When you plant vegetable and flower seeds in your garden, do you ever think about where exactly those seeds came from? Could you even imagine certified-organic seeds being collected from a one-acre farm in the middle of the second-largest city in California? That’s exactly where my guest this week, seed grower and farmer Brijette Peña, trials, breeds and produces the Certified Organic seeds for her business, San Diego Seed Company.
In 2010, Brijette set out to supply Southern California and the Southwest at large with seeds that are adapted to grow best in the region’s unique climate. Not only does her San Diego Seed Company produce seeds, they also do all of their own cleaning, packaging and quality control before distributing directly to retailers.
Brijette’s passion is growing food, and vegetable seeds make up the bulk of San Diego Seed Company’s inventory. She also loves to get others excited about seed saving and the prospect of creating something new, so she has made education and sharing best practices a major part of San Diego Seed Company’s mission.
She is originally from Kansas, where she says there was agriculture in every direction she looked. However, she had no connection to agriculture then. That changed when she moved to Southern California and became interested in food deserts and food security. She studied urban farming at San Diego City College and later earned a certificate in seed business from UC Davis.
The Surprise Benefits of Urban Seed Farming
San Diego Seed Company’s urban location — just four exits from downtown San Diego — enables Brijette to breed seeds with no worry of unwanted cross-pollination from nearby farms.
The location also made the arduous process of receiving California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) designation a bit easier. Her farm never had a commercial use before she bought the land, and there is no risk of drift from conventional farms that spray chemicals.
Becoming certified organic was really expensive for a start-up company with no financial backing and no loans, but Brijette says she can’t imagine skipping that step. Now, she proudly hangs a CCOF sign in the farm’s driveway.
San Diego is also a great place for producing seed because there are no late-season thunderstorms. Staying dry means mold doesn’t grow in the processed seed lots.
When San Diego Seed Company was just getting started, no one else was producing seed in the area. But now, she uses local contract growers to produce seed for the varieties she has bred. In an area where both land and water are expensive, growing seed allows farmers to diversify their business, she says.
Another side benefit is that — because her farm’s only in the business of seed production — Brijette, her husband, Roger, and her staff get to eat any extra produce left over from seed trials.
Breeding Seeds And Selecting Desirable Traits
Fall is a peak time for seed trials on the farm. They have 15 varieties of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower growing right now to see which ones will perform best in Southern California. Choosing the most prolific varieties, just like our great-great-grandfathers did before us, breeds a crop to be acclimated to our local conditions, Brijette says. In the case of the Southwest, the conditions are hot with very dry winters.
For example: San Diego Seed Company has produced a black beauty eggplant that, through years of breeding, is now suited to the Southwest environment and takes advantage of the region’s long growing season. By contrast, Northeast black beauty eggplant seeds are adapted for a short season between the last frost date and a first frost date.
You don’t need to have a master’s degree in genetics to become a breeder, Brijette advises. You just need to be very observant. “Listen” to the plant and find out what it’s telling you, she says. Brijette takes copious notes and has files and files of information on seed varieties.
A seed company focused more on marketing to farmers is looking for traits like uniformity, productivity and durable skin. What Brijette seeks are plants that do well in a really small space, are resistant to common Southwest plant diseases and have great flavor.
That’s one of the reasons heirloom tomatoes have taken off in popularity, she points out. Home gardeners care more about flavor and beautiful colors than durability and getting many tomatoes in a short window.
For each of her company’s breeding projects, a goal is set beforehand to avoid being pulled in different directions. In the last four seasons, they dedicated time and energy into breeding plants with resistance to powdery mildew, considering what a problem this fungal disease is for gardeners in their region trying to grow tomatoes and cucurbits.
After taking input from Southwest farmers on what they have success growing, San Diego Seed Company is now trialing Kajari melon, a striped green and cream Indian melon that is naturally very resistant to powdery mildew and outperforms many other melons. They are in the multi-year process of growing out the melon for seed and, if the melon adapts into something unique for the region, the result could be bestowed with a new name to set it apart.
When selecting a plant to save seeds from for a desired trait, a seed saver must consider the whole plant, not just one fruit. Take, for example, selecting for size. Brijette explains that if a tomato plant has one big tomato growing on it and one small one, that big tomato does not have the “super genetics” that you need.
The seeds in both the large tomato and the small tomato on the same plant are identical. Instead of looking for the one largest tomato, look for the tomato plant with an abundance of large tomatoes.
To trial for taste, San Diego Seed Company measures the sugar content (Brix), the sweetness, the acidity and the balance, and notes if the texture is squishy or slimy.
Sometimes one plant might outperform another because of environmental conditions rather than genetics. If seed selectors fail to recognize subtle environmental differences — like soil quality and hours of direct sunlight — they may get the wrong message from the plants.
The Seed Boom and Shopping Small
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, seeds and other gardening supplies became hard to come by. For regional seed companies, that meant an unprecedented boom in business. San Diego Seed Company has scaled up from just Brijette and her husband to a team of eight.
She runs the company out of her home, which has seeds everywhere in every room, she says. A quarter of their seeds are packaged using a ballard, which is a seed packing machine that is fun to watch at work. The rest are measured out using scales and spoons. That’s why San Diego Seed Company doesn’t put a seed count on its packages: someone might get one extra or one less bean in their seed pack.
A pack of certified organic seed from a small company may cost $4 — as opposed to $2 for seeds off a rack at a big box store — but that $4 is the best investment you can make for your garden. That’s because it gets you more than just seed. Small seed companies like Brijette’s offer growing advice that is specific to your area on their websites and even answer emails and take phone calls. It’s the kind of service that the biggest companies just don’t offer.
San Diego Seed Company even offers a calendar annually with the local schedule for seed starting, initial planting and succession planting.
Regional Seed Companies For Every Region
It used to be the norm to have regional seed companies all around the United States. But then in the 1950s and ’60s, big seed companies bought them all up and reduced the offerings.
Instead of having 30 varieties of corn that do really well in a certain region, it made more economic sense for big companies to offer just five varieties that can grow across the United States. This led to a loss of diversity in what gardeners and farmers could grow.
Now, Brijette says, we are seeing the reverse happening. Great new seed companies have arisen that are a powerful part of the industry. She also shares that small seed growers are some of the nicest, most generous people, who are happy to share their secrets to success rather than keeping their proprietary information close to the vest.
Brijette names a few of the regional seed companies those growers outside of the Southwest should check out:
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a cooperatively owned seed company that specializes in heirloom seeds and other open-pollinated seeds with an emphasis on vegetables, flowers, and herbs that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic region.
- Fruition Seeds in Upstate New York is a Northeast seed company with 400-plus varieties adapted for a cold, short season.
- Redwood Seeds provides organic heirloom and open-pollinated varieties for the Northwest. Their catalog has 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and grains, all produced in California.
For a more comprehensive view, Brijette recommends checking out Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s list of “tiny seed companies.”
Brijette says the most rewarding thing about having a seed company is seeing the light in the eyes of someone who grew her seeds with the help of her classes and educational resources. She is also celebrating that, as more people spend time in their gardens of late, they are becoming more connected with their food.
If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Brijette Peña yet, you can do so by scrolling up the page and hitting the play button in the green bar.
Do you buy seeds from regional seed companies? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.