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Rediscovering the Lost Art of Saving Seeds

BY JILL HENDERSON

Whether growing corn for the cows, grains for the bin or veggies for the table and market, farmer’s use a lot of seed. Yet, when it comes to mapping out the annual farm plan each season, too few farmers pencil in a plan to grow seed for their own use even though saving seed is one of the simplest and most cost-effective tools in the barn. Not only can growing your own seed can save you a bundle of money, it could possibly make you a lot of money to add to your bottom line.


History Repeats Itself

It wasn’t that long ago that the majority of American farmers saved seed from the annual crops they grew most often. They learned early on to appreciate the nuances of breeding their crops to have certain traits like higher yield, cold and heat tolerance, disease and pest resistance and adaptability to local growing conditions. These days, few farmers save seed. This trend began after the introduction of genetically modified seeds and the heavy-handed control over patents by the companies that produced them. Farmers and independent seed cleaners were slowly bullied out of breeding and cleaning their own seed. Today, the market is saturated with GMO and hybrid agricultural seeds that are easy to obtain in bulk locally and come with a much simpler bag-tag legal contract. However, if you are an independent farmer looking for a different variety that is open-pollinated or organic and non-GMO, then adding seed saving to your to-do list makes sense.

Additionally, growing your own seed can negate at least some of a farmer’s dependence on outside sources and provide a plentiful supply of high-quality, locally adapted, genetically diverse seeds that cost next to nothing to produce. And with all the uncertainty surrounding climate change and the pervasive genetic modification and patenting of seed stock, anyone who grows anything for a living should seriously consider adding growing seed to their routine.

Simple seed screens help clean and sort seeds of all types.

A Growing Business

All of the seed that farmers, gardeners and market producers buy each year is grown on a farm by someone — and that someone is usually not the seed company. They may grow a portion of the seed they sell, but most is produced by independent farmers and growers. There are many ways to get into the seed growing business and whether you have a big farm or a small one, you can either save money, make money, or both, by growing seed.

The first way to start growing seed for profit is by saving your own seed for on-farm use. Even if you don’t sell the seed, you are saving money in the long run. This is a no-brainer for those already growing crops that are naturally harvested for their seed. Wheat, corn, sunflowers, beans, rice, oats, buckwheat and many others fall into this category. You are already bringing a crop to seed for the mill or for livestock feed, so why not save some of it for sowing the next crop, too?

As for market gardeners, taking a certain crops from the market stage to the seed stage often requires very little extra room and effort. For example, you can save two or three year’s worth of lettuce seed in one season using less than four feet of garden row and still harvest all the fresh lettuce you need from those plants before they bolt to seed. To top that off, lettuce seed will germinate immediately after being harvested, so you not only get spring seed and a crop, but fall seed and a crop, too. What’s not to like about that? And while growers should never sell seed to anyone without going through the proper legal channels, most states allow the barter and trade of seed without restriction. In fact, the two biggest hurdles in saving seed for personal use are learning to protect variety purity, avoiding patent-protected seed stock, and providing adequate storage conditions.

In addition to growing seed for your own use, farmers can grow seed as a contract wholesale producer, as a stand-alone retail business, or as a part of a market garden enterprise. Contracting your growing services to a seed company is probably the most straightforward of the three and anyone with a basic understanding of seed saving and a willingness to learn can do it. Seed companies are always looking for new, motivated growers and are often willing to work with growers of all experience levels.

Growing seed can be a profitable business. A rough estimate of income for a dedicated contract seed grower can range from $10,000 to $80,000 per acre, depending on the amount and type of crops grown. Just one-tenth of an acre could theoretically fetch $4,000 under contract, or approximately $27,000 as part of a retail seed business. For example, a contract seed grower might earn $170/lb for jalapeño seed and a small contract along these lines might call for 15 lbs. of seed, which adds up to $2,550 for the grower. Of course, it doesn’t take hundreds of acres to grow 15 lbs of jalapeño seed. That quantity and then some can be grown on roughly 900 row feet depending on the variety. This makes single-variety contracts very doable even for small operations. The nice thing about growing seed on contract is that you only have to worry about bringing in and processing a quality crop of seed. The seed companies do the rest.

Another way farmers can make growing seed a profitable enterprise is by starting a retail seed business in which you are both the grower and the retailer. Keep in mind that seed companies have additional overhead and risks that contract growers do not, including testing, certification, packaging, labor, distribution, advertising and sales. Additionally, retailers rarely sell 100% of their seed stock each year, so there is always a certain level of loss. But like any business, a projected annual income based on production should always include potential losses. Likewise, there can be beneficial tax deductions for seed companies that choose to donate last season’s seed to charities and other good causes, so no seed need go to waste. For those who like the retail potential of growing seed, the best advice is to start small. If you have a market stall or farm store, either physical or online, these are perfect places to learn the trade by selling just a few of your favorite varieties each season and building up selection and scope as your seed saving skills and retail experience are honed. On a more conventional farming scale, producers can specialize in seed for specialty grains like buckwheat, landrace wheat or rye, cover crop and specialty grazing mixtures.

When it comes to growing seed of fruits and vegetables, keep in mind that buyers only want the seed. This means that you have an added opportunity to either use the flesh of those fruits for animal feed or process and market it as a human food product. For example, when extracting the seeds of tomatoes, tomato juice or sauce could be produced and sold as a prepared food item. Again, saving money and making money are the benefits of growing seed.

Another example of layering income producing aspects of seed growing might include the production of seedlings, which many seed growers need to get a jump on the season. This scenario naturally leads to another income producing opportunity. Growers can pick out the best of the best seedling from mother flats for seed or vegetable production and sell the rest as retail starts at the market or farm stand. If you want to make a real business out of it, you can ramp up your operation and sell starts through your local grocery or feed stores or through an online or mail order catalog. When it comes to growing seed, the sky is the limit.

Cucumbers have wet seeds that need special attention when processing.

Commercial Seed Contracts

Before becoming a contract grower, it is important to consider the economic and agronomic risks of your venture. Do your homework before you start. Learn how to grow and save seed so that no cross-pollination between similar varieties occurs. The good news on this front is that most farms have fields separated by distance and often bordered by windbreaks, which provide excellent natural isolation barriers that help prevent cross-pollination. For first-time seed growers, start with crops that you grow or use on your farm, as well as those that are naturally suited to your climate and skill level. This means that you should select crops that have low or manageable levels of pest and disease risks and those that don’t require inputs that you don’t normally need to use for other crops. Also, beginners should start with annual crops that have perfect self-pollinating flowers such as lettuce, endive, sunflower, carrots, melons, cucumber and legumes as well as field crops such as clover, oats, millet, barley, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, wheat, corn and hundreds of forage grasses. Simply move up the difficulty scale as your experience grows.

To begin a contract seed growing enterprise, start by building relationships with buyers. Keep in mind that certified organic seed fetches much higher prices than non-organic seed of any kind. So, while organic certification might add initial costs to your operation, it might be worth it if you are committed to growing seed. Call around to several seed companies and introduce yourself. Find out what types of seeds they need and what they expect of you as a grower and eventually, it will lead to a contract. Be sure to read any contract offer carefully before signing. It might be a good idea to have a lawyer take a look at it, too, just to make sure you understand all the nuances. Once you know what to expect from a seed contract, you probably won’t need to take this precaution again.

Whatever you do, never grow a seed crop on your own without a signed contract expecting to find a buyer later. That rarely works out to the grower’s advantage. Once you’ve gained experience and have developed a solid relationship with a company, cold call seed sales for popular and favored varieties are not only possible, but often welcomed by buyers who may have come up short for the season. Just remember that when the seed finally hits the dirt, it’s usually up to the grower to start enough plants or sow enough seed to produce the amount of seed the contract calls for. The good news is that buyers are usually more than willing to help new growers work out these types of details and supply the grower with more than enough seed to fulfill the contract. Just be sure to get all the details before you sign on.

Buyer Expectations

With that in mind, know that you are not the only one who loses if a contract goes awry, which is why buyers favor growers they have worked with before and have proven that they can deliver on time, every time. But above all, buyers insist that seeds be of the highest quality, which means they are pure to the traits of that variety and have a high germination rate. Customer’s don’t like to be surprised by “mystery” plants in their gardens and seed companies are required to test germination rates before the seeds can be sold to the public. This is why experienced and proven seed growers always get the biggest and most valuable contracts.

Some of the highest paying contracts are for biennial seed production, which requires more time and skill to bring to market, but that seed also fetches more per pound. Grow-outs are another example of a profitable venture for growers. Sometimes grow outs are needed to evaluate a new variety, but most often are used to “clean up” a variety that has become genetically corrupted in one way or another. Grow outs like this require more time and higher standards to achieve varietal improvements and overall seed quality and therefore, the grower is paid more.

Additional Considerations

When considering adding growing seed to your farm business, start by learning a few things about how seeds are saved. There are a number of excellent books that can teach you the fundamentals and I highly recommend Seed to Seed by Susan Ashworth and The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving published by Seed Savers Exchange.

One of the first mistakes that most start-up businesses make is over-capitalization. The equipment needed by seed growers varies and is determined by the size and type of the operation, what crops they are growing, and what they are going to do with it once it is harvested. Just keep in mind that you may need to purchase equipment or install irrigation or fencing. You will also likely need to buy or hobble together tools for extracting, cleaning, sorting, and drying seeds.

It’s one thing to thresh a dry seed crop like wheat with a combine that you already have and another thing entirely to extract wet seeds from fleshy fruits like tomatoes and squash or harvest and winnow tiny dry seeds like lettuce and carrots. Do your homework, find out what types of equipment you will need for the crops you want to grow. Ask yourself if you can rig up your own equipment or if you need to make a new purchase or two. If you’re heading into the retail seed space, items like measuring tools, seed packaging and retail display racks are on the table. Just keep it simple and upgrade to more sophisticated equipment as the operation grows.

Whether you want to grow a few seed varieties for your market garden, or start a full-blown retail operation, seed is a growing business that farmers of any size can profit from in terms of diversity, sustainability, security and added income. Start with the basics, learn as you go, and above all, have fun. Growing seed will take your farm to a whole new level.