Epigram to an Aroostook Potatoman
By Nicolas Lindholm
Seed saving has become a popular pastime and passion for many gardeners and farmers, primarily on a limited or experimental basis, and usually just for their own use. Yet an increasing number of small-scale, diversified farms are growing and marketing vegetable, flower and herb seeds as a cash crop, and finding that these efforts can be integrated into a profitable venture.
For most of these farmers, assessing the risks, developing production methods and marketing strategies, and fitting the seed crops into the whole farm picture has been a do-it-yourself, trial and error proposition. Most of these crops, and seed saving in general as part of a small, diversified farm, have been studied or developed little, if at all, in the contemporary context.
As part of a cycle of funds awarded last spring by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources through its Agricultural Development Grant Fund, the Maine Seed Saving Network (MSSN), based in Penobscot, received a grant to produce an economic feasibility study of this growing market segment for small-scale organic farmers in the Northeast. As co-founder and Executive Director of the MSSN, I will be working over the summer with experienced farmers and seed growers throughout the Northeast to develop useful cost/benefit analyses and determine successful models of seed production on small farms. Look for the premier presentation of information from this study at the Common Ground Country Fair, as a slide show and talk in the Ag Demo area.
In addition to exploring and articulating the role that seed saving can play in the health and vitality of small-scale, sustainable farming, the results of the study will identify what seed crops can be profitable, for farmers, and/or what is needed to produce a specific crop profitably. By gathering and documenting management practices and production methods of current seed crop growers, and creating dear, useable economic models for seed production, the MSSN hopes to help other interested farmers diversify their operations with seed crops, and at the same time assist the development and growth of the seed crop industry in the Northeast.
Many of today’s independently owned seed companies in the Northeast could benefit from, and even need, a larger network of skilled seed growers and producers. In addition to the well-known, established seed retailers on whom many of us have come to rely, a modest number of recent start-up companies exists, many them farm-based, grower-retailer operations. The general consensus is that more producers could enter this niche market.
Consider the rise and spread of micro-breweries in this country over the past 10 to 15 years. For a long time, Budweiser, Michelob and a few others were the only brands available. Then tastes started to change, trends started to develop, and a new entrepreneurial industry took off. Now, small companies are successfully making and marketing regional beers in almost every urban and tourist locality. Many of us foresee similar trends developing for regional, small-scale seed supplies. Burpee and Stokes are no longer the only household names in seed packets.
Marketing millions of dollars of seed each year to gardeners and farmers throughout the world, the larger mail-order companies in the Northeast, such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and The Cook’s Garden, have developed a strong industry that continues to gain momentum, due, in part, to their independence from the giants of the wholesale seed industry, as well as to their promotion of specialty crops or varieties. Most of the smaller, farm-based companies, such as High Mowing Organic Seed Farm and Heritage Stock and Seed, are following suit, filling voids in growing market trends and consumer demand.
These companies have helped fuel a nationwide trend and interest in such topics as organic and biodynamic gardening and farming; preserving genetic diversity; growing and saving the old, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties; growing and eating such “new” crops as arugula, mesclun and cilantro; and more over the past 25 years.
Today, the two most significant trends for these companies are in organically or biodynamically grown seed and in regional or heirloom varieties. Most notably, the growing trend and demand for seeds and varieties that are organic and/or free of genetically modified organisms has increased dramatically over the past few years. In light of the major press coverage and media exposure to issues such as the USDA’s proposed national organic standards, the university study linking pollen from a genetically engineered Bt-corn variety to a higher mortality rate in Monarch butterfly larvae, and the introduction of what’s been dubbed the “terminator technology,” where a seed can be genetically engineered to become sterile, it’s no surprise that more and more people are seeking alternatives.
Interest in regionally adapted and regionally grown seed, and in old-fashioned and heirloom varieties is also increasing as individuals and communities recognize the importance of preserving local farmland and supporting regional agriculture, and many farmers and gardeners recognize the importance of preserving genetic diversity and our agricultural heritage. Linked to this is the consumer demand for food that is fresher, more flavorful and nutritious – characteristics for which heirloom varieties are being highly touted.
The Northeast’s independent seed companies are providing these and other expanding niche markets with products (i.e., seeds and varieties) that are not being provided by the large, corporate wholesalers and suppliers. Yet, being committed to these niche markets and being unable to find support and supply coming from wholesalers, regional seed companies increasingly need producers for many of their unique products.
The focus of this economic feasibility study is on the niche market for organic and biodynamic seeds. As public awareness and demand for organics increases, and the organic industry grows, certified organically grown or biodynamically grown seed crops will become a valuable new opportunity for farmers and producers (especially if the U.S. organic certifiers move in the direction that their counterparts in Europe have – and which the USDA’s second proposed rule supports – by promoting and beginning to require organic farmers to plant organically grown seed).
How valuable or profitable can these crops be? Knowledge on organic seed crop production in the Northeast is quite limited, and the economic viability of adding seed crops to a diversified small farm operation needs to be further investigated. We know that some seed growers have found certain crops to be highly profitable, while others know they’ve lost money on seed crops. The MSSN’s economic feasibility study will address each crop individually, and identify what equipment, facilities, production methods, and marketing techniques are needed in order to be profitable.
CR Lawn of Fedco Seeds (currently the fifth largest market for certified organic growers in Maine) is well versed on these concerns. He has helped build a place in the seed industry for small-scale, organic seed growers to market their seeds, but is not shy to articulate the continued need for more experienced, dedicated growers and research and technical information to back them up. Lawn states, “A great deal of research is needed to assess the feasibility of seed growing as a value-added niche in our part of the country on a crop-by-crop basis.”
He cites one grower who in 1999 harvested 38 1/2 lbs. of pumpkin seed from l/16th of an acre/which was sold to Fedco for $30.00/lb. In addition to netting the grower an admirable $10.00/hr. wage, the pumpkin flesh was used to feed livestock on the farm. Although unique, so far, this profitable scenario can and should be replicable on other farms and for other crops.
Hypothetical examples abound, including: growing heirloom tomatoes, and marketing some fresh while saving others for seed, and processing the flesh of those into sauce or salsa; growing a hot pepper variety for seed, and drying and grinding the flesh into chili powder; growing wheat, rye, teff, or other grain crops, which can be graded and marketed as either a seed crop or a food crop; using a simple hoop-house to yield a summer harvest of fresh basil leaf, then a fall harvest of basil seed. A great entrepreneurial potential exists.
The information to come from this study should be far-reaching, mutually beneficial and useful for all those involved. At least three sectors of the agricultural community in the Northeast can benefit from this study.
First, farmers can benefit from information that allows them to make carefully assessed decisions on how or what to grow for seed crops on their farms. Second, regional seed companies can benefit from having information that allows them to expand production of their niche products by attracting and grooming quality seed growers for their specialty crops and varieties. Third, agricultural educators and industry supporters (such as Cooperative Extension, MOFGA and NOFA) can benefit from having information that allows them to help farmers consider diversifying, with some risk assessment and market analysis already done.
As Maine’s legislative Task Force on Agricultural Vitality summarized in its final report in early 2000, there are great needs and great opportunities for small-scale agricultural enterprises (i.e., small-scale farms, traditional family farms, and specialty/niche market farms). The report, entitled Food For thought, states: “Expanding small-scale agriculture creates a diverse array of profitable farms and value-added agricultural products. Expanding small-scale agriculture will have a significant impact on the entire Maine economy and enhance rural opportunities where jobs and income are most needed.”
This economic feasibility study of organic seed crops will promote such as scenario, creating a framework for the seed industry and small-scale farmers in the Northeast to capitalize on an opportunity for economic development that is inextricably linked to a sustainable and healthy agriculture and food supply.
Epigram to an Aroostook Potatoman
I wish I had written down the words Peter Bondeson had used to describe the “All Red” potato, the last time I’d talked to him.
“It’s a colorful potato, for sure, and some people like it for that,” he’d said. But what I want to hear again is his dry, soft tone digging honestly around his own opinion, which, I recollect, brought up phrases like “wet, mealy cardboard” and “turns an unattractive gray once cooked.”
I laughed and laughed. “That’s one helluva sales pitch,” I said. “Could I put that in the variety description I use to label the varieties and educate consumers?!”
I’m a produce manager at a health food store, so for Peter, I was not only a customer, buying potatoes from him, but also an agent, selling them to the final customers. He seemed to enjoy and appreciate this relationship, because I think dialectical relationships appealed to him.
He applied himself gently and respectfully as a salesman, always telling his opinion on matters of selling, marketing, storing or eating his potatoes, and always ready to cite the best or worst example, whichever may be called upon for the most effective and memorable impact.
But he always wanted something in return, too – not just the paycheck for his spuds, but feedback and ideas, stories and opinions, something on the marketing of organic potatoes or on the growth of the organic industry, or a sense of the weather, or maybe just a copy of the latest wholesale pricelist for comparative review.
I never did order any of his “All Reds,” but I still have a few boxes of “Chaleur” – his favorite white – and some “Swedish Peanut” and “All Blues” and “Cherry Reds.”
I’ll eat a few more of his potatoes this summer – and maybe you will too – the last of the ones he’ll have touched. And I’ll miss his usual telephone greeting “Hey, Nicolas, whadya know?” when I go to order more. But I hope to hold on to that image he purveyed – and neatly perfected – one that I hope we can all aspire to – and that is to be a more colorful character than the vegetables we grow.
– Nicolas Lindholm