Category Archives: Profitability

Organic Seed Growers Conference Webinars

Below is the official information for 6 webinars broadcast from OSA’s Organic Seed Growers Conference.
I am one of the speakers in Seed Economics: How to Make Growing and Selling Seed More Profitable.
If you’re interested in listening, make sure to register for the webinars!

The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is hosting their 8th biennial Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis Program from February 4 – 6, 2016. While there is a great contingency of BC and Canadian growers attending the 2016 conference not everybody can make the trip.

We are happy to announce that OSA, in partnership with eOrganic, will be offering a number of the conference workshops via webinar!

You can register for the webinars here.

Below is a quick list of the webinar topics and times and you can find a more detailed list here.

  • Seed Economics: How to Make Growing and Selling Seed More Profitable
    • Friday, February 5th, 9:00 AM – 10:30 AM Pacific
  • Seed Equipment: On-farm Innovations
    • Friday, February 5th, 1:30 – 3:00 PM Pacific
  • Vegetable Breeding Research Updates
    • Friday, February 5th, 3:30 – 5:00 PM Pacific
  • Organic Cover Crop Seed Production
    • Saturday, February 6th, 9:00 – 10:30 AM Pacific
  • Vegetable Seed Production: Scaling up
    • Saturday, February 6th, 1:30 – 3:00 PM Pacific
  • Managing Seed Borne Disease: Brassica Black Leg and Implications for Organic Seed Producers and Industry
    • Saturday, February 6th, 3:30 – 5:00 PM Pacific
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Talking Seeds On Permaculture Voices Podcast

In December I was a guest on the Permaculture Voices podcast.

I spoke with Diego Footer about

  • the profitability of growing seeds for sale,
  • differences between growing seed crops and market vegetable crops,
  • and how much space a seed crop actually takes.

You can listen to the podcast here.

This podcast is a lead up to one of the workshops I’ll be giving at Permaculture Voices 3 this spring. At that event I’ll also run a workshop about crop planning for farm profitability.

Planning Seed Crops Webinar – Wed. Feb 19, 2014

You are invited to join us for a webinar on Planning Vegetable Seed Crops. 
The first in our series “Growing for Seed: The Fundamentals” this webinar will feature presentations from Patrick Steiner (Stellar Seeds, BC), Daniel Brisebois (Tourne-Sol Cooperative Farm, QC), and Michelle Smith (Northwind Farm, NS). Together they’ll cover a range of topics to get you started in your seed garden this year, including:
–Knowing seed crops & lifecycle patterns, isolation distances, and population sizes;
–Sourcing appropriate seed stock and integrating seed production onto your farm; and
–Using and marketing seed crops: intended use and prospective buyers.
DATE: Wednesday February 19th, 2014
TIME: 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
 
TO JOIN THE MEETING, simply click here, or copy and paste this link into your browser:
Once the meeting is started you should be able to see and hear everything directly on/from your computer. If you can see the meeting, but you can’t hear us, you can dial-in (toll-free) to get the audio.
The phone number is 1-866-811-9555, the conference code you will be prompted to enter is 9730133156. Please use your phone only if you can’t use your computer.
In order to participate in the webinar you’ll need:
–A computer with Flash. If you can watch (and hear) a YouTube video, you’re probably all good. If you can’t try downloading Flash Player here.
–If you’re in a shared space, you’ll want headphones to plug into your computer to hear the audio without disturbing others.
If you have never attended an Adobe Connect meeting before you can get a quick overview here: http://www.adobe.com/products/adobeconnect.html
If you have questions about how to join this webinar, please contact Steph at seed@acornorganic.org 
If you can’t join us on Wednesday, but are interested in this content, we will be posting it online at www.seedsecurity.ca. Please be patient with us, we’ll post the content as quickly as we can.
 
Please note that this is an English webinar. We are planning 2 French webinars and will keep you updated on that as details are confirmed.
THANKS!

How I Started Selling Seeds – Part 2

Last post, I wrote about how Tourne-Sol started offering seeds to other seed companies, and how tomatoes were the crop they bought.  But my  seed story didn’t start with tomato seeds; it began with the first couple pounds of arugula seed I harvested (you can read that story here). This arugula seed started a relationship with brassica seeds that kind of got out of hand.  The ensuing surplus of seed created another way we developed our relationship with our seed company clients.

GROWING TOO MUCH SEED FOR OUR OWN SALAD GREENS

Tourne-Sol grows a lot of salad greens for market and CSA, and these salad greens consume a large amount of seed. From a coulpe dozen brassica plants we were able to meet all our Tatsoi seed. A few dozen more placed elsewhere on the farm, and we had all the Mizuna seed we needed. The same with a half dozen other varieties of brassica greens.

Simultaneous to this I was reading up about plant popuplations, cross pollinators and maintaining genetic breadth and resilience (I posted a bit about that here). This led to growing more plants of each variety, which then led to harvesting more seed. To be honest, another reason I wanted to grow larger volumes of seed was to be able to run my fingers through bucketfuls.

As quantities increased, I moved to growing brassica on a 3-year rotation since the seed kept so well and I wanted to avoid cross pollination. But when I started to harvest 5-7 pounds of seed per variety, there was more seed than we could use up in three years. I needed to do something.

So I called up the seed companies who already bought our seeds and asked whether they were interested in brassica seeds? A couple said yes. Then they asked how much I was selling it for.

PRICING OUT SEEDS

Until then, the  seed companies I had dealt with had set their own rates for seed. I wasn’t sure what to charge. I asked them what they thought was fair ? One person mentioned they’d bought some brassica seed for $20/ounce. That gave me a starting point.

After I hung up, I took out a pen and paper and crunched some numbers starting with what weight I’d harvested from what growing area. Then,  I looked at all the seed catalogues in my collection and listed the different ways they priced bulk brassica green prices. I realized that  $20/ounce was a great price but that with my seed yield, I could afford to ask for significanlty less. With a lower price, I figured I could sell more seed.  I went back to my seed clients and offered them a range of prices  with larger seed volumes at proportionally lower prices. ( Here is a detailed post on how we price seeds.)

GROWING SEEDS ON CONTRACT vs. SPECULATION

Essentially, the two ways Tourne-Sol sells seed to other seed companies is on contract and on speculation. To highlight the difference between these two options, let’s compare how we plan and sell tomato seed (contract) and brassica seed (speculation).

TOMATO SEEDS: In the spring,  there is a flurry of e-mails back and forth with each company to whom I sell tomato seeds. We select tomato varieties together and determine what quantities they would like to reserve for the fall. I like to have a harvest target since tomato seed takes time to harvest, squish and ferment in large quantities. Since the bulk of our tomato seed is destined to seed companies, the number of tomato plants I grow for seed depends mainly on quantities these companies commit to purchasing.

BRASSICA SEEDS: Currently, I try to grow as much brassica seed as space permits in one year to use over the next 3 years.We use a lot of brassica seeds on farm and we do sell bulk salad green seeds through our own seed catalogue to farmers and gardeners. At present, I usually run out of brassica seed before the next production cycle comes around.As such, we don’t need a solid commitment from our seed company clients to determine what we will grow. Of course, every spring I do give them a heads up of what I am growing so they can plan accordingly. If they want to reserve some seed, I am happy to do that. However, if they want to wait until the fall to tell me what they need, that doesn’t drastically change our production goals.

THE MORAL OF THIS STORY

Now the moral of this story is not to grow out a large quantity of seed on speculation and then try to sell it. That’s a great recipe for a lot of seed in your closet. Rather, grow the seed that you use and experiment with larger quantities. When you feel comfortable, approach seed companies with what you know you can do and find out what they want. Don’t start off with too much ambition – growing a lot of great seed is not easy. Develop a relationship with the folks who buy your seed and gradually increase quantities as you gain proficiency.

OTHER NEWS

My co-farmer Fred received a grand prize for Tourne-Sol farm from Quebec’s finançière agricole contest Tournez vous vers l’excellence. Click here to see the contest’s video profile on Fred and the farm (note – it is in French).

Next on Going to Seed, less words and more pictures.

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.

Balancing Crop Profitability and Plant Populations

Today’s post wrap up this series on seed economics (that began here.) The topic of plant population sizes came up during the last ECOSGN meeting as we compared the profitability of selling seeds by packet vs. bulk.

The Challenge: Profit vs. Population Size

Andrea Berry (of Hope seeds) noted that seed companies that mainly distribute small seed packets don’t need to grow many plants to meet their seed needs. Andrea highlighted that to maintain good genetic diversity in cross-pollinating (crosser) varieties, it is better to grow a large number of plants. This means at least 60-80 but preferably around 200 plants (read this post for more on population size). That many plants produces way more seed than most seed companies can sell solely in packets. Andrea concluded that the potential profit of selling seeds in packets is a disincentive to maintaining large plant populations.

Seed growers need to take the possibility of eroding plant genetics seriously. Growing seed out with inadequate populations for 1-2 generations might not have drastic consequences. But, if we grow a crosser variety out for 4-5 generations with small populations, we may see decreases in yields, disease tolerance, and some of the varieties’s desired traits.

Some solutions for small seed companies to maintain good crosser genetics

  • Grow seed in one year for multiple years,
  • Offer bulk seed for sale to gardeners and farmers, or other seed companies,
  • Buy new seed every 2-3 generations to replace or reinvigorate your stock seed,
  • Buy seed from growers who maintain large populations.

An important exception: Cucurbits

Cucurbit species (squash, zukes, cukes, melons, and the like) are crossers. However, they have evolved to resist most inbreeding depression – you only need to save seed from 12-16 plants to maintain  a minimum genetic breadth for a variety  (though more is always better.)

Wrapping Up Seed Economics 101

This is my last post on seed profitability for now. We’ve looked at two quick tools to compare seed crops: profit in space and profit in time. Of course seed crops are only profitable if you can sell them. (This is speaking economically. There are a slew of ecological and agricultural reasons to grow your own seed.) I will tackle the seed selling part of the equation later this spring – specifically selling bulk seed to seed companies on contract.

Over the next weeks, I will switch to more pictures and less math. At Tourne-Sol farm, we are currently building a catterpillar tunnel. When we’re finished, I will share how we did that. See you later!

Seed Profitability in Time

On most seed or vegetable operations, the time to harvest and process a crop is the main bottleneck. Come August and September, there are more crops to pick and clean than seem feasible. As such, it is worth comparing the crops you grow in function of their profitability in time (specifically harvesting and processing time.)

Whereas I spent  a number of posts on profit in space, I will cover time in one post:

  • An example to define profitability in time,
  • Why new seed growers should not pay too much attention to this analysis,
  • And a few tips to improve efficiency.

(This series on seed economics began here.)

Profitability in time for tomatoes

We grow a number of tomato varieties for seed. Every week, I harvest the ripe fruit from each variety and process them. An average week might look something like this:

  • 25 minutes to harvest
  • 30 minutes to squish and set them up for ferment
  • 20 minutes to decant and lay the seed out to dry
  • Total: 75 minutes (1.15 hrs)

(These numbers are kind of made up but close enough to reality)

If I end up with 60g of tomato seed from this operation, and can sell it for $30/25g (or $1.2/g), my profitability in time would be the following:

60g x $1.2/g ÷ 1.15 hrs = $63/hour

Amounts above $50/hr are  profitable for most small scale farms.

Setting precise profit in time targets is a little trickier than profit in space targets, if you’re really interested you can read more in chapter 10 of Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers.

Analysing the profitability of your harvest and processing time is very valuable and can help prioritize what crops to focus on, but new seed growers should apply this technique cautiously.

Why shouldn’t new seed growers pay too much attention to profitability in time?

Well, your initial $/hr results might be on the low side. There is a big learning curve to growing seed and most of it comes when it’s time to clean that seed. If you judge by your initial experiences, it might seem you’d be wiser to spend your time in a different agricultural pursuit.

Rather, than come to that conclusion I would recommend saving a $/hr analysis till you have a few seed crops under your belt. It will be more meaningful.

I would also recommend setting your initial seed objectives low. Start small (a couple crops and not too many plants of each) and work out the kinks in your system as you expand your seed gardens.

Some key points to speed up seed harvest and processing

  • Keep dirt out of seeds while you harvest. It is easier to not put it in than to have to clean it out later.
  • Don’t be afraid to lose some seed as you clean.
  • Bigger seed lots are more efficient to process.
  • Talk to other seed growers and watch them work.
  • Take the time to learn – you’ll get quicker with experience.

Shortly, I will wrap up this series on seed economics with a post on balancing crop profitability with maintaining adequate plant populations.