New Kind of Old Fashioned Seed Company
July 4, 2010/
By Jill Swenson
The “buy local” and “grow your own” movements have gone mainstream. Yet, until now you couldn’t find a single seed company within 150 miles of Ithaca, NY, that sold seeds labeled locally grown. It makes a difference in the yield and bounty when the seed is suited to the local climate, soils, pests, fungi, weeds, viruses, and bacteria.
That’s why, as a seasoned seed-saver, I decided to sprout a new business on my farm, the On Warren Pond Farm & Seed Company. The new seed company specializes in local, hand-harvested, untreated seeds for the kitchen gardener and backyard farmer. In the last decade the number of seed companies have decreased significantly and yet the price of seed keeps going up. Where there were once many small seed crop farms here in upstate New York, now there is only a handful.
The seed industry experienced an economic transformation during the last 10 years that parallels many other industries; both horizontal and vertical integration into global conglomerates. Now Big Pharma dominates the seed industry. In 1998, the 10 largest seed companies controlled about 33% of the global seed market, and today 69% of all corn and 47% of all soybean seeds in the US were purchased from just four major companies. These seed companies typically sell only industrial varieties of plant seeds. Because they dominate national and international seed markets, it is increasingly difficult for small scale farmers and gardeners to buy non-industrial seed varieties.
But, for those who yearn for biodiversity and the old-fashioned flavors and textures of vegetables raised in our grandparents time, there is a growing movement for an alternative vision: seeds for sustainability. Starting any new business requires research first. Identifying a market niche is one thing but assessing what it will take to make the business successful is another thing. When I set out to start my small scale seed company, I began to build a team of advisors, including key people in the Small Farms Program and Cooperative Extension Service at Cornell University. Several years ago I had been fortunate to take a course at the Rural-Urban Center in Montour Falls sponsored by CCE on building a sustainable farm plan. Now I needed a refresher course and wanted to build this new business with virtually no start-up costs and no debt. Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca, NY, provided the structure and support with their “Getting Down to Business” programs to work up a new business plan. And they encouraged my efforts to find a better business model.
What makes my seed business better is the commitment to sell only locally grown seed from open-pollinated varieties. On Warren Pond Farm is dedicated to biodiversity and is a signatory to the Safe Seed Pledge:
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants…”
There are some new seed companies on the horizon to fill this expanding market demand for an alternative to the monoculture. Hudson Valley Seed Exchange is a source of regionally-adapted seeds and by 2014 they aim to be 100% New York grown. Located in Accord, NY, Ken Greene and Doug Muller are young entrepreneurs who also sell their seeds in packaging designed by local artists. They offer an interesting business model which includes a seed library and partner gardeners. In 2010 they offer 25 seed varieties of locally grown seed.
Southern Seed Exchange is another source of regionally adapted seeds for those gardeners south of the Mason-Dixon line. With a commitment to heirlooms and open pollinated seeds, this successful new business is another beacon for a new kind of old fashioned seed business.
On Warren Pond Farm & Seed Co. plans to go full-scale in operations for the 2011 season. After a successful test-market of dill and tobacco seeds in 2010, the fields are planted with almost 100 varieties of plants. Read more about how hand-harvesting of seed crops is accomplished by a “crop mob” in the next issue of Small Farms Quarterly. A large group of people plan to arrive on August 15th to accomplish a small miracle for the price of a day on the farm, a swim in the pond, and a good meal with organically grown sweet corn roasted on an open fire.
Plans are underway to develop a “Seed CSA 2011” whereby members receive packets of seeds in the mail each month starting in January; some for eating (red cayenne, coriander, dill, nasturtium, pumpkin), some for sprouting (alfalfa, clover, bean, pea, radish) and some for planting in season (lettuces, chard, beets, sunflowers, hollyhocks, calendula, etc.).
On Warren Pond Farm & Seed Co. is a logical extension of what the love of my life, Sam Warren, began more than 20 years ago on this land his father once farmed for buckwheat, oats, corn, clover and winter wheat for a local seed company. Sam died unexpectedly September 15, 2009, and I honor his legacy by making my own way down on the farm, off-the-grid, in a new kind of old-fashioned way.
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed… Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Henry David Thoreau.
Jill Swenson is the owner of On Warren Pond Farm & Seed Co., based in Trumansburg, NY. You can learn more about On Warren Pond Farm at www.onwarrenpondfarm.com.