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.


| January 11, 2011


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.

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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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