Restoring Our Seed Conference, Brattleboro, VT, Nov. 15-16

Getting started in commercial seed growing
Although big companies dominate the seed business, there's room for small producers who can identify niche markets

By Anita Kelman

First in the series: See last week's story for the home gardener or small-scale grower: Why and how to save seeds

Additional resources on seed saving

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener, 2nd edn, by Suzanne Ashworth

A complete seed-saving guide describing specific techniques for 160 vegetables, including botanical classifications, flower structure and pollination, population size, isolation distances, and techniques for caging, hand-pollination, harvesting, drying, cleaning and storage. Invaluable for both beginning and experienced seed savers.

Restoring Our Seed
The web site of the conference presenters, with information on other seed conferences, articles on growing seeds, contact information for seed breeders, experts and educators, and, eventually, a web-based manual on seed production. Restoring Our Seed is a Northeast SARE-funded program.

High Mowing Seeds
Founded by Tom Stearns in 1996, Vermont-based High Mowing Seeds now sells over 150,000 packets of 100 percent organic seed each year. A seed-saving pamphlet and other resources are downloadable from their website.

Public Seed Initiative
A collaborative project of Cornell University's Departments of Plant Breeding and Horticulture, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit, and the Farmer’s Cooperative Genome Project--Oregon Tilth.

Seed Quest
An information clearinghouse for the global seed industry.

ATTRA page: Suppliers of Seed for Certified Organic Production
Another terrific resource from the angels at ATTRA, including an extensive list of certified organic seed suppliers, organized regionally.

Eastern Native Seed Conservancy
Based in Great Barrington, Mass., non-profit ENSC offers native crop varieties for sale and exchange. Their links page has an enormous collection of resources for seed savers.

Seed Savers Exchange
A non-profit member organization devoted to preserving heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits. For a membership fee of $35.00, SSE members receive a yearbook that offers access to 11,000 rare varieties. Non-members can purchase Seed Savers seeds directly through their catalog.

Posted January 26, 2004: Just as the organic movement brought about a ground swell of change in agriculture, with its impact sending out ripples in all directions, so too is the seed savers' movement slowly spreading, preserving old varieties of seeds and wresting back control from the large corporations who have dominated the seed market. “We were missing one piece from the organic farming movement,” said Fedco Seed founder CR Lawn at the Restoring Our Seed Conference. “We almost forgot about the seed. We are taking back our birthright,” he declared.

Over 100 people gathered for the two-day conference on seed saving held in Brattleboro, Vt., on November 15-16. The heads of several seed companies were in attendance, as were growers of seed at various levels of scale--from under an acre to over 20 acres. Workshop topics ranged from the biology of seed production and breeding for disease resistance to seed cleaning techniques. Overall the mood was positive and enthusiastic, with information freely shared among the participants.

The need to save seed on a local and regional level was made clear. Organically produced seed is in short supply and urgently needed by organic growers. Regionally adapted varieties are not being developed by the large seed companies. They have no interest in developing a tomato that will grow well in Vermont or Maine, but a small regional seed company such as High Mowing Seeds does indeed. “The critical linchpin of agriculture is the seed we use,” said seed breeder Dr. John Navazio.

Don't be a seed-slave

There are a number of ideas to keep in mind if one is interested in growing seed on a commercial basis. For one thing, you should pick crops that you like. “It has to be fun. Otherwise you’ll be seed-slaving,” declared Navazio. If you pick a crop to grow that you don’t feel some sort of bond to, you won’t enjoy it, so choose wisely.

Secondly, you need to understand the plant you have chosen and determine if you should even try to grow it for seed in your area. Just because it will grow there and even set fruit doesn’t mean it should be grown in your region for seed, cautioned Navazio. He cited the example of some tomato varieties, such as Legend and Oregon Spring, which will set fruit in colder, wet areas, but not produce seed. So be forewarned and do your research first. In fact, warned Navazio, if a seed company asks you to grow a specific variety, make sure it’s not the problem child nobody else wants to grow. Some crops are dogs, he emphasized. So, be careful.

It is critical to learn the biology of seed reproduction. A grower must be fully aware of issues such as selfers and crossers, isolation distances, minimum numbers to grow to avoid inbreeding depression and related subjects. This information is all available in books on seed saving and applicable web sites.

Seed growers' training program

Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds has initiated a seed growers' training program in Vermont. He distributes a manual full of detailed descriptions of how to grow seed and five packets of seed to prospective growers. He then provides technical assistance and on-farm visits, where feasible, to the “growers in training”. He gives the growers a target seed yield and stresses that they treat their venture as a commercial crop even though it’s on a small scale to start with. When the seed is ready, they send it back to Stearns, who cleans it and tests the germination rate, providing feedback on the product to the growers. This approach is used for growers at all levels of experience. Even if you've grown and marketed vegetables for 20 years, growing for seed is distinct area of expertise, with its own learning curve.

One item of discussion was the levels of scale that are feasible for seed production. Stearns noted that seed companies are interested in varying amounts of seed, depending on the size of the seed company and the seed variety. Navazio observed that a company such as Johnny’s Seeds, for instance, might be able to find someone who can provide 3,000 lb. of a carrot seed, and another to provide 20 lb., but need a grower at a level in between those amounts. So, niches for growers at all levels exist.

Don't grow on spec

That said, grow only what you’ve got a contract for. Don’t grow on spec, urged Fedco's Lawn. Fedco doesn’t want to buy excess seed and sit on it for five years. It ties up money in inventory and costs money to store it, he pointed out. Seed breeder Frank Morton stressed that anyone can flood the market with any one variety in a single year. It takes no skill to do that, he noted. It does take skill to figure out how much you need to grow to fulfill your contract and use the rest of your land to grow other seed that won’t cross with it.

It will take some calculation to determine the economic viability of growing a particular amount of a seed variety. For instance, Stearns points out that growing 5 lb. of one high-priced variety could pay the same amount as growing 50 lb. of a lower-priced variety. But, you’d have to take into account many factors, including your growing environment, seed yield for the varieties in question, equipment needs, etc.

Most traditional seed companies are not used to buying dirty seed that hasn’t been germination-tested from growers whose fields they have not been inspecting. These services are provided for larger growers. Perhaps, speculates Stearns, if there was a middleman to do all of this--germ testing, seed cleaning, field inspections, distribution, etc., maybe in the form of a co-op--it would help smaller seed producers sell seed to larger companies.

From harvest to clean seed

Another issue is that of seed harvesting and cleaning. Stearns suspects that it is the threshing equipment and not the seed cleaning equipment that farmers need to buy and share. Threshing involves basically smashing the plant material to separate the seed from the plant. Seed cleaning involves separating the seed from the chaff. The final stage of seed cleaning allows for seeds to be separated from weed seeds, immature seed and other contaminants, bringing the percent germination rate up.

High Mowing Seeds does have some ability to provide seed threshing equipment, for both wet and dry seeds, to their growers. Your level of scale has a lot to do with what your needs are equipment-wise. A small-scale grower might be able to cut dry seeded crops, such as beans, in the field, bring them into a dry space, and then mechanically separate the seeds from the plant by thrashing them in some way. People have bagged them and stomped on them, put them under a tarp and run over them with a truck, and used other innovative methods.

Larger-scale growers need to resort to using combines for harvest. Wet seeded fruits such as tomatoes, cukes, melons and squash present other issues. Small quantities can be handled by hand, but larger amounts require the use of machinery. Winter squash and pumpkins quickly become unmanageable at even relatively low levels of scale, and machinery to handle the job proves invaluable.

Stearns of High Mowing Seeds is also in the process of developing both a seed-cleaning facility and a testing lab that can be utilized by growers, enabling them to avoid investing in their own equipment. Rowen White, assistant farm manager at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., is developing a seed-cleaning center to be housed at the college.

Seed cleaning is a major issue for growers. “I love seed cleaning,” states Stearns, but you won’t find many people who do. It is the single most frustrating thing for new growers, he believes. Basically, though, he thinks that if you have the right tools and techniques, you too will grow to love it.

Matt Rulevich suggests thinking the entire seed-cleaning process through before getting started, as you don’t want to spend more time at it than you really need to. High Mowing Seeds has prepared a number of seed-cleaning fact sheets which provides instructions, lists of tools, estimated costs, and other valuable information.

Unless a grower is producing seed at a huge scale, relatively simple, low-cost items such as buckets, fans, and screens can be used for seed cleaning. Stearns described one set-up for cleaning dry seed that involved two box fans set up one behind the other on a chair, with several buckets in front of them on the ground. With two fans, the speed can be adjusted as needed to provide variable levels of air movement. Seed is poured from a square bucket in front of the fans, with viable seed landing in a bucket and debris such as chaff and immature seed being separated out due to differences in weight.

Be aware of the learning curve

In general, the speakers emphasized the learning curve that faces those just beginning to grow seed. A much larger pool of information now exists than was available even five years ago in terms of seed growing on a smaller-scale basis. Still, although there are a number of experienced, talented and dedicated seed breeders and growers to provide this information, some of it will, by necessity, be gained only by trial and error. For instance, learning to assess the point at which crops should be harvested so that as much seed as possible is mature, but the crop isn’t shattering in the field or rotting, takes hands-on experience.

Finally, pointed out Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, there were no workshops held on how to make money selling seed. The money is the hard part of the business, he emphasized. The seed business is currently dominated by the giants, but he strongly believes that when one of them fails, the small growers will be there to pick up the pieces. We just have to avoid letting the domination by large companies happen again, he said. We need lots of small growers.