Friday, January 28, 2011

A Simple Packet of Seeds is Not So Simple

I am working on getting all of our seeds ordered for this year so that we can get seeds sown and plants growing and ready for market. I feel a bit rusty–we didn't really order many seeds in 2010, and hardly sold anything at all. Cash flow was tight, and we were focusing on rebuilding the farm's infrastructure in and around working full time off the farm to keep the bills paid.

It isn't that the cash flow is much better this year, but we are determined to at least be back selling plant starts in May and June, and maybe more later in the summer, if we can work out some fencing issues. We've missed being at the local markets, our customers have missed us too, and we don't want to stay away much longer. We can't grow produce until we get our major fencing issues sorted out, but plant starts are probably manageable. And if our farm is going to sell anything this year, we need to buy seeds.

I find myself feeling ridiculously happy ordering seeds for varieties that I haven't seen growing for almost two years now. It's like knowing that some of my favourite old friends are coming for a visit, and I just can't wait to see them. I missed the colorful lettuce varieties I've come to love growing (and eating!) each year, all the fragrant herbs and oh–the flowers! I've really missed the waves of color and texture that filled our farm with beauty and happy buzzing bees each year. There were so many plants like poppies, calendula, chamomile, borage, feverfew and nasturtiums that just happily sowed themselves on our old farm without any help from us, and I got used to just knowing they would pop up each spring and start blooming like mad. We had a few volunteers last year that came with us on the soil when we dug up our perennial herbs to move them to the new farm, but it wasn't like it used to be. I do know that it will be like that again someday. Patience is one of the first lessons in farming.

Taking my time looking through all the seed catalogs is one of the joys of winter for me. Each company has its own personality and image, and all the websites work differently which can sometimes make ordering very time consuming, but still worth it.

I always feel a thrill when the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog arrives. Packy refers to it as Seed Porn, and he isn't far off. It is one of the most beautiful catalogs I've ever seen, but more than that, they have such an amazing selection of heirloom seeds. I have to be careful, as their Mid-western climate is way different from the North Oregon Coast and there is much on offer that will just die a horrible death here in our challenging growing season. All those exotic melons and eggplants, and the 100+ day winter squash that you know will never ripen here, plus all those amazing tomatoes..... I would love to grow some of those huge, beautiful, colorful heirloom tomatoes! But I know better, and try to stick to the smaller, shorter season ones that at least have a chance of ripening here.

Anther favourite catalog is Seed Savers Exchange. Gorgeous to look at, but also full of beautiful heirloom varieties that have amazing stories to tell about the history of plant cultivation. I love the stories almost as much as I love the actual plants, and Seed Savers Exchange is a wonderful organization, doing critical work to support the diversity of plant varieties available to both home gardeners and commercial growers.

A big topic of discussion among growers lately has been the acquisition of Seminis Inc., a leading vegetable and fruit seed company, by Monsanto, a company whose very name inspires strong feelings of loathing from much of the small organic farming community. Why are the champions of genetically engineered seeds getting into the organic seed market? There is a lot of speculation, and I don't suppose we'll really know how it will play out for a while. There is a great article on this subject on Seed Alliance's website that I recommend reading if you are interested in knowing more about this.

Why is this an issue for us? Well, I'm not eager to give my money to a company like Monsanto if I can avoid it. Many of the catalogs we love to order from like Johnny's Selected Seeds of Maine, and Territorial Seeds of Oregon buy a lot of their seed from Seminis, and now Seminis is owned by Monsanto, so it means that even if the seed I'm buying isn't one of their GMO gems, I'm effectively sending money to Monsanto anyway.

Cue the Darth Vader theme music....

I'm really struggling with this one. There are things I love to order from Johnny's and Territorial, some things I can only get from them, and they haven't sold out to Monsanto. I'm sure they aren't thrilled about the situation, but they are just as stuck with the situation as their customers, as there are no other companies out there that can supply the volume they need. But if I order from them, how do I know that the varieties I'm buying aren't Seminis Seeds, and thus by buying them I'm supporting The Evil Empire? Jeez. I just want to grow good healthy plants from organic seed wherever possible, and this is just not something I want to wrangle with! I haven't decided what to do yet, but I'm running out of time.

I've already been struggling with the guilt of buying one packet of Cottage Red marigold seeds every other year from Burpee, who I still can't forgive for moving Heronswood Nursery from its home near Seattle (before I ever got a chance to visit in person!) to Pennsylvania, transforming their eloquent, extensive, picture-less catalog into a glossy on-line deal that dumbed down the plant offerings and now focuses on hardy perennials that favor East Coast gardens. Grrr.

Cottage Red is one of my favourite marigolds–I love using it in our Edible and Ball Jar Bouquets. You can whack hard at it all summer and it keeps blooming like mad, and is one of the last flowers to give in to frost. Unfortunately, it was discovered in Mexico by Dan Hinkley, the founder of Heronswood, and apparently the seed got sold to Burpee along with the rest of the business because they are the only ones that carry it, other than The Cook's Garden, a charming little seed company that is now owned by- you guessed it- Burpee. This year, I swear, I am saving seeds from this plant.

Fortunately the equally beautiful Frances Hoffman's Choice, my other favourite marigold to grow (pictured above in one of our Edible Bouquets) was bred by the brilliant and committed-to-plant-diversity Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds, and is widely available from seed companies I actually want to support. Whew.

The consolidation of seed company ownership is a huge topic, and one worthy of it's own post someday. It is worrisome for anyone who cares about biodiversity, and I am not happy about it. A long-term goal for our farm is to begin saving our own seeds wherever we can, and all this seed company consolidation just inspires me even more to do that. I already struggled with this 'who am I really buying seeds from' issue when Seeds of Change, one of the pioneers of organic seed, was sold to M&M-Mars Candy (!)

Even if I didn't hate their new plastic seed packets –which I profoundly do– I still just feel weird ordering from them now that they have sold out to an enormous corporate food company. When the new Seeds of Change switched to plastic seed packets, they made a big pitch for how much better they are, how they are re-sealable, and that they don't use that much plastic really. Hmmm. I find that small seeds get such a static charge from the plastic that they stick to the inside much worse than paper packets, and much more is wasted. Plus- plastic! What are they thinking?! How does that fit with their crunchy organic image? I still get their catalog, it is quite beautiful, and it seems like they do many good things as a company. But there is so much less variety in the seeds they offer now, and I just don't feel as compelled to buy seed from them anymore.

However, even in the midst of this 'who do I order from' frustration, I find that there are options. This year I am excited to be ordering from two small organic seed companies, both of them located in the Pacific Northwest, both of whom source their seeds from Northwest growers. Siskiyou Seeds in Williams, Oregon, and Uprising Seeds in Bellingham, Washington are both small, and their selection is not extensive, but they both have some great varieties for sale. The upside for us is that these are all varieties grown in our region, so the likelihood of them doing well here on the North Coast is good.

I found both catalogs at Naomi's Organic Farm Supply in Portland, and I thank her for turning me on to both these companies, because they are just the kind of businesses that our small farm wants to support. It feels good to keep our seed buying a bit more local where we can. As a small business ourselves, we know how much it means to us when people choose to spend their money buying from us, knowing that they can often get something similar somewhere else, and probably get it cheaper too. It's a challenge for a farmer- obviously you want to grow the varieties people want to buy, and you want to offer them the best choice for the best price you can give them and still stay in business and be reasonably profitable. Add in trying to do the right thing and buy seeds from companies that are not part of the corporate industrial food system and you find yourself walking though a rapidly changing minefield.

We'll do our best to offer the best selection we can this year, try to find out as much as possible about where our seed comes from, make the best choices we can, and pass that knowledge on to you so that you can make your own choices as well.

And as we always have, we'll continue to focus on growing plants that do well on the Northwest Coast. We'll use organic seed wherever it is available, and grow primarily heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, with the occasional hybrid thrown in where it is really just the only thing like it. Like Sungold tomatoes. I hear rumor that someone is trying to de-hybridize Sungold and breed a stable OP version of it. I am really looking forward to trying it.

And yes, Eddie, I promise we will grow lots of catnip this year.

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait to have you back at the Market with starts!!!