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.