Saving seeds rooted in tradition
July/Aug. 2005 California Country magazine
By Christine Souza
Suzanne Peabody Ashworth is botanist, farmer, teacher and recognized authority on seeds and seed saving.
Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, owner of Del Rio Botanical in Yolo County, has a multitude of irons in the fire and she wouldn't have it any other way. A botanist, farmer, teacher and recognized authority on seeds and seed saving, Ashworth is a petite, energetic woman who makes it her life's work to embrace the gifts that Mother Nature has to offer.
From the solar energy panels that operate the irrigation pumps in the fields, to the basic seeds that are the foundation of each plant, Ashworth has created her own organic ecosystem from which to gain daily motivation.
"Farming just happens to be my favorite thing to do," Ashworth said. "What I enjoy most is actually working with the plants and making a model that is successful and incorporates seed saving into agriculture to help reduce the input costs for small family farms and organic producers."
A descendant of tomato, sugar beet and alfalfa growers, Ashworth was born and raised at Peabody Ranch located near the Sacramento River, just south of Sacramento. She returned to the farm almost five years ago to propagate exotic fruit, vegetables and herbs. Del Rio Botanical resulted from her farming endeavors. Some of the plants on the ranch are grown simply for extracting seeds, and others such as exotic greens, vegetables and herbs, are distributed via Produce Express to 1,600 customers from Lodi to Lake Tahoe.
Each week, Produce Express delivers boxes of Ashworth's gourmet produce to consumers and local chefs in what is referred to as Consumer Supported Agriculture and Restaurant Supported Agriculture. CSA and RSA efforts center on encouraging consumers and chefs to use fresh, local and seasonal produce grown on a nearby farm. Ashworth's boxes might include baby squash, Italian cucumbers, heirloom cherry tomatoes, lemon basil, Early Lady beans, calendula petals, chocolate mint or any number of the farm's 125 other specialty products.
Ashworth's specialties, along with her collection of more than 1,600 varieties of seeds for vegetables and herbs, enable Del Rio Botanical to remain in the unique position of providing a selection of produce that is varied, rare and targeted to restaurants. In fact, participating restaurants, whose chefs want unique seasonal items to enhance and create menu selections, receive bi-weekly faxes listing available items.
"Suzanne is really a main influence on our food here. She pays extra attention to detail and all of her produce is how it should be--always perfect and pristine," said Jonathan Nieto, chef at Seasons Restaurant in Davis, which specializes in California cuisine. "We do as little as possible to the food and just use good products, and with her farm it really makes our job easy. Everything she sends us is beautiful, and it is very well received. We get a lot of the Napa and San Francisco clientele who are going up the mountain to go skiing, and when they stop in here they really appreciate the different produce."
Ashworth's farm, which was started by her grandfather in the 1920s, operates year-round and offers a variety of produce, the majority of which is picked and delivered daily to Produce Express. Horseradish leaves, pineapple sage, basil varieties from around the world, fava beans, 15 varieties of cherry tomatoes, 20 pepper varieties and heirloom eggplant are among the many items Ashworth raises at various times throughout the year.
"Everything we do, from seed harvest, planting, picking and packing, is weather dependent," Ashworth said. "The most abundant, variety-rich months are July through November. March and April are the most demanding but least culinary-interesting months as the valley crops change from spring to summer."
She added, "Running the farm changes every minute. If I had a handle on it, it would be boring and I don't want to be bored. I don't want it to be the same. I don't want it to work all of the time. If it did that, there would be no challenge in this. What makes plants so interesting is that they don't perform on cue. It is a challenge and you have to meet it. It makes the job really interesting. I have a great staff that understands that as well and we work with a lot of variables all of the time."
In addition to growing and harvesting produce, Ashworth receives numerous requests for seeds--especially gourds, which provide food, storage, and even art and musical instruments in many parts of the world. Saving seeds involves extracting them from the vegetable, as well as bagging and cataloging.
Ashworth is also a published author. Her book, entitled Seed to Seed, helps gardeners learn the techniques and processes of seed saving. While admitting her work at the farm is very demanding, she said the rewards of seed saving can be seen and savored.
"A lot of our history is tied up in seeds and seeds are a dynamic, living entity. If they are not continually grown, they become extinct just like dinosaurs," Ashworth said. "I've been working with seeds all of my life. The open pollinated varieties with which I work need to be preserved simply because we need diversity and we need to maintain that diversity."
As instructor and lecturer, Ashworth teaches a variety of food production, gardening and extension courses at American River College and the University of California, Davis, Small Farm Center. She is also a preliterate specialist who helps students develop language skills. Ashworth recently taught a class of budding chefs on how and why to use produce to jazz up cuisine.
For more information about Ashworth's farm, visit www.delriobotanical.com.
(Christine Souza is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at email@example.com.)