"We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine."
- Michael Pollan
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|| Fedco: Thirty Years Old and Still Growing
|John Bunker (left) of Fedco Trees and CR Lawn of Fedco Seeds at the Seed Swap and Scion Exchange. The two entertained gardeners with stories of the origins of Fedco at a talk at Merryspring in Camden this spring. English photo.
Inclusiveness and a New Back-to-the-Land Movement Credited
On March 11, 2008, to honor Fedco Seeds’ 30-year anniversary, CR Lawn and John Bunker of Fedco addressed a group of gardening enthusiasts at Merryspring Nature Park in Camden, Maine. Lawn, a graduate of Oberlin College and Yale Law School, has been farming organically for three decades and was a market gardener from 1976 to 1989. Bunker, who founded Fedco Trees, recently published his book, Not Far From the Tree – A Brief History of the Apples and Orchards of Palermo, Maine.
Here is their March conversation.
Lawn: John founded Fedco Trees, which is our trees, shrubs and ornamentals division, many years ago. He was not with us at the very beginning, but he is going to tell his version of the story of how Fedco started, which I have not heard! I’ll tell you a little later what my version is. There’ll be a little bit of fiction in each of our talks, probably. That’s flavor.
Bunker: Of all the people who have worked at Fedco, there’s probably one other person who has worked as many hours as CR and I have. Aside from him – and he couldn’t be here today, because he’s working – the two of us have certainly put in the most hours of any of the people in the organization. On the way down we were chatting about what we might say today, and I asked CR if he’d ever heard my version of how Fedco started, and he said “No,” so we decided that I would give my version, and we’ll see what happens from there.
In the ‘70s there was an extremely active coop movement in Maine, in many towns, so much that practically every town in Maine had access to some sort of food coop, and many, many people spent a day a month driving down to Boston and getting cheese and produce and so forth. I was very involved in that, and CR was, and probably a number of you.
At a certain point, and I don’t remember the year, there was a decision made to start a coop warehouse in Maine, and that was called Fedco. That was the Federation of Maine Coops. The original warehouse was in Hallowell, and then it was in Vassalboro, and then it was in Winslow. The purpose of that warehouse was to distribute the dry goods and the wet goods – not the vegetables, not so much the cheese (although later there was cheese) – but a lot of the things like grains and honey and oil…so that people didn’t have to drive so far to get their food.
Over time, when Fedco was still in Vassalboro, someone – CR – decided that it would be fun to do a special project. Occasionally Fedco sponsored different special projects, and one of them was this seed order. So CR contacted Johnny’s Selected Seeds and said, “Can we buy some seeds in bulk from you and we’ll repackage them and sell them to our coop members?” Out of that came the first Fedco Seed order, which was, at that point, a tiny percentage of what Fedco was doing. Fedco was really getting to be quite large at that point in terms of food distribution.
That seed order continued. It was just something that was more like a hobby for different people for a number of years. The third year, I think it was , was my first year. Then eventually Fedco, the food coop, moved to this chicken barn in Winslow. Actually, Fedco Seeds moved to this chicken barn, and eventually the whole Fedco food coop moved to this very large, three-story chicken barn in Winslow.
Seeds began to grow, and it became something where for about a dozen of us, it was a fun winter project, and part of a whole year of work. People would be carpenters and farmers and whatever, and in the winter we’d gather and for maybe a month, two months, we’d do this thing, Fedco Seeds.
Meanwhile, in the wide world, a lot of the back-to-the-landers were deciding that it was time to go back to graduate school, or move back to Boston, or move back home or wherever, and a lot of the back-to-the-land movement was going through a fairly significant change, I think.
Meanwhile, the food warehouse had predicated their business decisions on an endlessly growing group of back-to-the-landers, which was not happening. A number of things that the coop did lent themselves to the ultimate demise of the Fedco food warehouse. One of them was that they did think that they could endlessly grow without advertising, because advertising was considered to be bourgeois, because after all, when I buy my pound of rice, why should I be paying to advertise to you so that you would know that Fedco also sold rice?
Also, virtually every decision was made by consensus in the large group. So decisions that most of us would make easily in our businesses with one or two people, or maybe three people, or a little consultation down the hall, were made by everyone. So at the food coop, there would be long, long meetings where no food was getting pulled, no trucks were getting loaded, nothing.
Lawn: And everybody who participated hated them! They wouldn’t have admitted it publicly, but they did.
Bunker: Another thing that was happening was that this month’s bills were being paid with next month’s sales, which, if you know about business, that’s a real no-no – especially when next month’s sales start to slow down. But we were all young, and I worked for the food coop part of Fedco for a while. There was a thought that anything that had to do with modern capitalist businesses was absolutely wrong, and that means everything – including the things that were actually pretty good about the way businesses are run.
Fortunately, through all this, one person saw the writing on the wall, and that was CR, and this is my moment to praise CR.
Lawn: This is where the fiction part comes!
Bunker: About that time – this would have been about 1983 or 4 – I had now been working for Fedco for about three years or so. I lived on a farm in Palermo, where I have lived since the early ‘70s. I had gotten really interested in growing trees.
When CR and I both moved to Maine and began to farm, there was no MOFGA, and there was very little information out there for people that didn’t know anything about farming. I grew up in the ‘burbs and didn’t even know there was something called soil, or soil types! As I began to grow my own food, for whatever reason, I really gravitated toward the old apple trees around Palermo. As MOFGA began to grow and become stronger, and as the first Common Ground Fairs came in the late ‘70s, I noticed that there was a lot of interest in growing gardens but very little interest in growing woody plants, whether it’s blueberries or plum trees or apple trees.
The other thing that was really wonderful about those times, nearly 30 years ago, was that a lot of the old orchards that had been planted in the early part of the 20th century or the late part of the 19th century, those orchards were still there and still producing beautiful crops, but they were beginning to be on their way out. So I started thinking, well, we need to leave something for the people who come after us, and we can’t simply be endlessly foraging free apples around Waldo County or Kennebec County. We need to be doing something so that the foragers of the future, the people that we don’t know, will have something for them.
A number of friends of mine said, “Why don’t you start your own nursery and do it privately, and that will be yours, and you will derive the profit, and you can have control over how you do it?”
Now this Fedco Seeds connection that I’d had for two or three years had begun to sink in, and I decided that there was something really good about doing things as a cooperative, and about owning the business together. And I still feel that way: There are many, many things – and things that I didn’t realize then – that I see even more now. So, contrary to what a number of people told me, I decided that what I wanted to do was start another division of Fedco, and that would be Fedco Trees.
So I went to CR and we talked about it. As I recall, CR said, why don’t you not do it this year (that was probably ’83), but let’s do it next year, which was ’84. So that gave us an extra year to plan.
About that time, the Fedco food warehouse was beginning to falter, and it was looking as though it wouldn’t survive. The seed part of the business, and eventually the tree part of the business, were still tiny compared to the volume of business that the food was doing.
CR attempted to help them sort out the way things were being managed, but for whatever reason, it was too late; the writing was on the wall, so to speak. CR decided that what we, Fedco Seeds, should do is to incorporate separately.
So somewhere around ’83 or ’84, Fedco Seeds incorporated separately, the Fedco food warehouse went bankrupt, and a lot of people lost a lot of money, and then that was the end of the food coop in Maine. Out of the ashes, so to speak, this funny little seed company, which really was not Fedco at all – it just happened to inherit the name of the food coop of which it had been a special project – so out of the Federation of Maine Coops came this thing called Fedco Seeds. Then out of that came Trees, and Bulbs, and we picked up other pieces along the way. There were friends of ours that started this thing that they called Moose Tubers, and eventually they weren’t able to run it, so we inherited it from them – the selling of seed potatoes. And it was MOFGA that started what we call Organic Growers Supplies now, where they were doing an annual order of cover crops and soil amendments and so forth, and they were not able to run it, and so we inherited that.
I’ve probably gone 10 minutes…
Lawn: Other than making me look way too good, you did pretty well. The funny part, the part where I don’t look so good, is the truth about why we incorporated separately, which you don’t know, and hardly anybody does. The truth is that Fedco warehouse had one year in which it was notably profitable, and that was 1980 or ’81 or so, and the reason that we incorporated Fedco Seeds separately was because the Fedco warehouse was becoming too profitable, oddly enough, as a result of that one year.
And the reason is, cooperatives generally, the way they redistribute their earnings is through something called patronage dividends. Instead of having one owner or small group of stockholders who get the benefits from profits, cooperatives redistribute their profits to their members, and this is a wonderful process, but it’s pretty complicated.
We were a very, very small part of this big entity, and remember, this was before there were computers that could instantaneously do most of this work, so I was looking at this and facing the proposition that this tiny little thing, Fedco Seeds, which was only what, a $50,000 a year business at that time, was going to have to start distributing these dividends. I just didn’t feel like we were ready to do that! So we separated the incorporation and thereby saved ourselves a few years later when the food business took a severe downturn. So we were safe when they went under.
The first question was, ‘Are you still in business?’ People would start calling us up, so I had to reassure everybody.
Then came the next question: Do we want to keep the Fedco name or not? That was a hard question, because if you don’t know what ‘Fedco’ stands for, it almost sounds like something out of George Orwell! So that was a hard decision that I wrestled over. I finally said, well, we sent out a mailing to all our customers; we developed a little bit of good will with this and it’s worked pretty well for three years; let’s just keep the name Fedco, and if anybody asks, we can tell them what it stands for. Hardly anybody ever asks, but now you know what it stands for.
The rest of the story is pretty much true. I’m going to add a couple of embellishments, because I can’t resist.
I’m going to blame the whole thing on the blizzard of 1978, because I was living out in the woods, one of those homesteaders. I was living in a cabin with no plumbing, no running water, no electricity, uninsulated, and heated only with a wood cookstove. I was spending the whole winter out there, and I was young, and I was strong, and it was fun – to a point.
Winter came along, and we had 90-mile-an-hour winds, and it almost blew my cabin to smithereens. It was a little bit scary. It got me thinking, there must be something more I should do with my half a brain than just sit around trying to survive all winter in an isolated, cold place.
So the next fall came along, and I was involved in the coop movement, and I said, well, I want to do something besides just cut wood and stay warm and survive all winter while I wait until the spring comes along and I plant my huge garden – which even now I’m doing. So I made the Maine Federation of Cooperatives an offer that they couldn’t refuse. I said, if you’ll put me up in your little warehouse there, somewhere in a cubicle for three months, December, January, February – those were the horrible months – and you pay me 75 bucks a month and let me live there, I’ll come and help you with special projects.
I knew I had a few skills. I was good at math, and Fedco had some self-taught bookkeeper people who were really struggling; they couldn’t keep up with it. That was one of the things: I’ll come down and help you with that stuff, ‘cause I can do that kind of stuff. And they said yes.
It was really a unique opportunity, because I got to take part in all of the things that were going on in that warehouse for three months, and yet I was a little bit apart from it as well.
This idea came up: I’d coordinated two smaller seed orders. I’d had a little pre-order coop, a buying club called Bilbo’s Birthday in Canaan and Clinton, Maine, that had grown till it actually had 60 families, and we decided to do a little seed order with them, and we did. And then I did the same thing with a whole regional coop called Western Coordinated Produce, of which Bilbo’s was one member, and also with a growers’ group that I was a part of, because I was starting to grow produce to sell. So that was a bigger seed order.
I took those as models, and I went to the Federation of Coops, and I said, hey, what do you think if one of the special projects I do is to organize a statewide coop seed order. And they said, yeah, yeah, we like that. So Fedco Seeds was born out of that.
The neat thing about the whole thing was – not that I understood anything that anybody else didn’t see – it was, I got a chance to observe this whole process of how the food warehouse was working or not working, taking part in all those dreadful, collective meetings – which did also have a few inspiring moments, amidst some of the more difficult ones – and what I was doing, actually, I was able to observe very dispassionately what people were doing; what about this model is working and making sense; and what about it isn’t.
I’ll give credit to my father, actually, because he had a good sense about business. I never thought I’d be a businessperson. I was a typical hippie: Business was at the bottom, right down there at the bottom; right at the top of what you didn’t respect. Capitalism was a dirty word. Money was almost as dirty, except what you absolutely have to have to live on.
But I observed. What typically was the case was there was a collective of people who were running the food warehouse. One of them was great at knowing who everybody was in the coops in the state; knew about every neighborhood, all the people and stuff, so when it came time to talk about “Who’s my market?” there she was, her brain was there to be picked, and she knew everybody. But she couldn’t probably have developed a business system; she probably couldn’t have organized a business system her way out of a paper bag; so you talked to her about the things she’s good at, and then you go to the next person, who doesn’t know anybody in the state, but who can build an order form, or figure out how you’re going to solve this problem [of] how are we going to label 20,000 seed packets, which is one of the fundamental problems that I had to face. And so on.
The biggest thing that I learned, and I still think it’s an incredibly important thing – that’s why I’m bringing it up – is: The biggest mistake that the food warehouse made was that it wouldn’t sell to non-cooperatives. And so it cut itself off from most of the world, and it cut itself off from potential growth, and it cut itself off from networking possibilities. And this was all because of a huge ideological issue that ran through right from the beginning. The issue was debated in our very first meeting, and in my opinion they got it wrong.
So one of the first things I did when I hatched this idea, having become convinced that that was a huge mistake, I went over to the MOFGA offices – at that point Chaitanya York was the executive director of MOFGA, which was only a fledgling organization, it was five or six years old, and I said to Chaitanya, “I’ve got this idea. Would MOFGA like to take part in it?” And he said, “Here’s the mailing list. Here’s the chapters. It’s yours.”
So I immediately involved MOFGA in the very first Fedco Seeds order, and it has been involved ever since.
And then, when we hit the recession in 1981 and 1982, which was the only year our sales went down in our entire 30-year history, I thought about that and I said, well, our base is still too narrow. That was when the coops were starting to flounder a little bit. People didn’t’ have as much time as they did, because they were getting jobs or not being on a homestead economy any more. I said, how about if we go do the same thing with the NOFA chapters, which are in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Connecticut, more had more parallel organizations to MOFGA later, and work with them. And I also got a wonderful reception from them. So we spread into the NOFAs, and then we started to grow again.
So being inclusive is probably the most important single thing that we ever did, and we’re still trying to find ways to be more inclusive. It’s an incredibly important concept. That means we sell to everybody. Doesn’t matter if they’re organic or not. I don’t ask how many pesticides they use. I don’t ask what they’re going to do with the produce. I don’t ask those kinds of questions; never did. [Lawn noted later that organic growers do get a 1% discount. “We ENCOURAGE organic, but we don't exclude people who are not.”]
Bunker: A couple of things that came to mind when CR was talking: One is that according to IRS we are one company, Fedco Seeds Inc. They don’t even know that Fedco Trees exists, or bulbs or anything else; we’re just one company. But internally we do have these different divisions, and some of the ways we work are different. We keep our books separately so that we can track just how the money is going.
Lawn: But we share the money.
Bunker: But we share the money; so, for example, the Fedco Trees catalog comes out before the Fedco Seeds catalog, so we get a lot of our sales in the late fall and early winter, when we don’t need the money at Trees, but they’re packing seeds like mad to get ready for the seed order. So if you buy some trees from Fedco Trees and you send in your money in December, well actually your money is probably going to pay the salary of someone who’s packing seeds.
Lawn: Or one of our suppliers.
Bunker: We also have one office, so one of the beauties of having these different divisions is that we have people in our office who know about all the divisions. So in some aspects we’re very insular; how I do things is very different from the way CR does things in certain ways, but in other ways we’re very unified. We try to take the best of the things that we should do together, we do, but we still leave ourselves a lot of room for creativity and flexibility and individuality.
Lawn: The other thing that's still true is we don't have a lot of meetings, not full staff meetings. My experience with those collective meetings has always stuck. Instead, we try to have what I've called different names, like the consultative strategy. We have a lot of meetings where the three people who have the most at stake come together and they knock heads. It wasn't really an official meeting, though; it was just three people who were brainstorming with each other and knew about something. And we do have some meetings...but we don't have many. We do have at least one big, full staff meeting every year, more when we need them, and we do have a history of staff governance; at those meetings we make important decisions about the things that most concern us as staff, such as capital expenditures and wage rates.
How many employees are we talking about?
Lawn: That depends on what time of year you’re talking about. On this day, we’ve got 50 people working today, maybe, because we’re into our busy time. It comes to maybe 22 full-time equivalents. In the middle of the summer we might only have 10 or 12 people, and in April, when we’re shipping trees and we’re shipping potatoes and we’re finishing up seeds, we might have 50 or 60 people.
Bunker: There’s about a dozen of us or so for whom it’s a year-round job, and then there’s this other group. A lot of the part-time people come back year after year after year. It is, especially for the area – north of Waterville – it’s considered to be highly desirable work for, I guess you’d call semi-skilled workers. A lot of these people who work for us are farmers or carpenters or whatever, so finding indoor work for the winter is good; they like that.
Lawn: We’ve got a wide range. We’ve got people who work maybe 40 hours in the whole year; we’ve got people who work maybe 4 or 500; we’ve got people who work 1,000; we’ve got people who work 2,000. And we’ve got people like me. I might work 90 hours now, and less than 10 in the middle of June.
Bunker: Two other things that have been really good about being a coop, I think, are that the production workers – the people that pack the seeds and pull the orders and pack the trees and do the shipping and so forth – tend to love working for the company, and there tends to be a tradition of people feeling like, this is our company. Because it is all of our company, but I’ve never heard somebody saying, “Well, we’re just making somebody rich.” Because they’re not. It’s something where people really do have the feeling that we’re all in this together, even though some people may only work for a couple of months a year, and other people are working year round.
Another thing that’s been really good about it is that I have spent a tremendous amount of time traveling around the state looking for unusual plant varieties – mostly tree fruits and mostly apples. The fact that Fedco is a coop – even if I think that people don’t entirely understand what that means – it has just opened doors for me everywhere I go. People are so generous with inviting me into their lives, giving me their plants, essentially giving Fedco their plants, saying, ‘We want you to propagate this and sell it in your catalog and get it out to people.” Maybe people would be that way even if we were privately owned, but I think there’s something about the fact that people just like the notion of a coop, of the whole collaborative, cooperative kind of thing, that I think has been a huge help to me and the work that I’ve been doing, as well.
How do you trial the trees for hardiness?
Bunker: I grow as many as I can at my place in Palermo, and we have other people doing trials for us around the state, as far north as Aroostook County. I made a decision maybe 20 years ago or so that I would not spend my time looking for plants outside of the U.S. or other parts of the country. There is a great American tradition of traveling throughout the world looking for plants, whether they’re annuals or perennials, and there was a lot of excitement about 20 years ago of people going to Kazakhstan to look for apples, but I got this idea from a lot of what was going on in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the whole notion of “Think globally, act locally” has just been something that I’ve thought about over and over and over again, and I thought that even in terms of the plants that we sell, what we should be doing is thinking globally, supporting efforts to do the kind of work that we do everywhere, but that what we need to be doing – or at least what I want to be doing and have been doing – is to find the plants that are best for our customers right here, locally.
That’s why I wrote my book. Palermo is not the epicenter of appledom by any means, it’s simply another little small town in New England that grew apples. There’s something about the old cliché, back in your own back yard; it’s all right here. I think that we can spend, each one of us, a whole lifetime just studying the plants within a few miles of our home. We do sell exotic plants. We sell ginkgos and so on, but on the other hand, we want to be focusing on what’s growing here. So a lot of the trials are being done just by nature itself, and by what I discover has been growing in northern areas.
Have either of you or someone from Fedco in your spare time thought of writing some of this down and making a book out of it? Because it’s history, but it’s also current data, and you can look at it from a business perspective, or a sociological perspective. This is part of Maine. It would be a shame for that to get lost.
Lawn: Well, John did. His book is amazing. I picked it up not knowing what to expect; knowing, of course, we were going to carry it, but I’m a very harsh critic. Because John’s been with Fedco, we would have carried the book whether it was good or not. But I was just totally blown away by it; honestly, I couldn’t put it down. It’s really unique. It’s an anthropological study in a way. It’s about more than apple trees: It’s about the whole life of the community during a whole era.
I have to say for my part I’ve fantasized about writing a book for a long time. I joke about how I’m going to wait until I’m older because there is just too much I don’t know about what I want to say or not say. But yes, it would have some of the business pieces in it; it would have some things about gardening and farming. I have all these thoughts swirling around in my head.
Have you ever had sweet potatoes in the catalog?
Lawn: Yes, we have. It’s very hard to do sweet potatoes from a business logistical standpoint, because you have to send them out separately at their own time. And they can be grown in Maine, but it’s a real challenge.
The real reason is logistical: Any time you have a product like that that stands apart, that you have to ship separately, you’re adding on a whole layer of expenses. Some seed companies have a southern place where they can ship their materials from. If you’re in South Carolina, you need them a lot sooner than we do here. Our problem is, it freezes. You can’t get them in until the weather’s warm enough so that they’re not at risk when being transported. So the only way to really serve those customers optimally would be for us to have a second facility down there. We haven’t done that, obviously, because it’s expensive and complicated.
We’re nationwide largely because of the Web, but still, most of our sales are in the northern half of the United States, and still probably a majority are just the six or seven Northeastern states. We started out being highly regional. That’s starting to evolve. I’ll entertain a few varieties that are hard to cultivate here, as long as I point out very carefully that they’re hard to grow. I can’t believe how much okra seed we sold this year. I doubt we’re selling that to Mainers, but there are a lot of people who like okra!
Where do you see the seed industry in 50 years or so, in relation to genetically engineered seed?
Lawn: I’ve been fairly outspoken over the years on the issue of genetically engineered products. Fedco has taken the stand that we won’t knowingly sell any genetically engineered seeds.
My big concern is about contamination. It’s very, very difficult to keep seeds pure and free from genetic contamination when there’s widespread growth of genetically engineered crops. The other side of this debate has been arguing that we can have coexistence. My question is, is it going to be peaceful coexistence like the kind we had with the Soviet Union, in which both sides were basically trying to destroy each other by any means short of actual physical war; or is there some way to have real coexistence?
Because the industry is so powerful now, it’s impossible to block it at this point. I’ve evolved somewhat and been involved in a lot of recent efforts to regulate it. I feel like if you can’t ban engineered crops, at least regulate them enough so that people who don’t want the contamination, who don’t want them right next to their own crops, can have some say.
There’s ongoing struggles. There’s a bill being worked in the legislature right now about some of these issues. As far as the future of the seed industry goes, this aspect is really worrisome. We’ve already started testing some of our corn seed. Sweet corn seed can be very easily contaminated; the pollen is windblown, so it can travel some distance. So we’re having to test it. The pressures on our seed suppliers are with genetically modified fields of corn being grown near them to fuel the ethanol industry, so there’s a lot of pressure, and we got some tests that had traces [testing] positive. As a result of that, two seed corn varieties are not in our catalog.
Corn is probably the most sensitive one, but you also have canola, which is also a wind-blown outcrosser and is a brassica and can cross with other brassicas. And now there’s another threat going on – in fact it’s the subject of a lawsuit out West – genetically modified sugar beets are starting to be grown in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. A group of people have put together a lawsuit. The leading attorney is from the Center for Food Safety in Washington, which is a group that’s done a lot of good work around food safety and genetic engineering. It’s a class action lawsuit to try to get a moratorium on these genetically modified sugar beet seeds until proper environmental impact studies are conducted to see whether or not there’s any feasible way to do this without contaminating other seed crops.
The Willamette Valley is the center for seed crops of many kinds. The problem with sugar beets is that beets and chard are of the same family, so genetically modified sugar beets could cross with regular garden beet seeds, it could cross with swiss chard, which is the same family. There’s going to be more of these kinds of challenges and more risks as more crops get genetically modified and get out into the marketplace.
Where do you get your seeds? How do you decide what to offer?
Lawn: We do variety trials. We take varieties and grow them out and compare them with each other. We’re looking for certain qualities. Taste is the most important one, but there are many qualities we’re looking for.
It depends on which crop, but we’re looking for superior varieties to put in the catalog. Generally speaking, if the variety is superior, we’ll buy it from whoever has the production. In many cases, if it’s a hybrid, there’s only one company that will control production of that seed. If there’s a situation where there’s a choice, which there often is with open-pollinated varieties, we’ll sometimes do a strain grow-out, where we’re comparing, say, ‘Early Wonder’ beets from six different sources to try to find which one’s the best, or the second best, because sometimes you run out of seed from your best supplier and you still need more seed.
This year is a case in point, because there’s a huge interest in gardening, a renewed interest. We’re growing something like 22-23% in sales of seeds, which is phenomenal growth for someone who’s not so tiny any more. So we’ve been having to go back and do a lot of shopping in the last month or so for more seeds.
Then there’s a third source, which is roughly grouped, and that’s the most exciting source, and that is our growers… We have 43 small farm growers for this season. They represent maybe a fifth, moving up towards a quarter, of what we sell. They’re from all over. Eleven of the 43 are Maine growers, but Maine isn’t the best place to grow a lot of crops. It’s too short a season for some things, like eggplant, or some of the squashes, or any crops that have big moisture issues, like lettuce – It’s not a great place to grow lettuce seed. The only way you can do it here is to protect it, so it’s cheaper to grow it out West.
We get a lot of the seed from Oregon. So we have growers all across the country… Maine is a good place to grow tomato seeds; it’s pretty good for peppers as long as you have some season extension; some squash will grow well here; the ‘Long Pie’ pumpkin grows very well here; and some of the herbs and flowers can be grown here.
Do you still buy seeds from Johnny’s?
Have you seen change in what people are ordering throughout the years?
Lawn: We all have a lot more ethnic and niche varieties in our catalogs. The Seed Savers brought back old varieties that we’ve been able to put in our catalog that there’s tremendous interest in. There’s a lot of interest in ethnic varieties, more than there used to be. There’s a lot more range of choice than when I first started.
And it’s also very regional. I have this little program of preorder fundraisers for school groups, and I had one up in Aroostook County. One of the selections on that list of 25 varieties is arugula. This group sold a lot of packets of seeds, but guess how many packets of arugula they sold? One. Then we have another group down in Portland, and they sold a lot of arugula! But the group up in Aroostook County sold more cucumbers than anything else, I believe.
When I first came to Maine, in my part of Central Maine, there were two crops that you could make a lot of money on that astounded me, because they didn’t strike me as being mainstream crops where I came from. One was beet greens, which I had never even heard of being eaten until I came here, and the other was cucumbers. And of course baked beans were popular throughout New England, though not so much any more, because people don’t take the time to do that much cooking as when we started out… I hope we start going back the other way.
You were involved in the back-to-the-land movement. Do you think it’s rebuilding now, and how’s it different, and how is it relevant to small farming today?
Lawn: This is something I see that’s really interesting how it’s happening. I think there is a renewed interest, there is a new kind of back-to-the-land movement. I think there was an intergenerational period there where there wasn’t much interest, but now I see tons of young people who are interested.
The biggest difference between them and us, I think, is competence. We didn’t have a clue! We learned as we went. The folks I talk to now have their feet more on the ground; they have more of an idea of how to do what they’re doing than we did.
Maybe part of the reason for it is, I went and bought my 60-acre farm in Canaan, Maine, in 1972 for $4000 – with 12 acres of fields and no buildings but a perfectly serviceable spring-fed well. That’s what cost me $4000. I didn’t need my fancy-schmancy degree or anything else to come up with $4000 to do that, and I wasn’t in debt, and it was pretty easy to just live on nothing for a few years, which is basically what I did – with a little bit of support from my father, but in today’s terms, a laughable amount, really.
Now, the stakes are so much higher, it’s hard to find the land, more and more everything costs so much more, so I think that may be driving some of the competence, which becomes a necessity. We could play around and make mistakes and not know what we were doing. I don’t think the next generation has so much of that luxury any more.
Bunker: Also, young people today are so much more fortunate to have organizations such as MOFGA and NOFA and the whole apprentice program, which would have been great if it had been around when we were young. I think CR’s right. I think there is a new movement toward more young people becoming farmers, and I think that’s great.
And more parents accepting of that.
Lawn: I also think another thing that’s happening now, I think it’s incredibly important, is that when I was growing up – it was in a rural area in upstate New York – but when we went to more urban areas to play basketball games or whatever, the most derisive comment anybody could do would be to call us a bunch of farmers. That was the ultimate insult!
What I see happening now is that changing, people starting to look at… you need to know who your farmer is. Your farmer is as important as your car mechanic, your lawyer, etc. Your farmer is just as much a professional. Probably it involves a more complex mix of skills than some of those other ones I mentioned.
That’s a real change that’s happening, and I think it’s a real good change. Part of that is because we became more and more removed from our food. Fifty years ago, maybe a third or half of the people had some hand in growing food, but it got down to where it was only two or three percent, and we were in danger of losing all those skills that were once widely distributed, popular skills.
I guess when you become a little more removed, after a while part of what happens is the respect grows. People grew food, so they could imagine growing food, so it was easy, etc., but people couldn’t imagine being a lawyer. Now, almost as many people are as removed from growing food as they are from being a lawyer. I hope we go back the other way and get more hands-on growing food.