The roots of heirloom seed companies can be traced from the mid-1800s when seeds were part of the public trust, to the disappearance of family-owned seed businesses in the 1970s, to the renaissance of heirloom and organic seed companies today.
An article in Acres USA, “Seeds of Sustainability”, by Bill McDorman, author, and founder of two seed companies, and Stephen Thomas, provide not only a historic overview, but also, offer provocative thoughts about where the market is headed.
Over 50 small and family-owned companies were acquired by multinational conglomerates after the Plant Variety Protection Act included seeds as intellectual property that could be privately owned in 1970.
Ten years later, a supreme court ruled that patenting life-forms based on their genetic code could legally be privately owned. Seed company mergers and buyouts followed until there were few regional, independent companies left.
Major seed companies choose to focus on breeding new high-yielding hybrids. The major drawback of hybrid seed is that its progeny are unpredictable, requiring farmers to purchase seed each year. Seed companies dropped countless old fashioned, open-pollinated varieties that could be saved and focused on traits that benefited agribusiness, uniformity maturity, toughness to withstand shipping and long shelf life. These varieties thrived when grown with heavy chemical inputs.
Modern plant breeders call the ancient, holistic approach to selecting and saving seed horizontal resistance. “This technique considered the overall health and quality of a broad population of plants along with its adaptation to regional growing conditions,” explained Mc Dorman. Plant breeders discarded this in favor of vertical resistance, seeking specific genes to confer quantifiable improvements for specific problems. (Whether or not it is possible to isolate individual genes for specific characteristics is a hotly debated subject) Mc Dorman explains, “The problem with vertical resistance is pests can more easily evolve to overcome the resistance conferred by single genes.”
The gap in the marketplace created a niche for the germination of small, independent seed companies and non-profit organizations in the 1980s. Bountiful Gardens had its start at this time, as did, Seed Saver’s Exchange, Johnny’s, Territorial, Garden City Seeds, and many others. These small, independent companies were alike in being started by visionaries with commitment to maintaining seed diversity while they differed in their mission of who they served. The emerging seed businesses branched at this juncture: some focused on preserving a wide array of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds and making them available to as many people as possible.
Some seed companies targeted primarily market gardeners and small-scale farmers. While providing open-pollinated seeds, they also offered hybrids and several of the more savvy entrepreneurs even cultivated trial gardens to introduce new sustainable varieties.
Other companies targeted home gardeners and homesteaders; they kept a low overhead, stayed small and choose not to promote their products through glossy catalogs. Some choose to keep their prices down while others were trendsetters.
The seed industry’s next growth spurt came in the 1990s, prompted in part by the National Organic Program (NOP) requirement for certified organic growers to buy certified organic seed, when available. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Seed Company, has been written up in “Seeds of Success” by Cheryl Cesario, also in the January 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A. Although a highly informative piece about a leader in the field, it is beyond the scope of this article.
Here is one insight to ponder from Stearns: “ Many of the hybrid varieties on the market today are developed under high input conditions. Even for seeds produced organically, they were most likely developed in chemical agriculture systems. How can these varieties then thrive in organic systems?” Stearns continues, “Even if the hybrid seed crop is grown organically, the genetics just aren’t there. It’s like milking a Black Angus because she is the only cow around. The organic farmers in this country don’t have the right seed genetics to support true organic farming methods.”
Mc Dorman corroborates, “Organic seed is becoming just another industrial market niche. One-size-fits-all hybrid organic seeds, produced by multinational giants are beginning to flood the market.”
While the NOP requirement for organic seed is hailed as an incentive to banish chemicals from organic farming, some growers are concerned that the rush to procure organic seed must not be at the cost of losing more heirloom diversity. The challenges to offering organic seed are as follows, the seed companies face higher production costs, added expense of certification for organic handling, and reluctant farmers. The organic farmers and market gardeners in turn are confronted with inadequate seed supply, greater expense for seed and the risk of growing untested varieties when their livelihood and reputation are at stake.
What many people seem to be acknowledged is that open-pollinated, organic varieties hold a promise for us to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable climate. As a culture we can’t expect the farmers and seed companies to take all the risks. Some see the need for the government in the form of the land grant colleges to usher in the transition. Organizations like the Organic Seed Alliance are actively working toward breeding what they call “heirlooms of tomorrow”. Some people suggest that the successful organic foods industry help fund the transition. Finally, it may come down to individuals who step forward to make the commitment to saving and breeding their own seed.