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Gardening Articles: Care :: Seeds & Propagation

Inside the Seed Business

by Warren Schultz

Opening the first seed packet of the season and letting the tiny seeds trickle from our fingertips into warm garden soil feels like a beginning. And it is a beginning, for us. But when those seeds hit the ground, it's the end of their journey--often a long and complex one. Chances are good that they have traveled thousands of miles to make it to our gardens.

Most gardeners don't give a thought to where those seeds came from. Or if we do, our impressions may be colored by the catalog copy and photos. We might assume that small companies lovingly produce seed in bucolic fields, or that seed from large companies is mass-produced on factory farms. We may even embrace the philosophy that small is good and big is bad. But if obtaining the highest-quality seed is your objective, adhering to these beliefs may not lead you to it, because when it comes to seed, things aren't that simple.

In reality, the channels of seed supply are complex, convoluted, and often secretive. The garden seed industry is characterized by an interdependence among breeders, growers, and sellers of all sizes. Virtually no home garden seed companies grow all of their own seed. In fact, very few grow any of their own seed.

Instead, they purchase it from breeders, who grow seed of their introductions; from seed distributors, who grow seed in production fields and wholesale it on the open market; or from contract growers, who grow seed to order for breeders or retail seed companies. From there, the seed gets to home gardeners either through mail-order companies such as Park Seed Co. or Stokes Seed, Inc., or through retail packet seed companies, such as NK Lawn & Garden Co. A few larger companies, such as Ferry-Morse Seeds and W. Atlee Burpee & Co., sell both by mail and on retail racks, but for the most part, mail-order and retail companies are distinctly different, operating in different ways. Still, most companies, regardless of size or distribution channels, get their seed from the same sources.

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