Organic seed synergies sustain diversity

Vegetable seed companies find growing demand during COVID

Some vegetable seed companies have been challenged to fill orders due to demand.

Producers and marketers of organic seed in North America set themselves apart from their conventional counterparts by sharing uniquely “synergistic” relationships, said speakers at a scaled-down, virtual version of the recent annual Guelph Organic Conference.

“We’re all in this together,” said High Mowing Seeds commercial grower representative Aaron Varadi, during one of five in-depth sessions held over the five days of the 2021 conference.

Why it matters: Many organic producers have a heightened concern about where and how their inputs are produced, so being able to trust other members of the seed supply chain is important.

Varadi, who also has a seed-production farm in Washington state, joined Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario seed program manager Rebecca Ivanoff as a panelist in a session entitled “Insights into Organic Vegetable Seed.”

Vermont-based High Mowing, well-known to organic vegetable growers across North America, sources its branded seeds from all over the continent and offers overseas-produced seeds through partnerships with European companies.

Ivanoff outlined efforts, both institutional and through not-for-profits such as Seeds of Diversity Canada, to preserve the global diversity of agricultural seeds.

She said the preparedness of humanity for the effects of climate change is threatened by a failure to adequately maintain a wide range of food and feed plant genetics.

In years past, she believed, increasing consolidation of control over seeds in private companies’ hands put too much focus on increased yield and ease of crop management. More recently, however, Ivanoff has become less concerned about big biotech’s influence. Today, more people talk about access to seeds and conserving agricultural biodiversity, she said.

“People are starting to ask some really important questions and getting excited about seeds.”

Varadi agreed.

An analysis he saw recently showed the COVID-19 pandemic had a slight negative economic impact on companies — typically larger-scale marketers and distributors — sending seeds into markets destined for farmers producing for the food-service or restaurant sectors. Seeds suppliers like High Mowing, meanwhile, saw massive upswings in demand.

In the spring of 2020, he reported, the company significantly increased staff and that has remained in place through 2021.

Leading into this spring, High Mowing has 50 per cent more seeds for sale than in past years. “And we’re selling it all.”

Current challenges in meeting that organic seed demand, Varadi said, include climate change impacts in traditional seed-growing regions, measuring demand in advance, pest and disease pressure and isolation space.

With pest and disease control, in some cases these crops are in the ground much longer than they typically would be if being harvested as food. Lettuce, for example, takes many more weeks to produce viable seed than simply being harvested for greens. “There’s just that much more time for things to go wrong.”

Isolation space, meanwhile, can be at a premium for certain varieties. The best seed-growing conditions for some organic varieties sometimes exist only in a limited geography, and when a soil-borne problem develops with pests or disease, “it’s hard to find ground that isn’t already contaminated.”

Varadi says High Mowing aims to mitigate these challenges by choosing varieties bred in and for organic conditions, having multiple contracts for each variety, having a multi-year supply, and having multiple varieties that could potentially fill the same slot in the seed catalogue.

Also working in the company’s favour, though, is that the organic seed sector is noticeably non-competitive. If an organic-focussed producer or supplier perceives an opportunity or sees success in breeding new varieties, others in the sector typically are informed through informal connections.

“It seems like we’re all passionate about seeds and genetic diversity,” he said. “We all want people to grow seed.”

He told the session there may potentially be some vegetable varieties where saving seeds is prohibited through “utility patents” by profit-focussed interests. But this is rare in the vegetable world.

And High Mowing, Varadi added, makes sure to pay back for this goodwill. Not all licensing fees the company pays are required under legislation. Examples include payments made to some indigenous North American “seed keeper” organizations that don’t exist as for-profit companies. High Mowing typically pays a fee equal to what would have been a licensing fee.

“Sometimes we’re pre-emptively paying royalties or licence fees because these people are doing good work,” he said.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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