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.

From Field to Packet

When you ship 100 million packs of seed per year, as NK Lawn & Garden does, you have to rely on a vast network of growers. The privately owned NK buys seed from as many as 50 different growers around the world--from large distributors to mom-and-pop operations. Since NK has no trial grounds of its own, company horticulturist Janis Kieft spends a lot of time visiting the trial grounds of breeders and growers, looking for new entries to fill out the 500 or so varieties that go on the company's seed racks every year.

Kieft may place an order up to two years in advance. After harvest, the seed is all shipped to the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When it arrives, the seed spends 72 hours in a fumigation chamber, then it is tested for germination. From there it's fed through one of several machines that packs either by weight or, in the case of expensive hybrids, by count. Then the packs and racks are shipped to stores starting in January.

Kieft says that other than a slight difference in germination percentage, there's little difference in the quality of seed from one grower to the next. "If it has the same variety name, no matter who sells it, it should be the same."

Lin Harris agrees. She's the horticulturist for another large company, Ferry-Morse, owned by Groupe Limagrain of France, the world's largest vegetable seed company. Her company needs large quantities of seed from reliable sources, so it deals primarily with big distributors. "We contact several growers and get bids, and buy whatever is most economically feasible," she says. The germination percentage can vary from grower to grower, but "Protection is built into industry regulations. We can't sell seed that isn't good. The standard germination percentages are dictated by the government." Those standards vary for different kinds of plants. For example, 85 percent of tomato seed must germinate or it can't be sold, unless it is marked as below standard. But some flower seed meets the standard at 35 percent.

Seed packets sold on seed racks (but not necessarily those sold by mail order) must display a "packed for" date. That assures that the seed passes minimum germination standards for the current growing season. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is fresh seed grown during the previous growing season. Producers don't normally grow every seed every year. They stagger production, growing excess for the off-years. The seed is stored under strict humidity and temperature conditions until it's time to sell it. So the seed you buy might be fresh, or it might be 2 to 3 years old. You only know that it has passed the germination requirements, even if they're not printed on the package.

Of course seed viability decreases somewhat during storage. (The worst storage conditions are encountered when a seed packet sits in a store awaiting sale.) From time to time, producers offer discounts to retailers on seed that is approaching the lower limits of its viability.

What happens to the seed that isn't sold--if a retailer has bought the seed rack outright, it's allowed to resell the seed the following year. If the retailer is working on a consignment basis, it returns unsold seed to the company. There, the leftovers may be dumped. They might be donated to charity. Or--in the case of expensive seed, such as hybrids--they may be retested and repacked for sale the following year. Mail-order companies do not generally repack, but they may hold leftover seed from one year to the next.

Some people in the seed industry maintain that a basic disparity in quality exists between retail and mail-order seed. George Ball, Jr., the president of Burpee, one of the 10 largest nursery products companies in the country, is among those who think mail-order seed is superior.

"More rigorous company standards are applied to mail-order seeds vs. packet seeds," he says. "A company in the mail-order game has to have higher standards--no mistakes are allowed. That's because the customers are more demanding in terms of variety, performance, and final outcome. In general, the packet seed buyer is less demanding. For the casual seed packet buyer, it's an impulse buy. The person is rushed. The seeds are cheaper."

Renee Shepherd disagrees. With her new company, Renee's Garden, she has crossed the great divide from mail-order company to packet company. "I wouldn't say that all mail-order seeds are better than all retail seeds," she says. "It really depends on the company. For someone like NK or Burpee, the quality is there. But that's not the case with those 10-for-a-dollar seed companies. They buy seeds by calling the vendors and saying: 'Here's what I need. How cheaply can you get it for me' and you get what you pay for."

Hybrid vs. Open-pollinated Varieties

"A seed is not [just] a seed," Shepherd says. "There can be a huge difference in quality, especially in open-pollinated varieties."

Hybrids have virtually no genetic variability. 'Celebrity' tomato seed from one company should be identical to 'Celebrity' seed from any other company, so when you're buying hybrids the only real difference is freshness and germination. That's not always the case with open-pollinated varieties. The quality of the plant that emerges from the seed can vary from one packet to another.

By nature, open-pollinated lines are subject to change due to random cross-pollination, and inferior plants can creep in. Every year, off-types may sprout in the field and must be weeded (rogued) out and removed, or they will produce bad seed. It's up to the seed grower (not the retailer) to ensure that line stays pure. That takes a lot of knowledge, effort, and dedication, as well as a good eye and a ruthless hand.

That's one of the reasons why Tom Johns, president of Territorial Seed Co. in Oregon, has taken the unusual step of growing some of the seed that he offers.

"When we're raising our own seed," he says, "we're better able to control the quality. Say we're raising a field of broccoli for seed; if we see too many off-types, we'll rogue them out." To his mind, that's safer than trusting a small unproven contract grower or distributor to do the dirty work. Territorial currently grows about 12 percent of the seed it sells. Most of the rest comes from large distributors and breeders. Johns says it's easier to trust them. "In my experience, the major companies are reliable," he says. "They have good quality control; 99.9 percent of the time you get exactly what you ordered."

Even so, when Territorial buys open-pollinated seeds, it regularly grows them in trial grounds and rates them on a 1-to-5 scale. "We do trials from five or six different sources," he says. "Whichever one produces best is the one we buy, even if it costs more." The difference between the first and the fifth is one you may not be able to tell unless you grow the five varieties side by side.

Larger companies may test-grow a variety before offering it in the catalog, but they often don't test the same seed variety from different distributors. In fact, some companies, large and small, don't have any trials at all. However, most do, though trials may range from minimal to extensive.

The Chemical Factor

Seeds of Change, a small, aggressively organic company owned by the candy giant Mars, Inc., shuns large seed distributors, because the company believes that there's another important factor in seed production--the environmental one. So it sells only organically raised seed. Howard Shapiro, vice president of agriculture and purchasing at Seeds of Change, is critical of the way conventional seed farms operate. "They need the seed-production area to be free of all other plants, so they use chemicals to eradicate them. When people say they want to garden organically, but then buy conventional seeds, it seems disingenuous to us." So Seeds of Change forsook high-tech experience for hands-on organics and uses only open-pollinated seed.

In 1991, the company began contacting organic farmers to find out if they wanted to grow seed for the company. After determining the best conditions for different crop, they made compacts with the farmers to become contract growers.

Finding the Best-quality Seed

As recently as two decades ago, most garden seed companies had a personal relationship with every grower. Though gardeners will never have a such a relationship with the person who grows their seed, there are ways to find the best-quality seed. Buy from companies you know, especially if they have their own trial grounds. Look for service, says Renee Shepherd. "Is there somebody there at the company you can call?" Her advice is, "Don't buy cheap seed. To the gardener, the difference between 59 cents and $1.59 is really very small."

If you trust the retailer and you're satisfied with the seed quality, stick with it. Run your own trials with seed from different companies. If you're concerned about the environment, buy from a company that sells organically grown seed. If you're worried about the loss of genetic diversity, buy from a company that makes an effort to keep old open-pollinated varieties on the market.

Even if seed companies don't grow their own seed, differences still exist in terms of quality and philosophy. Along with freshness, germination rates, and purity, we may also want to consider economics, environment, and politics. That little seed represents a huge decision. And it should, because it's about to become a part of our gardens -- and so, part of us.

A Seed's Life

Even after a new variety has been bred or selected, it can take several years for the seed to reach home gardens. Here's how the tomato variety 'Caspian Pink' reached the market. The variety is being introduced by Seminis Garden, one of the few large breeders still in the home garden vegetable breeding game. These days, most new home garden tomatoes originate in its fields. When the new variety 'Caspian Pink' appears next year, all of the seed will have come from Seminis's seed production fields in Mexico.

1992: While on a trip near the Caspian Sea in Russia, breeders from Seminis Garden discover half a dozen interesting open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes growing in home gardens. They return to Seminis's headquarters in Saticoy, California, with seeds.

1993: Plants are grown in trial grounds in Saticoy. The variety known as 'Pink Fruit' shows the most promise as a home garden tomato. Others are promising as parent lines for breeding. About 1 ounce of seed is collected from 'Pink Fruit' and stored over the winter.

1994: 'Pink Fruit' is grown again in trial grounds in California. The consensus is that flavor, size, and other qualities make it worth introducing in North America.

1995: 'Pink Fruit' is renamed 'Caspian Pink', and seed is turned over to the company's foundation seed division. This division grows out new lines, and purifies them by ruthlessly roguing out off-types. About 5 pounds of 'Caspian Pink' seed (at 160,000 seeds per pound) is cleaned, tested, and stored over the winter.

1996: Seed is turned over to the company's stock seed division and is planted in stock fields. This division's mission is to increase the number of seeds to have enough to grow in production fields the following year.

1997: At Seminis's production fields in Mexico, stock seed is planted to grow a crop for general introduction in 1999. However, crop failure results in only 25 pounds of seed. Seed is harvested, cleaned, and tested for germination in Mexico. It's sent to California, where it is cleaned and tested again. A portion is saved for stock; the remainder is offered to one seed company, Totally Tomatoes, for limited introduction in 1999.

1998: Once again, stock seed is sent to Mexican production fields. With the previous year's crop failure in mind, general introduction is scheduled for 2000. This time 500 pounds are harvested, enough for general introduction. After seed is harvested, cleaned, and tested, samples are sent to retail companies. Promotional literature and photos are prepared.

1999: 'Caspian Pink' is introduced by Totally Tomatoes, which has exclusive rights for this year only. An additional 500 pounds of seed will be grown in Mexico for future sales by a wide range of companies.

Warren Schultz has been frequent contributor to the National Gardening Association.

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