Mention Cucurbita pepo to Jack Algiere and Jason Grauer, Stone Barns Center’s farm director and field manager, and their eyes light up. This diverse plant species includes both summer squashes like pattypan and zucchini, and winter varieties like acorn squash and pumpkin. For Jack and Jason, what they see is untapped potential: hidden plant traits waiting to be expressed. That’s why two beds in the vegetable field at Stone Barns Center are dedicated to crossbreeding squash.
What makes a great squash? In the field, farmers evaluate plants for resilience, pest and disease resistance, plant structure and yield. In the kitchen, chefs look for aesthetics, flavor, texture, utility (are the skin and/or seeds edible?) and manageability in preparation. Stone Barns is looking for a winter squash that hits all of these sweet spots.
One Cucurbita pepo squash, the sweet dumpling, earns very high marks for its flavor, but the plant is a sprawling vine, which makes it both difficult to harvest and to keep its bed free of weeds. Its ivory and green-striped rind is inedible and difficult to peel, in addition, and its small round shape is hard to handle on cutting boards.
In hopes of capturing some of the sweet dumpling’s flavor while making it easier to grow and cook, Jason and his team are exploring all the possibilities within the plant’s genetics. They are crossing sweet dumpling with other Cucurbita pepo varieties like styrian, a pumpkin with hull-less seeds that are great for oil and snack producers; table gold, with the popular acorn shape and unique color; winter luxury, with a distinct, netted rind and good flavor; and bush delicata, with a tender, edible skin and bush-style growth that enables easy harvesting and bed maintenance.
The farmers manually cross the plants by taking male flowers from one variety and applying their pollen to female flowers of another variety, then save seeds, grow out the next generation of plants and, with input from chefs at our partner restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, select for the most desirable field and culinary traits.
The ability to explore and fine-tune produce varieties helps farmers meet a market need, create a crop better suited to their region or farm size, and ultimately share the fruit of their labor—and the lessons learned—with other growers and with customers.
Originally published on September 23, 2016