Located in Haines, Alaska – Foundroot is owned and operated by Leah and Nick, a couple who are driven by the desire for sustainable farming in not only Alaska but everywhere. Their seed company is a fantastic source of not only seeds but know how. With the owners literally on tap to help troubleshoot or plan, a blog full of ideas, and the experiance to back them this company is inspiring.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to email interview Leah, an Alaska Master Gardener and the co-owner of Foundroot about the philosophy that drives their business, a bit of planting queries, and even garnered a favorite recipe from her to share with you all. Here is what she had to say:
I asked Leah if first she could introduce Foundroot’s origins and goals, in turn she replied…
Foundroot’s goal was always to be a full-circle seed company. We started the project just simply seeing if anyone in Alaska even cares about seeds. As it turns out, Alaskans really care about seeds and so we have been sourcing from other farms as we have gotten our land ready to start commercial seed production. By supporting these small farmers, you are supporting a system of growers that are preserving and expanding the diversity of our food supply. We are working to reverse this trend that has existed and to disseminate our seed so the preservation of our seed supply, and thus our food security, is no longer in question. By supporting us, you are supporting a future of seeds that are grown by Alaskans, for Alaskans and will be more productive and more relevant to our needs.
We only sell open-pollinated seeds and thus, you can collect the seeds from everything that we sell. The seeds we grow in Alaska will inherently be bred for our short seasons, cool temperatures, long days, moisture resistance, and all the other climatic challenges we face as a region. Good seeds grown here will give us all a huge head start when it comes to some of our more challenging vegetables like tomatoes and squashes. We are transiting into producing these on a commercial-scale but are also working to establish a network of producers around the state. Growing seed is a slow process and in Alaska, we only get one shot at it every year. We are in the long game. We are simultaneously teaching small-scale seed saving to home gardeners. Our goal is not to produce seeds for the entirety of Alaska, our goal is to get Alaskans producing seeds for themselves. As it says on our website, “Foundroot was created with one major purpose in mind: to put ourselves out of business.”
Foundroot operates under what is entitled the Safe Seed Pledge can you explain this?
Through a series of legislation over the last 100 years, Americans have systematically lost control of our food supply. Crops that are produced with ease on a large-scale have been favored over time and on account of this, we lost 93% of the diversity of our food supply from 1903-1983. This means that the early ripening tomatoes or extra long storage cabbage that Alaskans rely on have been disappearing. Currently only 10 seeds companies own over 2/3 of the global market, 3 of which own over half of the global market. These companies are concerned with the seeds that sell best, not the ones that are necessarily relevant to our specific needs. They sell the best tasting, more uniform, or most transportable vegetables and that means that when your favorite mold-resistant bean variety becomes unpopular and unprofitable, you may never be able to get that seed again. This is exactly what we are working to prevent.
The Safe Seed Pledge was established by the Council for Responsible Genetics in 1999 with a coalition of 10 seed companies in response to this to publicly state their commitment to open-pollinated seed breeding. Open-pollinated seeds are seeds with traditional breeding methods which means that even small home gardeners can save seeds from these plants. Foundroot and the other 370+ seed companies that have signed the pledge are making a public commitment to keeping these seeds available in perpetuity.
Foundroot aims to not only sell seeds but to produce some of your own to sell… what did you guys plant last year? Are any of these seeds available for purchase this spring?
Last year we had several successful seed crops including two varieties of peas and two cut flowers, along with some noteworthy successes with heirloom beans and a multicolored sweetcorn. We have invested in cloning stock of three cultivars of fingerling potatoes and seven types of cold-hardy garlic. We have 12 different herbs, 10 flowers, and 3 self-seeding greens that we have high hopes overwintering for cloning and for seed. We are excited to add these to the seed stock we have been developing over the last 5 years. We made the difficult choice not to sell any of these seeds and thought it was more important to hold on to them as we get steady on our feet and feel confident that we can replicate them in perpetuity. That being said, we have had some exceptional gardeners and farmers contact us over the years and are excited to offer our first Alaska Grown seed in 2017 from here in Haines. Folks in Haines don’t realize it is difficult to overwinter kale in Alaska because they have spread around a 10 year acclimatized White Russian Kale seeds. You can read more about that on our website.
There are countless barriers I hear cited for not beginning a garden of one’s own – limited space, limited time, lack of know how… If you were to speak to maximizing say one raised bed or container garden what would you suggest the new backyard farmer grow, and should they be sprouting, buying sprouts or sowing the seeds directly?
Because we have become a one-stop-shop of Alaska proven seed, we get a lot of new gardeners contacting us. We developed our Cheechako seed collection specifically with these customers in mind. This caters to a fresh eating small home garden with limited space. Everything can be directly sown and isn’t meant particularly for storage. Maximizing successes in one’s first year will always make gardening more encouraging to continue. Grow what inherently grows well in Alaska, things you can eat right away, plants that won’t waste all your space if they don’t produce well, and don’t start anything inside–directly seed everything once the season has begun. This will be your best bet as a beginner. If you buy from us, we try to make ourselves available to troubleshoot problems and offer advice. That’s the benefit of buying locally. At Foundroot, you get the owner on the phone to talk about why your lettuce may not have germinated. Granted, we are farmers and things get busy but we do the best we can.
Any tips for the a new seed indoor sprouter you would like to share? Can you briefly speak to the pros and cons of starting your own sprouts?
We have a great blog entry on our site that shows how we have been starting our seeds in our home with limited space. By starting your own seeds, you get to have a lot more control over what you are growing. Especially for Alaskans that have large stores near them, I promise you are not going to be able to grow that pepper plant you found at Home Depot unless you have a highly monitored greenhouse. By starting your own seeds, you will be able to pick out the healthiest plants, prevent disease, have total control over what you grow, and curate your garden completely to your needs. Depending on whether you want fresh eating, root storage, or freezing and canning potential, those may all mean different seeds and different plants. Starting your own seeds gives you that choice and ensures only the healthiest plants make it into your garden.
What are good crops in Alaska for just sowing seeds into the soil and skipping the whole sprouting step altogether?
Anything where you eat the root, you will want to direct sow. Greens, cilantro, dill, scallions, and other “mow and sow” type crops will also want to go directly in the dirt. Peas too. I try and direct sow as much as possible because plants don’t like to be moved. If you are savvy, all squashes, beans, corn, and some large greens like kale and swiss chard can also go directly in the ground. The more difficult crops really depend on where you are growing and your experience in the end.
Do you have tips on harvesting seeds from one’s own crops you can share?
This is too difficult to cover in a short answer but if you are interested, please email us (email@example.com) directly and we can recommend some resources and good crops to start with. In general, plants with perfect flowers like lettuce, legumes, tomatoes, and peppers are the first ones people start with but you need a basic understanding of pollination before you begin.
Along with being a Master Gardener you are also an avid cook, what is your favorite simple farm to table recipe? Are you willing to share it?
I’m actually terrible with relaying recipes which is why we post so few. I didn’t learn how to cook until college and I lived in a student-run coop. We would look in the cabinet and see ketchup, pasta, and dried fruit and say “hey, time to make dinner”. I got really good at making meals with whatever ingredients were around. It’s my secret superpower. We are so busy in the summer, we end up eating a ton of salad because it’s quick and easy. I think I’ve eaten kale and smoked salmon caesar salad 4-6 times a week when everything is in season. Here is a poor rendition of what I do :
Very Alaskan Smoked Salmon Kale Caesar Salad (adapted from Epicurious.com)
- 1-2 big bunches of kale (I love Black Tuscan kale)
- 3 cups cubed day-old sourdough bread (we get ours from the Pilotlight here in Haines)
- 1 pint Smoked Salmon (use your own or trade for some veggies)
- 2 farm fresh egg yolks (these stay raw, make sure they are fresh and safe)
- 2 big Garlic Cloves
- 2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
- 3/4 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
- 1/2 cup good Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Romano Cheese
- Chunky Salt
- Fresh cracked Black Pepper
Mash the garlic, and a pinch of kosher salt into a paste then scrape into a medium bowl. Whisk in egg yolks, lemon juice, and mustard. Adding drop by drop to start, gradually whisk in up to 1/2 cup of oil until dressing is thick and glossy. I often get lazy and use my favorite kitchen tool–the immersion blender– instead. This is easier if you make it in a larger batch and use it all week. If you haven’t made homemade mayonnaise before, look up steps to that first. This is the essentially the same thing with some flavor. I sometimes put some of the smoked salmon in to replace the anchovies that people normally use. Smoked hooligan might actually work well for this but I’ve never tried it. Do what you feel is right.
Toss the sourdough with enough olive oil to lightly coat it and sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake at 375°F, tossing occasionally, until golden brown, 10-15 minutes.
Rip up the kale to edible size pieces. Toss the kale with croutons, dressing, cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Plate and top with smoked salmon and additional cheese, salt, and pepper to your liking. Eat quickly and return to the garden.
Note: I will make the dressing and croutons in large batches to eat off of for the week. Probably at least a quadruple batch for our house. Enjoy!
What brings you joy as a gardener?
I love seed saving and growing food but often my true joy comes from my culinary and medicinal herb garden. I think so many gardeners who aren’t avid cooks ignore how important fresh herbs are. I focus on perennials so they are a gift that just arrives every year without the intense labor of everything else. I dry loads of them and even when we are running low on our stored food, at least the herbs are from our own hands. I successfully store them in mason jars in a dry, dark space for up to 3 years so if I have a bad crop or some die off, there is still plenty around. When everything on your plate has been grown, wildcrafted, or caught by your own hands, even down to the herbs, that’s the true joy for me.
What excites and inspires you most about Foundroot?
Foundroot is a belief in a better future. When things feel hard or the world feels too big, saving seeds solves many of the fears that I have and keeps me productive. Everyone needs to eat and we can solve a lot of problems by breaking bread together. My friends, family, and community will be nourished and taken care of with the work we are doing with Foundroot. That’s a solace I can rely upon.
Thank you so much Leah! I look forward to making and eating that delicious sounding salad and filling my cart in your webshop soon!
All photos in this post are from Foundroot’s Instagram and used with permission – you can follow Leah and Nick using the handle @foundroot to see more amazing photos from their business and farm.