‘Adaptive Seeds’ Works to Reclaim Our Seed Heritage, Part 2

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent
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Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future. Read Adaptive Seeds Work to Reclaim Our Seed Heritage, Part 1 for more information.

Sarah and Andrew eventually founded Adaptive Seeds in January 2009, and then in November of that year, they reached an agreement to lease the property at their current location, which they named Open Oak Farm. But it’s hard to make a living as a start-up seed company, so Open Oak Farm began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership to generate the revenue they needed to keep their farm afloat. The CSA worked out, and though it was a lot of work, it supported the initial growth of the seed business.

Now, five years later, Andrew and Sarah believe it’s time to take the plunge. They have terminated their CSA and made Adaptive Seeds their full-time commitment. But I guess the question is whether one hundred percent annual growth over a five year period is really enough to live on. It sounds good, but what does it mean in actual numbers?

Sarah admits some nerves… “this is the year that… I don’t want to say make it or break it, but yeah, that’s kind of what it is. And if it doesn’t work it probably means an off-farm job for one of us.”
Andrew remains resolute, “We’re trying to figure out where the money we made in our CSA is going to come from. The good part is that we’ll have that much more time to spend on the seeds, which we really needed to make the seed company flourish. And I believe if we’re smart and a little bit lucky and really, really tenacious, we will be able to make it work.”

Sarah adds, “But it’s one hundred percent dependent on the retail price point, right? If you’re a gardener you’ve probably noticed in seed catalogs that a pound of something will go for like $60 wholesale while a gram will retail for $3.50. Right? So that’s like a thousand seed packets… okay, not a thousand but there’s something like 450 grams per pound, so do the math. If you can sell retail by the gram then you’re making significantly more money.”

“Or at least you’re not losing as much money,” adds Andrew.

Sarah continues, “When we first got into the seed business, we were really disgusted by that math. And now that we better understand what the overhead and the loss and the risk is, we’re not feeling any better about it. It’s like a farmer getting five cents for a loaf of bread and the bread costs four bucks. That’s what the wholesale seed world is like.”

Andrew feels that it may be even worse than that. “Fundamentally, like many things in our society, it’s about money and who controls it. It’s like comparing mass-produced commodities to artisanal products that you know where they came from and that they’re actually high quality.”

Andrew emphasized that he and Sarah believe in producing seeds that people can save and reuse. But in the mainstream seed industry, most of the quality has been pushed off into hybrids, because they offer proprietary control. Individual companies control those seeds so farmers and gardeners can’t save them. At the same time, the open pollinated seeds which people can save have been purchased by large corporations that are allowing them to degrade into commodity status so they won’t compete quality-wise with their money-making hybrids.

The end result of these practices is that many of the traditional, open pollinated seeds are such poor quality now that they won’t flourish in the field and they lack the nutritional profile they once offered. The Adaptive Seeds model is designed to reverse this trend.

“Our goal is to try to bring the value back to open pollinated and heritage seeds,” explained Andrew. “To steward them up to their potential and make them thrive and produce better. Because it’s kind of sad where the seed industry has gone, and it’s time to try to put it right again.”

Another key focus of Adaptive Seeds is their emphasis on the regional adaptability of their seeds. In fact, that’s where their name comes from. When seeds are planted and plants are grown in a specific type of environment, the plants that do the best job of adapting to that environment produce the best vegetables. Naturally, the seeds those plants produce will have the best chance of succeeding when they are planted in a similar environment.

In order to carry out their goals, Andrew and Sarah understand that they’ve first got to make the business work, which includes making a profit.

Sarah, as ever, takes a practical view of that issue… “I’ve been thinking about how many more thousand dollars we need to make this year over last year. And asking myself how many hours of filling little seed packets does that translate to.”

Andrew, the entrepreneur, explains… “We have an operation that probably shouldn’t be growing this fast, because it’s really hard to finance and prepare for. And we’re trying to self-finance it. It would be great to be in a position to not have to worry about cancerous growth every year, but we have to get to a critical mass as soon as possible to be a sustainable operation. We are close.”

Then Andrew, the former philosophy major, expounds, “You know, this discussion is getting into the nitty gritty details of the business, which is kind of weird, but it’s definitely part of it. It’s an undervalued part of agriculture. I think a lot of people will get into farming thinking it’s for the lifestyle, when the lifestyle is what falls out in the end. You have to have certain conditions in order for you to have that lifestyle. And having a business that works and knowing how to produce the food and knowing about your efficiencies and knowing how to market it and all that stuff is how you get to the lifestyle… but people think that you just have a lifestyle. Of course, all the things that get you to the lifestyle are actually part of what the lifestyle really is.”

And Sarah concludes… “Now I would like to go for a walk.”

And that’s all part of being adaptive. Being able to adapt to whatever life and the market and any particular pursuit throws at you. Just like Sarah and Andrew. 

Read Adaptive Seeds Help to Reclaim Our Seed Heritage, Part 1.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Sarah Kleeger displays some recently harvested cabbage seeds.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Andrew Still makes some plant selection decisions in a row of coreopsis.

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