Saving Seed for a Seed Company
by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
Ever wonder where all that seed comes from when you place your midwinter seed orders? Many seed companies (as in retail seed catalogs) buy at least some of the seed they offer from commercial seed growers who have a highly mechanized operation. This allows us to have inexpensive seed that is widely available. A lot of these catalogs also contract small farm growers to provide those hard-to-find specialty seeds we all love. There are also seed companies who do all their own grow-outs for the seed they offer. All these companies will also run seed trials to test the qualities of new varieties they want to offer.
Many of these people who are contracted to grow specialty seed have a small enough operation that they hand process the seed. These people may be a backyard gardener raising only one variety of something or someone who raises multiple vegetables for seed. There is also the farmer who relies on it not as a side, but as a primary income.
What is the difference between saving seed for me, and saving seed for a seed company? As big as whatever my personal standards are. When saving seed for myself I may take chances, shortening the isolation distances to try to accommodate what I want with what I have to work with. If I make a mistake and ruin a batch of seed with cross pollination, the consequences are my own and affect only me. When I am raising seed for others, it isn’t just about the company and its reputation, it affects every person that seed goes to. The bar must be raised.
I got into seed saving for Baker Creek Heirlooms in 2007. I was introduced to the idea from a pen pal who was raising seed for them herself. She gave me the contact information and a basic idea of what to expect. It piqued my curiosity and I checked it out. I found myself with a grow-out list that included 5 tomato varieties, a soybean, a squash, and a watermelon. I was ambitious. I worked on my grow-out all that year, periodically asking myself if it was really worth it. I grew the plants all summer long, saved the seed, packaged and shipped the bulk seed to them in October. Then in January when I got my check, I knew it was worth it. By February I had my grow-out list for the next growing season.
At that time, I was contracted to grow up to 10-12 ounces of tomato seed per variety and was paid about $12 an ounce. Now the company and the demand have both expanded and the grow-out minimums are more like 3-5 pounds of seed per tomato variety, still paid by the ounce, only more for it. This also means that 12-15 years ago when I began, I was growing 50-100 tomato plants per variety to fulfill my order, and now closer to 1000 plants are needed. Some companies are looking for growers who are able to produce tomato and pepper (just examples) by the pound but others really only contract for amounts less than a pound per variety and they may have multiple growers growing the same varieties. This helps cover a potential fail crop. Heavier crops like corn and beans can be expected to be raised by the pound, anywhere from 5 pounds up to 500 pounds or more of seed per variety. If you are raising a grain crop, you maybe asked to grow over 1000 pounds.
Tomato grow-outs are a common beginning grow-out, but they do not have to be. The initial grow-out is usually a small contract and it helps both you and the seed manager get a feel for what works best for you. Tomatoes are easy to assign because there are hundreds of varieties and so they can be spread out, but many companies really need growers who can offer the space for grow-outs that require the larger isolations distances. Casey O’Leary, General Manager of Snake River Seed Co-op, voiced her greatest grow-out needs as, “Squashes and other outcrossing hot crops, as well as biennials like beets and chard”, which is a common need expressed by most of the other companies. Ira Wallace of Southern Seed Exposure says, “we always need more growers for biennials, pole beans, southern peas and unusual varieties. But really this year we need more seeds in most crop types”. Nikos of Fedco Seeds noted that their needs “…varies from year to year. Corn isolations without nearby GMO are always needed. Large isolations for squash are in demand. Efficient larger scale pole bean productions are in need. In general, certified organic is the most useful for us, because that’s where the growth is right now.”
It is a great opportunity for someone looking for a home-based income if they have a little land and some gardening experience. Sure, it is great to also have seed saving experience, but if you have gardening experience, the seed saving part will come naturally. Whatever company contracting you to save seed will have detailed instructions to help you meet their expectations. Build your “seed literacy”, as Nikos of Fedco Seeds puts it. Having a basic knowledge and understanding of seed saving goes a long way in communicating with those who are looking for growers. A couple book recommendations are “The Organic Seed Grower”, by John Navazio, and the well-known “Seed to Seed”, by Suzanne Ashworth. Often seed companies ask for stricter isolation distances than Ms. Ashworth’s recommendations with varieties threatened with GMO pollen contamination.
How much can you be expected to be paid? This can vary from company to company, even from one strain to the next within a variety of vegetable, depending on rarity of seed and perhaps difficulty of extracting the seed. For example, there are tomato varieties that have very few seed, they are a lot more work to grow enough plants and then process the seed. A general range to expect to be paid for tomato seed can be anywhere from $12-$30 per ounce of clean seed that passes the germination tests. It pays 10-20% more if you can become Certified Organic. Often, seed is priced by the ounce for smaller seeds such as peppers, eggplant, tomato, lettuce, herbs, brassicas and more. Heavier seed like beans and corn, even watermelon can be priced by the pound easier. Pepper seed ranges from $20-$32 per ounce for anywhere from 8 ounces up to 10 pounds of seed per variety. With okra you are looking at $20-$35 a pound for 5-60 pounds. Bean or cowpea seed can range from $2-$15 per pound, and depending on the company or variety, they may want 100-500 pounds of it. There are places who may split it up between growers to lessen the bulk and as an insurance against crop failure, but if growing beans are the thing for you, there are places who may take over 1000 pounds of bean seed per variety. Same goes with rare corn seed. It is a heavy seed, and they pay anywhere from $5-$25 per pound for upwards of a hundred pounds or much more. The thing with raising corn is you absolutely must be out of range of GMO pollen contamination. Cucumbers and cantaloupe seed can range from $12-$80 per pound of seed, the middle to upper end is more common. Again, it often depends on rarity of variety and demand. Commercially grown seed that is processed mechanically is often sold for much less than this but in far greater bulk.
There are a few things to think about, both for you and who you are working with. What do you like to grow? What does well for you? What you are used to growing successfully is a really good place to start to help ensure the new venture a success. Seed managers try to accommodate this as much as possible. Your success is their success too.
Another thing to consider is what your near neighbors may be growing. If your neighbor across the road has a field of corn it will make growing and saving corn seed very difficult if not impossible. Your grow-out may also affect what else you are able to grow in your garden or on your property in order to keep the necessary isolation distances.
Attention to tidiness and organization is important. Label, label, label. You can tell your tomato varieties apart easily when they are in the flesh, but when you have two trays of tomato seed drying, and they are not the same variety, and you can’t remember which is which… Don’t put yourself through this pain, because really, they need to be thrown away. Drying racks and screens need to be inspected carefully for residual seed. When someone buys a packet with 10 Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato seeds, they do not want an unexpected Amish Paste tomato in there too.
Also, think about how much space and time you really have and can commit. It is a lot of work. Gardening is a lot of work, but you know about that already. Processing seeds is a lot of work. Seed must be clean, free of chaff, dirt, debris and other seed. They need to be harvested when fully mature so they can pass the germination tests done by the company buying them, as required by the USDA. And of course, waiting for the one-time annual paycheck is a work of patience too.
You contract to produce a certain amount of seed. Then you have torrential rain, or drought, an untimely frost, a windstorm, disease, forest fires, a plague of locust – I mean bugs…. We are gardeners and farmers; these things happen to us. And these companies know. They are gardeners too. We do the best we can, but life and weather happen. Just stay in contact with whoever is managing the seed program and they will help you figure out what to do when you meet challenges. They anticipate a certain amount of crop failure in their grow-outs because it happens even despite best laid plans. Just do the best you can.
Just because you apply to grow-out seed does not mean that the application will be accepted. It may be the wrong time of year to apply. But it doesn’t hurt to open the conversation. You may not have enough space to accommodate the size of a grow-out they would need. They may not need more growers at present. There are other places who need growers too, check around.
Amid all the hard work of saving seed to be distributed, it really is an amazing feeling looking down at the bucket full of beans you are shelling and consider how many different gardens they will travel to. The seed that will live on somewhere else, perhaps being loved enough by another to be then kept year after year in their garden. This is participating in seed preservation in a wholesale way.
For those interested in saving seed for an income, whether supplemental or primary, I have listed some companies who are hoping to expand their grower network. The first thing you do is contact them and explain your interest. They will be interested to hear how much gardening experience you have, what crops are grown in your area, how much space you have to dedicate to this kind of project, are you able to grow organically (not required for most companies, but there are some that do), and what you feel you can reasonably manage. Many of these places may send you a questionnaire to fill out and a grower packet of information to go over. Then you will discuss with the grow out manager what is available to grow and discuss any questions either side may have. Contracts are usually arranged and confirmed anywhere from December through, at latest, February.
Do not overbook yourself if you choose to grow seed for multiple companies. Always be open and out front with who you are working with. It makes sense if you are growing Hopi Blue corn, to grow enough for multiple companies. But don’t have one company providing the seed you are growing and then selling to others unless they are okay with it.
Consider that there are also states that require certification to grow certain vegetables for the seed industry in their state. For example, to grow beans in Idaho they must be certified disease free. All cotton must be tested for potential boll weevil infestation and inspectors will come to your farm to check traps that they will set up. Your seed manager will inform you of any regulations you would need to be aware of in your area.
I did not do an exhaustive research on seed companies looking to expand their grower network. I contacted companies that were referred to me, some of whom are not needing more growers at present. Some I discovered produce all their own seed, such as Wild Garden Seed in Oregon (which is amazing), and don’t contract any out. Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seed said, “Our company is unusual in being one of the few that grows all of the seed we sell. This has been our way for 27 years. We did consider changing our model a few years ago, but recently recommitted to only selling what we grow.” This helps them guarantee the purity of their seed by being so intimately responsible for it. But there are many more seed companies and some of those may be looking for more growers. Who do you buy seed from? Catalogs and websites have general contact information, and you can ask and see if they are interested in expanding their growers. If they are not interested, they will say so. Many prefer to communicate through email because it is convenient. But there are also many Amish who have grown seed for the seed industry and communicate without phone or email.
If this is something you are interested in, possibly saving seed wholesale, it may be a good idea to experiment with seed saving in your own garden. See what it takes to save seed from a variety of vegetables, the time, effort, and organization it takes. And then, at the end of the year see how you feel about it. Is this something you want to do and share? Stepping inside the pages of a seed catalog and working on the other side of it.
Seed Companies Expanding Their Growers
660 Compton St., Broomfield, CO 80020 – Contact April Shelhon Marketing Horticulturist at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“We tend to do larger contracts, but it completely varies by crop. Some crops we need a pound and others we need 400 lbs.”
Snake River Seed Cooperative
“The main caveat is that we source all of our seeds from growers in the Intermountain West bioregion, which we define as all of Idaho as well as eastern Washington and Oregon east of the Cascades, northern Nevada, northern Utah, and Western Montana and Wyoming. While we do require all our growers to follow organic practices, we do not require that growers be certified organic.”
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460, Mineral, Virginia 23117 – For getting in touch with us: Ira Wallace does big picture thinking and talking with new growers (IraAcorn@gmail.com, 540-894-1470). Ken Bezilla does seed contracting and does inventory work and details stuff and some germination testing (email@example.com, 609-865-2412).
“Sales have seen an unprecedented increase last year and again this year causing us to struggle but with the help of our cooperating farms not only in growing seeds but helping with order fulfillment this winter we continue to serve customer and share the economic opportunity with them. We need more seed growers and we like working with small farmers.”
Sow True Seed
Leah Smith, Director of Agriculture, 243 Haywood Street, Asheville, NC 28801 – (828) 254-0708, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sow True Seed is looking for growers who have previous seed saving experience. The best way to contact Leah is by email but if that is not available to you, use the other contact information available.
True Leaf Market Sustainable Seed Co.
175 West 2700 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84115 – email@example.com attn: Kat or Raegan
“…we would like growers that can grow from 1 lb Specialty crops to 50,000 lb agricultural vegetable and grain crops. We use both organic and conventional seed.”