Organic 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 results:

  1. The industry breeds varieties widely adapted to broad geographic regions neglecting those specifically adapted to our region and climate.
  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?

Economic reasons:

  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, etc.
  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.

Ecological benefits:

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 farm.
  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 manures.
  5. Increasing the pollination rate and plant yields.

Techniques for introducing ecological benefits:

  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 for seed.

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 will cross.
  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 future plans.

Real-life Results

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.

The Intangibles

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.