How I started Selling Seeds – Part 1

In the summer of 2003, while I was a farm manager on an organic vegetable operation on the Montreal West Island, a friend of mine set up a garden down the road. As I was letting a ragtag assortment of plants go to seed, she had an 1/8th of an acre planted to a few dozen seed crops. She was growing these on contract for a number of different seed companies. Her agricultural entrepreneurship and the potential profitability of growing seed marked me. This kick-started the thought process that led to my part founding Tourne-Sol farm, and my desire to see  seed crops as part of our marketing mix.

Six years down the road, seed production is a growing component of Tourne-Sol’s marketing plan. We do have a seed catalogue, but a significant volume of the seed we grow is distributed to other seed companies. This relationship with other seed vendors has evolved along two different paths:

  • growing seed that is mainly destined to other seed companies
  • growing seed for our own use that might also go to other seed companies

Today, we’ll discuss the first path.

January 2005. As the Tourne-Sol start-up business plan was evolving, I went to the Guelph Organic Conference. I wanted to catch the annual array of speakers but I also had ulterior motives – working the trade show to talk to seed companies about growing seed for them.

There were butterflies in my stomach as I thought about approaching the first seed vendor. My co-farmer Renée offered to accompany me as emotional support. So we stepped up to the first seed display and I addressed the owner … hi, I’m Dan, we’re starting a farm this summer and I was thinking about growing some seed to sell, do you contract growers to grow seed?

I received a great first answer: the company owner was always looking for people to grow out tomatoes, and would love for me to grow out 3 varieties, and gave me the starting seed,  and told me she’d buy back a couple cups of each variety. She specified a volume rather than a weight because not all small farmers have accurate scales. She also committed to a price per ounce of tomato seed.  I agreed on the spot and we went through her seed racks to select a mix of tomato types for me to grow. I approached the next seed company feeling more confident.

In the end, out of 5 seed companies I spoke to, only one other offered a similar arrangement (also for tomato seed). However, rather than provide starting seed, she would accept seed saved from heirloom varieties we were already planning on growing.

That summer,  I planted 6 tomato varieties for seed. Initially, I had asked how many plants I would need for the quantities they required. The companies had suggested 2 dozen plants or so, but they admitted to not knowing exact yields. I grew out a hundred foot row of each variety – significantly more than 24 plants – but I figured we could distribute excess fruit through our CSA.

Through the season, I squished and fermented seed, stored it in well labelled paper bags. In the fall, I measured the seed in cups, packed it in plastic bags and recycled envelopeds, and mailed it off. A couple of weeks later, we received two checks in the mail!

For tomato and pepper seed, where most of the seed I grow is destined to other seed companies, this process hasn’t changed much from year one: in the spring we discuss varieties and agree to quantities and prices, then in the fall I send them the seed.

However,  though our seed selling began with tomatoes, my seed growing started a number of years earlier and wound up with a second type of relationship with seed companies. Let’s save that story for the next post.

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5 responses to “How I started Selling Seeds – Part 1

  1. I find it quite fascinating that you are growing out seed for seed companies like this. It must be very rewarding to know that the seed you grew out is now grown in so very many other peoples gardens and farms.

    • I do find it very rewarding.

      I love it when I’m talking shop with a vegetable grower and they tell me about a variety they’ve had success with and I realize I grew that see out.

  2. Pingback: How I Started Selling Seeds – Part 2 « Going to Seed

  3. Pingback: A First Year Going to Seed | Going to Seed

  4. Dan good to come across you again! We are growing out those beans you gave us and they have segregated nicely into two forms. Justification of Mendel’s law of independent assortment I guess. Check us out when/if you get the chance. We finally are making a go at this. backyardseedsavers.com
    Best of luck in the coming season

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