Every Seed Has a Story — And Every Seed Grower is Part of It

June 1, 2022

By Tim King

Every seed in every packet that a seed company ships to a gardener or farmer is throbbing with biological vitality and a barely fathomable web of stories and culture. 

Take, for instance, the beautiful open-pollinated Swiss chard, called Heart of Gold, that Johnny’s Selected Seeds released in late 2022.

The catalog describes it as an “Improved gold chard selected for bolt tolerance, uniform color, and wider petioles. A showy display — deeply savoyed, dark green leaves with high lustre contrast beautifully with the rich, golden-orange petioles.”

The variety had been developed over a period of five years, according to Rachel Katz, a product technician at Johnny’s.

Katz, who oversees trials for herbs, microgreens, baby leaf greens, Swiss chard and kale, among other crops, says the company had just made the decision to commercialize Heart of Gold, which was developed by plant breeder John Navazio, when she started work there in 2017.

“It was developed here on our research farm,” says Katz. “It’s an open-pollinated variety so it required a large population of plants so as to ensure genetic diversity.”

Part of the challenge of developing Heart of Gold was that Swiss chard, like its cousin the beet, is a biennial and doesn’t produce seed until its second season. In milder climates mulching the plants over winter works but not in Maine.

“We actually started the chard in flats in the fall and then overwintered it in seedling trays with deeper cells than you might otherwise use,” says Katz. “The temperatures stayed pretty cold, but we made sure to keep them from freezing.”

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An example of the kind of photos Rachel Katz takes while evaluating vegetable trials in her role as a product technician at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Rachel Katz photo

Keeping the plants cold, but not frozen, allowed the Johnny’s team to induce the physiological changes necessary to produce seed the following season. 

Following five years of selecting and stabilizing the traits unique to Heart of Gold, Johnny’s used stock seed, the seed containing the best genetics of the variety, to begin the process of increasing the seed to the point that there was enough to sell.

Earlier in her career with Johnny’s, Katz was responsible for conducting trials on fennel varieties that Johnny’s was considering including in its catalog. They currently carry five fennels, including a green and a bronze herb leaf fennel, which are produced for microgreen sales; two hybrid fennels; and the open-pollinated Fino fennel.

“We like to have both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties in our catalog,” says Katz.

Katz decided to include Fino in their offerings, replacing a variety called Zefa Fino, after closely observing it in test plots for two seasons.

“We were looking for an open-pollinated variety and I decided to put Fino in our trials after learning about it,” Katz says. “I liked the look of its bulb.” 

To trial a crop like fennel she plants plots of several different varieties. The plots are numbered, not named, so as to eliminate bias. She walks the plots several times throughout the season measuring observations such as the prevalence of side shoots and tip burning, and the uniformity of the plant population. She also conducts a subjective taste test in the field and, with some crops, in the kitchen.

“Taste is paramount because many of our customers grow for restaurants and farmers’ markets,” says Katz.

Once it was decided to add Fino to Johnny’s line-up an order was placed with the company in the Netherlands that grows the seed.

Johnny’s, now in its 50th year, breeds varieties and produces seed but also relies on a network of seed growers across the country and around the world to fill its catalog with vegetables, herbs, flowers, and cover and forage crops that perform well at its research farm — and in the fields and gardens of Johnny’s customers.

Seed production is a uniquely local and global endeavor, bridging growers across cultures and continents.

Roberta Bailey, of Seven Tree Farm in Vassalboro, offers another example of the layered story of seed production with Elka White oilseed poppy.

Bailey, a plant breeder and commercial seed grower who retired with the 2022 harvest, has grown seed for seven different companies. She says she had two different ways of getting involved in commercial seed growing projects.

“I have a list with seeds that I grow, and I send it to companies and ask them if they’d like me to grow any of those for them,” she says. “If they do, I ask them to respond in early March so I can make plans.”

The most recent version of the seed list includes around 30 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers, including Elka White oilseed poppy.

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Elka White oilseed poppy seed gets its moniker from a woman in Slovakia, named Elka, who shared seed with Canadian grower Peter Vido. Roberta Bailey photo

“The other way I take on a project is that companies usually have a list of what they’d like you to grow and I can choose from that,” says Bailey. “With a new grower, companies start with smaller projects. I started with Fedco when I was working there. If they had something they wanted I would say I can grow that.”

Over the years she was farming seed commercially Bailey developed a system to determine whether or not to grow a particular seed crop.

“If a crop yields well and works well in my production system I will grow it,” she says. “But I keep meticulous records of every minute I put into a crop and if I can’t earn $40 to $50 an hour I won’t grow it.”

However, Elka White oilseed poppy didn’t fit neatly into Bailey’s marketing or economic models. It came from a need to preserve a disappearing variety — and a way of life.

“Elka was given to me by the late Peter Vido of Perth, New Brunswick,” says Bailey. “It had been used as an oily nutty paste in breads, cookies and pie crust. But once walnuts were commercially available most people stopped growing this seed. Peter went back to Slovakia on a visit and tried to find the seed. He found an elderly woman growing it in her garden. He brought it back to New Brunswick and grew it a few years, saving seed from plants that grew well in our climate.” 

Vido asked Bailey to increase Elka seed. She also selectively improved it.

“When Peter shared it with me, 20% of the plants had open vents. Seeds can fall through vents,” says Bailey. “So, I selected it to have no vents. And I asked permission to sell it commercially. At the time it still needed a name so Peter named it ‘Elka,’ for the woman who gave it to him.”

In the process of increasing the seed of Elka White oilseed poppy, and of improving its traits, Bailey formed a relationship with the plant that included learning how to grow it and how to harvest its seeds.

“Poppies grow well in two or more rows next to each other for support, as they can lodge,” she says. “But they also need space between rows for air circulation. I plant them in rows 1 foot apart, thinned to 4 to 8 inches between plants. They cross with other poppies so they need to be grown separately.”

Every seed crop has different requirements that a seed farmer must learn. For example, Bailey once received a bushel of beet roots from a company that wanted her to grow beet seed. “I stored them and then sprouted them in the greenhouse,” she says. “Then I planted them outside at 3 feet apart because of their big seed stalks.”

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Tunnels used to isolate seed crops for commercial production, such as peppers, at Seven Tree Farm. Bailey photo

Bailey says that harvesting and cleaning seed crops are the most time-consuming tasks for a small seed producer. Each crop, once again, has its unique demands. Once the beet seed stalks were loaded with ripe seeds, Bailey placed them on tarps in the greenhouse with a fan to dry. Biting a seed to test its crunchiness is one method she used to decide if the seed was dry enough. Bailey also used a hygrometer to test for moisture. When the beet seed was dry she stomped on the stalks to break the seeds free. After that she cleaned out the debris and chaff and packaged the seeds in moisture-proof bags.

“Since I’m MOFGA-certified organic I need to keep track of every single gram of seed,” says Bailey. “If, for example, I harvest 1 pound of Czech Black pepper for one company I need to show invoices for that as well as any smaller lots that I sell. I keep my total harvest records plus documentation for any carried over to next year.”

The stories of beets and poppies go back to ancient Egypt and the Middle East. Each year Bailey grew and sold these seeds she added a chapter to their voluminous stories.

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Roberta Bailey of Seven Tree Farm has grown organic seed crops for seven companies. She is seen here cleaning celosia seed. Courtesy of Bailey

The price she charged to grow those seeds is part of that story. “To me, the seed price should reflect the cost of growing it at a living wage for the farmer,” says Bailey. “Then the seed company adds their costs, including testing, packing and overhead, and that determines what a farmer or gardener pays.” 

But for people like Bailey who think about the magic and power of seeds, there is a sense that a seed’s worth should be measured in ways other than cost accounting.

Elka, in Slovakia, gave Peter Vido the poppy seed from her village as a gift.

“When villages saved seed before commercially available seed catalogs, one farmer would save broccoli and have enough seed for everyone, while another farm saved squash and shared,” says Bailey. “Like a husking bee. Or shared shearing. Community work, community sharing. Easier living!”

Nikos Kavanya has also been thinking about how to determine a seed’s value. Kavanya’s letter to Fedco’s customers, found inside the front cover of the 2023 catalog, announces her retirement from the seed cooperative after four decades and asks a profound question: “What does it mean to tend seed … seed on which the life of all depends?”

Kavanya explains how Fedco arrives at a price for the nearly 1,000 varieties of seed that it sells. “It’s a process,” she says. “There are two streams of seeds coming in. One from seed companies and another from nearly 100 farmer growers. The seed companies publish their price lists and oftentimes the smaller seed growers contract with us at mutually agreeable prices that are typically higher than those company prices so we can sustain our seed farmers.”

She continues, “We tally all our costs coming in, then add our labor and in-house costs. Then we look at other retail catalogs to get a sense of the market, while at the same time recognizing that people expect us to be an economical choice for their seed.”

At its best, this system fairly rewards everyone involved in bringing that seed to market. But, Kavanya feels that it doesn’t quite reveal the true value of a seed . . . that which the life of all depends on.

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Abenaki Calais Flint Corn was developed by the Abenaki of what is now northern Vermont. Courtesy of Nikos Kavanya

To help get a sense of how to “put a monetary value on seed,” Kavanya and Fedco asked their customers what the seed from Abenaki Calais Flint Corn is worth to them, and presented a “portrait to illuminate the stories and labor behind” the journey of seed to packet. “We are not listing a price for this seed,” the 2023 catalog entry for this flint corn variety states. “When you place your order, please fill out the dollar amount you decide to pay.”  

On a separate page of the catalog, Fedco’s years’ long relationship with Abenaki Calais Flint Corn, formerly known as Roy’s Calais Flint Corn, is laid out. Each seed caretaker for the last 20 years — from Roy and Ruth Fair, of North Calais, Vermont, to the present seed growers — is lovingly credited with the role they played in the seed’s story. Indeed, the name change to Abenaki Calais is an effort to honor the Vermont village that kept the seed alive in the late 20th century as well as the Abenaki people, who first developed the variety, and likely grew and improved it for thousands of years. 

Implicit in this story of the corn’s caretaker-ancestors is that there is a powerful value in their contribution along with that of today’s multitude of caretakers. “You see magic in those old varieties,” says Kavanya. “The seed stock has passed through so many appreciative and caring hands over many years,” she writes to customers in the Fedco catalog.

Kavanya hopes that knowing some of Abenaki Calais Flint’s story will create a deeper connection with the corn and human ancestors that came before — and modern-day seed stewards and Indigenous peoples.

Designated to receive “Indigenous Royalties” by Fedco in 2018, a portion of this flint corn seed’s sales goes to Nibezun, a nonprofit that celebrates the Wabanaki people through culture, connection and community.

Kavanya writes, “The next step of the journey is in your hands.”

About the author: Tim King is a produce and sheep farmer, a journalist and cofounder of a bilingual community newspaper. He lives near Long Prairie, Minnesota.

This article was published in the summer 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, MOFGA’s quarterly publication.

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