Regional Variety research
Through our on-farm research, we are evaluating, trialing and actively breeding new varieties for the Long Island region.
Also, part of our initiative will be comprehensively providing historical data and information of Long Island and regional varieties. While some of these varieties are lost forever or on the verge of extinction it is important to have a record of them. We aim to make this compilation of historical ephemera and information available to everyone; from scholars to school gardens. It absolutely critical that a tangible written history be maintained so food culture can be passed on to future generations in addition to being celebrated now, rather than being lost to time.
We are currently researching, growing and building the seed stock of several heirloom varieties native to the island. We are working to ensure these older heirlooms thrive once again on Long Island and become a unique part of the region's food culture.
breeding new regional varieties
Along with researching older heirlooms, the LIRSC works with breeders, farms and chefs to breed new regionally adapted vegetables. Through our on-farm research, we are evaluate and trial to expand diversity, to ensure public availability and most important of all, to perfect taste! Currently, we are trialing several summer and winter squashes, corns, tomatoes and fall and spring greens. We hope to perfect the strain and submit them to the Open Source Seed Initiative.
The history of the Shinnecock tomato can be traced back to a currant tomato that is believed to have originated in Mexico. The story stretches out across decades and geography as the seed has passed through many hands and hearts. The present incarnation of this variety involves a few key players: Native Seed Search, Lamonte Smith, Jean Mundy, Seed Savers Exchange, Ken Ettlinger and Steph Gaylor.
In the 1980‘s Lamonte Smith, as he was preparing a garden featuring native American varieties, began seeking seed sources such as Native Seed Search. John Strong, a local historian, mentioned Ken Ettlinger to LaMonte as a good resource for seed. Ken, upon being introduced to LaMonte as a fellow seed saver, was invited to visit his garden and also conveyed a number of native varieties to help him add to the garden. He describes LaMonte’s garden as “truly a labor of love. His garden was beautiful. He had a long row of circles along one edge planted with the three sisters and he had beds of purple amaranth, sunflowers, corn, squash and many other vegetables.”
Subsequently, during a garden tour, LaMonte Smith generously shared the tomato seed with a psychology professor at Southampton named Jean Mundy. In true seed saver fashion, Professor Mundy mailed the seeds to Seed Savers Exchange. SSE cataloged the seeds and not much interest was shown in the small current tomato until Steph Gaylor (local farmer, seed saver and founder of LIRSC) in search of regional orphan varieties to grow out, requested the “Shinnecock Tomato” as SSE had named this variety.
LIRSC began stewarding the seed in 2012. The strength of the seed community saved the small tomato who’s ancestor is believed to be wild. The LIRSC is now in the process, after increasing and selecting the seed, of preparing to offer Shinnecock Tomato in 2017.
The following is a letter written by Ken Ettlinger about his relationship with Monte Smith and the Shinnecock tomato.
I met Lamont (Monty) Smith in the 1980's through a mutual friend, Dr. John Strong who taught at Southampton University. John knew of my interest in seed collecting and inquired whether I had any seeds that would be of interest to native people. He knew of some projects that could use a start of seed. I had some Mohawk corn in my collection, some squash and other seeds that were given to me for preservation and that I thought were fairly untouched by commercial seed breeding. Monty was interested in gardening and was hoping to establish a garden on the Shinnecock Reservation using native plants, herbs and vegetables and using traditional methods. He was revisiting the old techniques and wanted to rekindle the tradition of growing and saving seed. I conveyed seed to Monty and he told me that he had been in contact with Native Seed Search (NSS). NSS provides members of native tribes with free seeds from their collection of mostly southwest varieties and Monty had received many varieties of garden vegetable seed from their collection. After giving Monty seed that I thought might be useful to him, we met several times. Monty had recruited several people to collect bags of eel grass that he used extensively as mulch and I helped out on occasion.
Monty's garden project was truly a labor of love. His garden was beautiful. He had a long row of circles along one edge planted with the three sisters and he had beds of purple amaranth, sunflowers, corn, squash and many other vegetables. With Monty, John Strong was investigating how seeds could be stored underground through the winter and one spring I was present when they dug up a cache of various corns protected by deer hide. We realized why flint corn was favored by northern tribes since it survived the best under these storage conditions.
Monty drove a van. I believe for the Southampton Senior Services and sometimes stopped where I was raising seed crops at the Conklin Farm in Bridgehampton to chat a bit. This was around 1989-1991. We walked the field and talked about seed and seed saving and I value the time I spent with him. Whatever I was growing I invited him to take as a start of what was of interest to him. New York Times called me that they wanted to write an article on seed saving and I told them to take a look at the good work that Lamont Smith was doing on the Reservation. I believe that he was featured in a NY Times article.
This is what I know about the "Shinnecock Tomato". I did not know Dr. Jean Mundy who wrote that she received the tomato from Lamont Smith and who donated the tomato to the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) labeled "Shinnecock Tomato". I assume that she named the tomato based on where she obtained the tomato but she is no longer alive according to Tor Janson of the Seed Savers Exchange. I am speculating that Monty originally received the parent tomato from one of us who supplied him with seed for his heritage project. Tomatoes are not a crop associated with northern tribes.
It was of interest that the tomato was in the SSE bank and was not requested by other growers until Stephanie Gaylor who grows seed crops for the non profit Long Island Regional Seed Consortium and grows vegetables for restaurants on her farm requested it from the SSE because of her interest in preserving local vegetable varieties. In the two or three years that Steph has grown the tomato and kept it alive by sending the seed out to other seed savers, it has become known for its very fine flavor and it has developed a small following as a small red cherry tomato; not sweet but with nice complexity. I am sure that Lamont carefully selected what he thought was the best of his tomatoes as all seed savers do; and in the process, made it his own. I consider the tomato an honor to Lamont.
I met Lamont's niece Aiyana Smith at the Unitarian Church where she presented the sermon and asked her whether she was related to Monty. I was able to tell her about the tomato that I believed her uncle was associated with and which was developing a bit of a following. Steph Gaylor raises this tomato with over 300 other varieties of rare tomatoes on her farm then reached out to Aiyana to convey a start of the tomato back to her.
I would hope that the "Shinnecock Tomato" continues to be distributed to gardeners and seed savers because seed which is freely given from one to another has the greatest chance of survival in this time of decreasing variety diversity. It has always been that way. Perhaps the story of Lamont Smith's garden on the reservation sheds some light on the variety. Sadly, Monty is no longer alive. Perhaps his relatives can shed more light.
Retired Botanist and Seed Saver