The potato breeder’s obsessed with removing the russet, Idaho russet, from the dinner table. He’s a man on a mission. Actually, he’s the guy who breeds Lay’s potato chips, so he’s quite famous as a chipper.

AK: But he doesn’t like the russet.

DB: He doesn’t like the russet. So he’s come up with a potato that was a trial number 150 for many years. Now it is called Upstate Abundance. We’re releasing that of ... I love it. It’s an incredible potato that you just boil it with salt. You don’t add butter or anything; bacon bits and cheddar. It’s on its own. It’s really extraordinary. It’s a great storage potato. It’s called Upstate Abundance, interestingly, because he wanted to shine a light on upstate eaters. He thinks they get passed over in the same way I was talking about.

AK: Upstate New York eaters?

DB: Upstate New York, yeah. He called it Abundance because it’s so abundant. So a farmer actually makes great return growing it.

AK: So it’s more disease resistant than other potatoes?

DB: Yeah, and it’s more productive. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DG: A lot of these guys that are working for the company are also working for Lay’s, and then they are-

DB: They’re not working for the company. They’re working for the university. They’re public plant breeders. They work for you and me.

AK: He pays for their research but they’re not employees.

DB: Yeah. We sponsor research. We get our voices heard. It’s sort of like you give money to a politician to get five minutes with him or her kind of thing. It’s sort of like that. But it’s not in a nefarious way. Nor is it in a nefarious way in Lay’s potato chips line, either. It all works. They’re there for everyone. If you believe in potato chips, he’s there for you. But we believe in potatoes that have such stunning flavor you don’t need to add butter or cream.

That’s to shine a light on that part of the work, which doesn’t happen, and should happen more. Because, again, that’s why this whole system was built. Again, there’s a land-grant university in every state, and some two. That’s extraordinary. No country in the world has what we have. It built the breadbasket to the world. We’re the envy of the world. So why aren’t we taking advantage of these conversations? That’s what the company has started for us: Shine a light on that.

AK: Are you gonna need to lobby farmers to get them to start growing these seeds?

DB: Well, the lobbying of farmers is the advocacy from the chef. That’s the lobby. I don’t wanna lobby farmers to grow. Christ, they’re already annoyed as hell at me.

AK: So you have enough chefs on board and requesting

DB: You get enough chefs onboard, that turn this into something that becomes popularized through their menus, through their social media, through the advocacy, farmers’ll grow it. But again, they’re only gonna grow it if they know that it was bred for a modern context of growing. That’s key. We will not release anything that has low yield, even if flavor’s off the charts, because otherwise-

AK: Right. Kinda get-

DB: Otherwise, we start an heirloom company. That’s what heirlooms are. It doesn’t go anywhere.

AK: All these old seeds, like the Edna Lewis larder question, where you try to grow these seeds and they’re not really gonna work.

DB: Right. So what are you repatriating? You’re trying to get back an old system of agriculture, but that is totally unrealistic for anyone to make any money. That’s just a really elitist idea, and one that no chef wants to be a part of. That’s what Thomas Keller said to me. It’s so simple. He was like, “People come to the restaurant, they have carrot dish, they go home, they follow my recipe. Sentence by sentence, they’re perfectly in line with the recipe. Then they come to me the next day and they’re just like, ‘I did everything and I couldn’t get the flavor that you had.’” And he says, “Of course you couldn’t. You’re not starting with my carrot.” Well this fills that void.

Why does Thomas Keller or Dan Barber or anybody else in between, why do they get to have flavors that other people don’t have? If you’re talking about the heirloom, there’s some kind of justification for perpetuating old genetics and keeping those things alive, and that’s the role of high end restaurant. I buy into that. I’ve said it, so I buy into it. But the idea that modern breeders can’t take those flavors and update them is ridiculous.

DG: If someone out in San Francisco tries to buy a variety of seed from you and you don’t think it’ll work, are you gonna tell them it’s not gonna work.

DB: Yeah. We just had that conversation. That’s interesting. Yeah. What is the definition of not working? It’s just a question. We don’t know. We don’t know. So everything that we are introducing was bred either in upstate New York or in Wisconsin to start. How does that translate to southern Texas? I don’t know. We’re gonna give seeds to chefs. We were just on the phone with someone in Austin. We’re gonna give the seeds to them and get some feedback. It’s a participatory community. We want the feedback. That’s why we’re releasing trials. We’re releasing this new squash as a trial because it’s not finished. What’s finished? We don’t know yet.

AK: If I’m a chef in south Texas, how do I get this, and how do I give you my feedback? Like, listening to this right now.

DB: How do you get your feedback? Yeah, just call me. That’s how we’re starting this, is if you have a farmer that you trust and you’d like to use some of these seeds, then give us feedback. Hell, we’d love it. We’d love the culinary feedback but we’d also love the agronomic feedback. But what were you just saying before? That was a key point that you ... I missed something. What did you say right before that?

DG: My question?

DB: Yeah, what was it?

DG: About is it ready? Is it gonna work?

DB: Yeah, is it gonna work.

DG: If they call you and ask for it and you know it’s not gonna work so well out there, is it your responsibility to tell them?

DB: Right. My answer was fine, but I think what I ... Yeah.

DG: No, forget it.

DB: Yeah. No, no, no. No, no, no. What I just left out was just the thing of just saying is that’s, what you’ve just described, is what heirlooms are. It’s not the chef in San Francisco calling me for an heirloom. They’re just ordering an heirloom and they’re growing it in San Francisco. That wasn’t bred in San Francisco. That wasn’t updated in San Francisco. It was probably bred in France if it was a carrot. That’s what we’re doing everywhere in this country in restaurants that have connections with farmers. That’s crazy. Especially if we are all sitting here advocating for a different kind of food system. You can’t advocate for that unless you start it at the seed level, with the blueprint for this whole thing.

DG: But then how can you justify still serving heirloom?

DB: ’Cause I can quickly jump to the other side, and like a politician ride your question and try to field the largest audience possible. Yeah, I piss off a lot of heirloom people now because I’ve spent so much time talking about how important it is to save it. But it is important, because you are saving genetics. You don’t want those things to disappear.

DG: No, ‘cause you might need them for one of your new seeds.

DB: You definitely will need them. Let’s put it that way. You will need them. You may need them because I’m looking for a flavor that, oh, this is from this cookbook. Or because the climate changes and you don’t have the genetics to meet that drought resistance or whatever it is. So man, we better save those heirlooms, ‘cause that’s where life is. That’s what the seed banks are about, you know?

Or people advocate for it. I’m totally into still growing that stuff out. I think if you’re a high end restaurant and you have a connection to a farmer like we do, you have a responsibility to do some of that, and maybe a lot of it, because who the hell else is? You can sell it through the restaurant and you charge enough that you can withstand the slim margins of it. And we do do it. But I’m just less interested in advocating for that system as a food system change for the larger audience. That doesn’t work. Yeah.

AK: What about breads? I know you’ve played around a lot with breads. Would that come into play here?

DB: Yeah, yeah. Grains is just tricky, ‘cause you sell wheat to somebody as a seed, and wheat is edible, and the seed, same thing. I could sell someone a bag of wheat seed, they could bake bread, and they could also plant the seed. And then the next year, they could save some of the seed and then keep going. What do you need the company for? What I’ve just described is why there are now three companies in the United States of America that control 90% of the seed production. You become very consolidated.

The three seed companies that control the 90% of the seeds are also the three largest chemical companies. Think about that for a second. On the grain level or on the vegetable level or any level you wanna think about it, we have three companies controlling 90% of the new seeds that are developed, and all three are chemical companies. How is that not at cross-purposes? If you’re a seed company, you’re sitting around at a boardroom table, and you’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna develop a new variety. Let me tell you, this variety is so strong, you don’t even need any intervention.”

AK: “Nope.”

DB: The guy who’s at the chemical would be like, “Hang on a second. You’re not gonna make any money.” It’s like you’re breeding, essentially, for a seed that is looking for the intervention, because the intervention is where you make the money. That’s another reason we’re starting the company 100% organic. These are very strong plants. By the way, strong plants give you strong flavor and a lot of nutrition; same thing. That’s the part of organics that I believe really strongly in.

But on the grain end, that’s just a bigger conversation, that bigger investment. We’re excited to do it. Look, there’s this brilliant breeder out west named Steve Jones who was upending the way we think about what you’ve written about him. He’s an awesome breeder. I hope to be working with him, with other breeders around the country, with grains, and introduce some cool varieties. Especially, I’m very interested in hull-less barley. Whole barley is crazy because of the craft brewers. That’s ignited the barley industry. I speak to these guys in North Dakota who are breeding barley. That’s why I was there. I was looking to plug the barley. Ten years ago, there was like 2% of barley was barley. Today, it’s 40%.

AK: Shit.

DB: Just over day. Just because people believe that, “Oh, craft beer is better. I’d be willing to pay a little bit more for taste.” Well, that means you need barley, ‘cause you need the real thing to make the malt. You’re not gonna do this adjunct malts that the big guys make with rice and crappy weed and call it a beer. This is real barley. It’s 100% malts. And now you need growers to grow it. It’s upended how the crop rotation is working out there.

That, to me, ‘cause I’m so dystopian about everything when it comes to the future, sometimes I’m very cynical, but when you look at the example of barley, you are taking an example and looking at it in all its possibility. Because again, ten years ago, there was almost no craft brew industry to speak of. There was no barley growing. Craft brewery emerges because people decide that flavor in beer is important, and all of a sudden, barley is needed to get that flavor. That’s a very important rotation crop. It’s soil-amending, it’s brilliant for farmers, and they make good money on it. That came out of nowhere. That wasn’t any organized advocacy. That was flavor driving it and driving the food system.

I’m thinking of that as a continuation with hull-less barley, because hull-less barley is so freaking delicious, and we have been selecting against hull-less barley, because the craft brewery industry, or any brewery, does not want the hull-less. They want the hulls; that helps make the wort for the beer. So hull-less barley is an antiquated thing, but oh my God, the nutrition on it, and the beta glucans, which is what you get in oatmeal when you taste that creamy oatmeal. That’s the same thing in barley. We just bred it out. We’re working with a breeder to put that all back in, to leave it back in. This is where the old stuff comes in, ‘cause they’re full of beta glucans. Full of flavor, full of nutrition. I think we’re headed for a future where we eat a lot more barley, which is a pretty delicious future. Anyway, it’s a good example of what’s possible if flavor is the determining factor.

AK: Can you talk about how you’re not patenting the seeds that you’re working with?

DB: Yeah. Very simple, it’s most seeds today, new seed varieties. Seed breeders throw out patents. I see companies throw up patents very quickly. It protects their R&D investment. From an economic standpoint, as an investor, I would fully support it if I had that silo look at it. On the other hand, you’re talking about tying up genetics for life. You’re talking about patenting life. That doesn’t sit well.

For a breeder, a breeder once described it to me this way, also a very arrogant breeder who compared himself to Picasso. Said, “Picasso was painting Guernica. He went up to do this stroke here and he got a top on the shoulder from a lawyer. He said, ‘Sorry, that color is no longer available for you to use.’ That’s what patenting is.” Now, it hasn’t been going on for that many years. It’s laws that were changed in the 80s. It’s very slowly emerging as everyone is throwing up patents. In 20 years sitting here having this conversation it continues this way, you will see a huge tie up of genetic material, which is another way of saying, all that stuff to combat issues that are coming, whether it’s climate change or taste that we want or whatever, will be removed from our toolbox, removed from our palette. That’s scary. That’s a scary future. We haven’t talked about that enough because very hard to talk about these issues. Very hard to write about them and very hard to talk about them. But can you talk about them through flavor? ‘Cause man, people protect flavor. Our patenting thought process, this could be totally wrong, is that once a chef gets behind an idea, a flavor, a particular look and feel of a vegetable, that would be hard to-

AK: Hard to steal it.

DB: Yep. Hard to steal it. That’s a cultural patent, maybe. I’m looking forward to see if that theory holds out. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of money put into R&D, and yes, we are not protecting it. That’s very different from most any company going right now. Luckily, the investors who are investing in us believe in that idea. So we’re running with it. Gotta change the culture to make that work.