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.
One of the trends our survey brought to light was a rising interest in locally produced, organically grown garden seeds.
PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO/CHRIS PRICE
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.
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.”
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.
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.
American Organic Seed
Amishland Heirloom Seeds
Blue River Hybrids
The Cottage Gardener
Eden Organic Nursery Services
El Dorado Heirloom Seeds
El Dorado, Kan.
Filaree Garlic Farm
Florida Backyard Vegetable Gardener
Spring Hill, Fla.
Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery
Heirloom Acres Seeds
New Bloomfield, Mo.
West Finley, Pa.
High Mowing Organic Seeds
Irish Eyes Garden Seeds
Just Fruits and Exotics
Lonesome Whistle Farm
Mountain Valley Growers
Squaw Valley, Calif.
Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds
Parkside, SK, Canada
The Natural Gardening Company
Nature’s Crossroads Earth-Friendly Seeds
Oikos Tree Crops
Organic Sprouting Seeds
Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply
Grass Valley, Calif.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Plants of the Southwest
Santa Fe, N.M., and Albuquerque, N.M.
Renee’s Garden Seeds
Seed Savers Exchange
Seeds of Change
Santa Fe, N.M.
Soggy Creek Seed Company
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Sow True Seed
British Columbia, Canada
Sunshine Farm & Gardens
Sustainable Seed Company
Santa Rosa, Calif.
The Thyme Garden Herb Company
TomatoFest Heirloom Tomato Seeds
Little River, Calif.
Turtle Tree Seed
Welter Seed and Honey Company
Wild Garden Seed
Wood Prairie Farm
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.
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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