Organic Seed Companies Respond to Increasing Demand

Our seed company survey reveals what seed companies and customers think about the importance of going organic, and points to challenges companies face in obtaining organic certification.
By Barbara Pleasant
January 11, 2011
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One of the trends our survey brought to light was a rising interest in locally produced, organically grown garden seeds.
PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO/CHRIS PRICE


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Last fall, we invited about 200 seed companies from across the United States and Canada to share their thoughts and observations on the subject of organic garden seeds. Are more companies selling organic seed? What are some reasons why companies aren’t offering them? How important is organic seed to customers?

We learned that High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seeds of Change, Bountiful Gardens and about 10 other companies sell 100 percent organic or biodynamic seed, while a dozen other companies estimate that more than 75 percent of their listings are organic. The number of organic varieties offered by many larger c­ompa­nies is increasing, too, with Burpee, Johnny’s and Territorial each offering about 150 organically grown vegetables and herbs. Read on for a list of companies offering 25 percent or more organic selections.

About half of the seed merchants reported that their customers prefer to buy certified organic or biodynamic seed, and about 75 percent of companies plan to expand their selection of organic seed in the future. Speaking for High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont, which sells all organic seed, retail sales and marketing manager Gwenael Engelskirchen made a strong case for organic seeds. “When you buy organic seed, not only are you getting a ‘safe seed’ and one that is grown in organic conditions like your own farm or garden, you are supporting the future of organics,” she says.

The biggest obstacle facing seed companies is consistent availability of high-quality certified organic seed. This problem is most limiting for large seed companies, which must have a huge seed supply set by before offering a variety to hundreds of thousands of customers. Like many other seed people, Rose Marie Nichols McGee of Nichols Garden Nursery in Oregon, is finding more qualified local growers to help her meet increasing demand for organic seeds. Other companies are growing more of their own seed, a strategy that is working well for companies that sell mostly tomatoes, herbs or other limited mixtures of crops. But companies that carry large selections of vegetable, flower and herb seeds report that securing sources of high-quality organic seed is a constant challenge.

Certified Organic vs. Organically Grown

Some companies offer seeds that are grown using organic methods, but without being certified. Skipping certification can save a small-scale seed producer $750 (minimum) in costs and fees, plus the mountain of documentation required for organic certification. It is legal to grow and sell up to $5,000 annually of “organically grown” seed, but you can’t call it “certified organic” or put the Organic seal on it.

Many seed companies, such as Westwind Seeds in Arizona, have been doing business this way for decades, and their customers simply trust them to make decisions for them at the wholesale level. “With the compromises in the integrity of organic standards, I will continue to purchase from family farmers who I have trusted for more than 30 years,” says Westwind’s Reggie Smith.

The organic label offers no protection against quality issues, an unavoidable problem as the organic seed industry has scrambled to meet demand. “It is important that seed companies compare the quality of the organic seed strains to the conventional,” says Roberta Bailey of Fedco Seeds in Maine. “We have found that some strains are inferior, typically having off-types in the mix. We often have to clean up a variety and find our own grower to get good seed.”

Local-Ganic Seeds

One of the trends revealed by the survey responses is rising interest in locally produced, organically grown garden seeds. “We are increasingly interested in more locally grown seed and supporting small, innovative local growers,” Nichols McGee says. “This is of greater importance to us than certified organic seed imported from China.”

Indeed, Maggie Sullivan of Nature’s Crossroads in Indiana is working to build a seed company that focuses on certified organic, locally adapted Midwestern varieties. “Our biggest challenge is rebuilding the local organic seed supply,” she says.

Patrick Steiner from Stellar Seeds in British Columbia shares this vision. “We feel it’s important that organic seed production be part of local organic farming systems, so that local growers work to provide each other with organic seeds from their own region.” Ira Wallace of the cooperatively managed Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia would also like to see “more variety trials aimed at developing and selecting open-pollinated varieties for organic systems.”

Among our survey respondents, less than 8 percent of the seed companies thought organic seed was of little interest to their customers, and less than 6 percent said they had no plans to increase their offerings of organic seed. The majority that do plan to increase their listings of organic seed share a common goal: more local growers with the knowledge and motivation to grow high-quality organic garden seeds for the growing ranks of organic gardeners.

Companies With Good Selections of Organic Seed

The following companies report that at least 25 percent of their vegetable, herb, flower and plant seed offerings are organic or biodynamic.

Albert Lea Seed
Albert Lea, Minn.
507-373-3161

American Organic Seed
Warren, Ill.
866-471-9465

Amishland Heirloom Seeds
Reamstown, Pa.
717-738-0134

Blue River Hybrids
Kelley, Iowa
800-370-7979

The Cottage Gardener
Ontario, Canada
905-786-2388

Ecogenesis
Ontario, Canada
877-836-3693

Eden Organic Nursery Services
Hallandale, Fla.
954-382-8281

eGardenSeed.com
Boulder, Colo.
707-733-3710

El Dorado Heirloom Seeds
El Dorado, Kan.
316-452-5581

Eternal Seed
Ontario, Canada

Fedco Seeds
Waterville, Maine
207-873-7333

Filaree Garlic Farm
Okanogan, Wash.
509-422-6940

Florida Backyard Vegetable Gardener
Spring Hill, Fla.
352-650-7343

Glasshouse Works
Stewart, Ohio
740-662-2142

Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery
Sebastopol, Calif.
707-823-9125

Heirloom Acres Seeds
New Bloomfield, Mo.
573-491-3001

Heirloom Seeds
West Finley, Pa.
724-663-5356

High Mowing Organic Seeds
Wolcott, Vt.
802-472-6174

Horizon Herbs
Williams, Ore.
541-846-6704

Irish Eyes Garden Seeds
Ellensburg, Wash.
509-964-7000

Just Fruits and Exotics
Crawfordville, Fla.
850-926-5644

Lonesome Whistle Farm
Eugene, Ore.
541-345-3415

Mountain Valley Growers
Squaw Valley, Calif.
559-338-2775

Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds
Parkside, SK, Canada
306-747-2935

The Natural Gardening Company
Petaluma, Calif.
707-766-9303

Nature’s Crossroads Earth-Friendly Seeds
Bloomington, Ind.
812-327-9612

Oikos Tree Crops
Kalamazoo, Mich.
269-624-6233

Organic Sprouting Seeds
Minneapolis, Minn.
763-502-6902

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply
Grass Valley, Calif.
888-784-1722

Penny’s Tomatoes
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
843-455-7465

Pepper Joe’s
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
843-997-5713

Plants of the Southwest
Santa Fe, N.M., and Albuquerque, N.M.
505-438-8888

Renee’s Garden Seeds
Felton, Calif.
831-335-7228

Seed Savers Exchange
Decorah, Iowa
563-382-5990

Seeds of Change
Santa Fe, N.M.
800-957-3337

Seeds Trust
Cornville, Ariz.
928-649-3315

Select Seeds
Union, Conn.
800-684-0395

Siskiyou Seeds
Williams, Ore.
541-846-9233

Soggy Creek Seed Company
Ontario, Canada
705-724-1144

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Mineral, Va.
540-894-9480

Sow True Seed
Asheville, N.C.
828-254-0708

Stellar Seeds
British Columbia, Canada
250-366-0061

Sunshine Farm & Gardens
Renick, W.Va.
304-497-2208

Sustainable Seed Company
Santa Rosa, Calif.
707-632-6212

Terra Edibles
Ontario, Canada
613-961-0654

The Thyme Garden Herb Company
Alsea, Ore.
541-487-8671

TomatoFest Heirloom Tomato Seeds
Little River, Calif.
707-937-1218

Turtle Tree Seed
Copake, N.Y.
518-329-3037

Uprising Seeds
Bellingham, Wash.
360-778-3749

Welter Seed and Honey Company
Onslow, Iowa
563-485-2762

Wild Garden Seed
Philomath, Ore.
541-929-4068

Wood Prairie Farm
Bridgewater, Maine
800-829-9765

Resources for Organic Seed Growers

Do you think you may want to produce organic seeds to sell to seed companies? The Internet is rich with the technical know-how to help you start. You may want to begin by studying the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s guide to organic seed production, and then check in with the following resources or other regional groups.

Pacific Northwest: The Organic Seed Alliance sponsors variety trials, hosts educational workshops, and publishes organic seed production manuals for several crops. A great national resource as well, the Organic Seed Alliance coordinates and develops research projects in many regions.

West: Extension.org’s Organic Seed Resource Guide brings together essential information for potential seed growers anywhere, with heavy input from Western states.

Southwest: Native Seeds/SEARCH conserves, distributes and documents seeds of diverse crops with ancestral roots in arid regions.

Southeast: Save Our Seed sponsors workshops and organic seed production guides, and its website has a top online bibliography for seed savers.

Mid-Atlantic: Saving Our Seeds has some of the best organic seed production manuals on the Web, available for free download.

Northeast: The Organic Seed Partnership seeks to develop higher-quality organic vegetable seed for the Northeast, especially peas, broccoli, sweet corn, carrots and winter squash.

Midwest: Seed Savers Exchange hosts an international seed-saving and seed-swapping effort, and many top curators (and propagators) in the Midwest who support organic growing methods participate.

Canada: Seeds of Diversity coordinates “Seedy Saturday” seed swaps across the country and organizes work groups to improve crops and conserve seeds.

Hawaii: Hawaii State Public Seed Initiative seeks to develop sustainable community food systems by rediscovering, improving and sharing superior Hawaiian seed strains.

Alaska: Denali Seed is always looking for seed growers of varieties adapted to subarctic conditions.


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Post a comment below.

 

Richo
2/2/2011 9:04:46 AM
I read with interest this survey of seed companies in the US. I would like to add that Horizon Herbs has the largest selection of certified organic seeds in the US, with over 700 species listed. And, I would like to invite Mother Earth News to interview us--we have a unique model that is not shared by these other companies but nonetheless goes way back in history--we grow our own seeds! Richo Cech

Leah Elliott
1/17/2011 2:45:53 AM
Please visit this seed company offering over 1400 varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated, patent-free seeds! http://rareseeds.com/ I am a very happy customer.








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