Seed Crop Production: A New Niche for New England Farmers
Talk at New England Vegetable & Berry Conference
December 18, 2003
CR Lawn and Eli Kaufman, presenters
Restoring our Seed: the context
In the last two generations the seedscape has changed dramatically.
Farmers, who for thousands of years saved seeds and improved crops,
abdicated those functions to professionals. Public university breeding
programs, which introduced most of the best cultivars until late
in the twentieth century, have mostly disappeared, replaced largely
by proprietary corporate research. A series of consolidations has
rocked the wholesale seed industry, reducing players to a small
handful. One company, Seminis, controls 60% of the North American
seed market, yet, is itself, on a shaky financial footing.
These changes have brought about the following
1) The industry breeds varieties widely adapted to broad geographic
regions neglecting those specifically adapted to our region and
2) It breeds seeds dependent on high input agrochemicals largely
ignoring the needs of organic growers and many home gardeners who
eschew pesticides and herbicides.
3) It breeds varieties for long distance shipability with little
regard to the needs of growers with more local markets where taste
and freshness are most highly valued.
There is a growing awareness that this system is overly centralized,
vulnerable and too vanilla. The new organic rule, requiring the
use of certified organic seed where commercially available is a
response to a need for a more diverse system. Although many small
seed companies have arisen in counterpoint to industry consolidation,
their levels of expertise and their production capabilities are
limited. The organic rule is ahead of the industry and these fledglings
need help in responding to the challenge.
Restoring our Seed: the program
Restoring our Seed is a Northeast-SARE funded project. Our goal
is to develop the knowledge and skill for organic seed production
and crop improvement and to build a network of farmers, cooperative
extensions, seed companies and markets to produce more organic seed
and higher quality organic seed regionally. Through a series of
workshops, on-farm field days, collaborative breeding projects and
an active website, we bring together farmers and seed experts.
Why grow seed on your farm?
We all have one thing in common as farmers: we are always short
of cash, short of time, burdened with a list of tasks we will never
catch up to and details of daily life already too complicated. Why
on Earth would we want to consider growing seeds on our farm and
adding another layer of complexity to our lives?
1) To save money. Seed prices continue to rapidly increase.
2) To have access to desired varieties regardless of their commercial
availability. If you are your own source, you don’t have to
worry about others’ crop failures, unexpected out-of-stocks,
3) To meet or exceed standards of the new organic rule. You’ll
have certified organic seed even when others can’t find it.
4) To adapt and improve varieties to your conditions and climate.
According to Bert Grosgahl of Even’ Star Organic Farm in Maryland,
it is not difficult to build in outstanding degrees of local adaptability,
disease tolerance and weather hardiness into favored varieties without
sacrificing flavor. “If you are already running a market-driven
farm, you have the background to manage your own crop genetics.
And if you’re a surviving farmer in this competitive and corporate
era, you’ve got more than enough brain cells to manage your
crop genetics very well…Seed saving and genetic management
can be readily integrated into the seasonal operations of most market
farms.” Grosgahl has attained tolerance or resistance to fusarium
and verticillium wilts in 25 lines of tomatoes and 10 of peppers,
tolerance of rhizoctonia in 10 lines of brassica, drought hardiness
in 5 brassicas, cold hardiness in 10 brassica lines including his
special strain of cold-hardy arugula and resistance to splitting
in cherry and teardrop tomatoes following heavy rains.
5) To develop a new source of on-farm income. High Mowing, Turtle
Tree and Fedco are among seed companies in this region looking for
growers. Seeds of Change also buys extensively from farmers. Some
growers have had success marketing seeds at farmers market or even
starting their own small mail order business.
6) To get two harvests from the same crop, a vegetable or fruit
harvest plus a seed harvest. Many crops, such as lettuce, melons
and pumpkins can be double-dipped, those such as peas and beans
where the seed is the edible part, cannot.
Plowing, tilling and cultivating creates ecological disturbance.
A freshly-plowed garden is a pioneer ecosystem. Pioneer systems
are typically very unstable. They are colonized by pioneer species
including most of our vegetable crops which are good at occupying
a freshly-disturbed system but poor at competing. In a typical monoculture
of lettuce, you have only lettuce plus the enemies of lettuce. With
no checks on the enemies, the farmer is forced to intervene extensively
to keep them at bay. A more complex system will reduce the necessity
of farmer intervention because predators of the enemies of lettuce
will be more likely to keep the system in balance. Seed crops increase
farm biodiversity by:
1) Allowing plants to go through their full flowering cycle, creating
habitats for beneficial insects, pollinators and predators of insect-pests.
Seed crops provide shelter and stability for beneficials within
the habitat upheavels of the vegetable farm ecosystem. In contrast
to many crops which are removed in the immature state for harvesting
as produce, seed crops allow the plants to grow to full term, flowering
and producing shielding canopies. Contrast lettuce of marketable
size with a lettuce plant gone to seed.
2) Introducing more diverse species and broadening varietal range.
3) Creating new dynamics for complex species interaction on the
4) Changing the nature of the organic matter being returned to the
soil. The mature tissues of seedbearing crops contain more lignin
and fix more carbon for soil food than vegetative crops or green
5) Increasing the pollination rate and plant yields.
Techniques for introducing ecological
1) Doublecropping: Two uses for the same crop. Example: beets are
thinned for use as beet greens and bunching beets. Remaining plants
(selected on basis of maximum fitness) are permitted to go to seed
the second year.
2) Intercropping: Two crops in the same space grid. Example: cilantro
as an understory of sweet corn.
3) Hedgerows: Planting an insectary hedgerow such as a fennel seed
crop adjacent or as a border to other crops.
4) Seed guilds: Mixing different plant families with compatible
growth habits that won’t cross in the same patch to be grown
How Growing Seed Differs from Growing Vegetables
1) Some seed crops require a longer growing season. Examples: peas,
beans, lettuce, cucumbers.
2) Some seed crops have different spacing and cultural requirements
than when grown for produce. Examples: radish and mustard require
much more space because they grow huge when allowed to go to seed.
Lettuce must be started indoors because it is so much longer to
mature as a seed crop. Beets and carrots which are annuals for food
crops are biennials as seed crops.
3) Seed crops have different harvesting, cleaning and conditioning
requirements and require additional equipment such as fans, tarps,
fanning mills or cleaning machines. They require threshing, drying
and storage areas.
4) Seed crops of crossers require isolation from other crops of
the same species. Examples: zucchini and pie pumpkins must be isolated
from each other because each is Cucurbita pepo and will
cross. Beets and swiss chard are both Beta vulgaris and
5) Controlling disease is even more important in seed crops. Some
diseases are seed borne.
6) Seeds have a different harvest window. For example: it is much
longer for tomato seed than for tomatoes for produce. It is longer
for seed for peas, beans, sweet corn than for these as green vegetables.
7) Marketing is different. If you have a contract with a seed company
you may be able to market the entire crop at once and avoid the
hustling which accompanies many forms of vegetable production. On
the other hand, there are far fewer potential markets and gluts
are quite possible. One of Fedco’s seed growers greatly prefers
seed production to vegetable production because she homeschools
her four daughters and seed production allows her to stay on the
farm. Even though she refuses to estimate her hourly return for
seeds (because it is so low) she can’t beat the working conditions.
8) Seed crops can fail unexpectedly at the end. They may fail germination
test for reasons not readily apparent. They can mold in improper
storage conditions or be molested by rodents.
Levels of commitment
Each succeeding level requires a greater amount of responsibility
and commitment while offering a higher potential benefit.
1) Saving seed for own use. Failure affects only you. Some amount
of crossing may be tolerable.
2) Selecting seed for crop improvement. Requires greater time commitment
and more attention to detail than #1. May greatly increase on-farm
economic benefits over #1.
3) Seed production on contract to seed company. Seed quality affects
many other stakeholders including seed company and its customers.
Crossing & off-types not tolerated. Commits more land than #1
or #2. Possibility of total loss if seed not up to germination standard.
Chance for diversified on-farm income source. Seed company takes
responsibility for germ tests, packaging, labeling, retailing, etc.
4) Retailing. Becoming your own seed company. Responsible for all
facets of seed quality including adherence to state and federal
laws, germ testing, packaging, labeling, marketing (through farmers
markets, catalog, retail store or whatever). Huge value-added potential.
For example, a cucumber variety that might wholesale for $30 per
lb. could bring $307.20 when divided into 256 1.75g packets at $1.20
each. However, operating own seed company involves high overhead
expenses, for example, Fedco paid more than $30,000 to print and
mail 40,000 catalogs last year and that doesn’t count labor
costs for the production time.
5) An intermediate variation between 3) and 4) would be a seed growers’
cooperative. It has often been talked about but not yet tried.
Finding the appropriate commitment/scale
1) Decide whether you want to commit to growing seed. For what purpose?
2) Choose a level of commitment appropriate to the purpose.
3) If you are growing to sell imagine a triangle with three legs:
A scale, B variety, C market. Each is an interdependent variable
so we have a complex system. How much land do you wish to commit?
How much time? What do you have appropriate equipment for? Will
isolations required for crossers interfere with your vegetable marketing
operation? What is the market for the variety you wish to grow?
A niche variety such as Candy Roaster squash or Boothby Blonde cucumber
will have a limited market requiring only a few pounds of seed.
On the other hand, competition from other growers for these specialty
items may be nil. These varieties are appropriate for small scale.
Specialty heirloom tomatoes and melons may require so little land
that they can be grown by backyard gardeners. On the other hand,
mainstream market varieties such as Marketmore 76 cucumber could
be suitable for large scale production in the hundreds of pounds
and there is much more demand for famous heirloom tomato Brandywine
than for the obscure Schmeig’s Striped Hollow. Another grower
could flood the market for any of these varieties and change your
Lettuce breeder Frank Morton is wont to say that making money is
the hardest part of seed growing. Yet it can be done. High Mowing
Farm’s Tom Stearns reports making better than $37 per hour
after expenses on a 2,000 square foot crop of mizuna seed (67 pounds
total) valued at $20 per lb. Of course Tom is in the business—he
has all the equipment, expertise and desire to make it work. One
of his growers, growing a similar mustard crop the same year reported
making a dismal $2.07 per hour. This grower, relatively inexperienced
and with lower fertility achieved less than one-seventh of the yield
per plant of Stearns. Several Fedco growers have achieved good results,
one making 9.74 per hour after overhead on tomatoes (a fairly typical
result), one making 9.28 an hour on three pepper varieties, one
realizing $12.63 per hour on a 38-lb crop of Long Pie Pumpkin. Two
years later the same pumpkin grower averaged 8.82 per hour for a
market basket of six crops. But for a time-consuming failure with
a difficult onion crop, she would have achieved $14.16. Many of
these crops check in with high gross per acre with Stearn’s
mizuna at $26,800 and several tomato varieties exceeding $30,000.
Trouble is, where you gonna sell an acre of tomato seed production?
And therein lies one of the rubs.
Money is important but the truth is most of our seed growers so
far aren’t in it primarily for the money. They cite other
satisfactions: such as allowing plants to complete their life cycles,
reconnecting to the self-sufficient farm heritage of their ancestors,
finding the security that comes with controlling the source of their
food, the opportunity to give people a way to grow food instead
of just giving them food, the feeling of riches from holding the
seed in their hand. Restoring our seed is far more than a chance
to make money. It is a remembrance, a re-collection and a reconnection.
A remembrance that for many thousands of years farmers maintained
and improved our crop heritage. A recollection of varieties lost,
skills almost forgotten and community once shared. A reconnection
to our birthright as farmers. It all begins with the seed.