078-Why Buy Organic Seeds: Fixing a Broken Food System, with Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds

| Plant, Podcast

Why buy organic seeds? How much do you even think about the seeds you buy? Did you know that most seeds are grown with a lot of chemicals? You may never have considered the differences between non-organic and organic seed, but after this podcast episode, I predict you won’t look at seeds the same way again.

Tom Stearns is the founder/owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom during filming for an episode of my show, Growing a Greener World®, last spring. High Mowing was the country’s first organic seed company and remains one of the few sources of organically-grown seeds.

By his high school years, Tom – who had grown up gardening – was more fascinated by the source of his food – the seed. He saved seeds from his garden crops and, at the age of 18, found himself with an abundance of seeds from unique vegetables. Those varieties were difficult or impossible to find available for purchase. His entrepreneurial spirit recognized an opportunity, and with a rudimentary one-page flyer, he offered 28 varieties of seed for sale.

 

Tom Stearns

Tom Stearns at work in a High Mowing Organic Seeds greenhouse. (photo: Courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds)

 

Tom made $2,000 during that first year. Over the next few growing seasons, he offered more and more varieties and saw his revenue doubling annually. His company, High Mowing Organic Seeds, was clearly filling a void.

However, Tom has always been motivated by much more than the money. From an early age, he was keenly aware of environmental issues and believed that agriculture held the power of change. He believes organic seed is key to fixing a broken food system and to treating our planet more responsibly.

Organic vs. Non-Organic – Cultivating Resiliency

The food system of the United States has been built on a chemical foundation. The farming of commercial food crops is governmentally-regulated, yet certain chemical sprays for pest and disease issues are allowed. Chemical fertilizers, too, are commonly used in the commercial farming industry.

Seed crops – because they aren’t a food source themselves – are subject to far fewer governmental regulations. Plants grown for seed must remain in the ground months longer than food crops, so seed farmers must fight off pest and disease issues and make sure the crops receive the nutrients they need for months longer than farmers growing food.

For example, radishes grown for food mature in about 30 days. However, radish plants don’t set seed for six to seven months! Radish plants grow 6’ high and approximately 4’ around before they will produce seed.

Throughout their long season, seed crops are doused with far more chemicals than food crops.  The chemical treatments begin on the soil before most seed crops are even planted – with a pre-emergent herbicide application to prevent weeds from sprouting up among seed crops. As plants mature, they are regularly treated with pesticides and herbicides and fed with quick-release synthetic fertilizers. Seeds produced under continual chemical pampering have succeeded as a result of the specific conditions which those chemicals have produced. You might say that traditional seed crops are chemical junkies.

The chemicals have sprayed away environmental diversity – differences in the soil fertility as well as pest and disease threats. The desire to smooth the way for a crop to succeed without anything getting in its way makes sense, but over time, plants grown under these conditions begin to rely on the chemicals for success.

Seeds grown organically must develop resiliency to make it through the growing season without chemical protection or feeding. The strongest plants will survive the natural challenges of a long growth period and bear seed. Some of that seed is sold, while some is is planted to produce the next seed crop.

Season after season, the strongest plants carry their genes forward into the next generation of seed. Think of this as a sort of ongoing strength training for the crop. It’s easy to understand why organically-grown seed will be more resilient in your garden – doing a better job of fending off pests and diseases and providing great yield without much help. They have been generationally bred to do that.

Doing Things the Hard Way

Choosing the organic seed farming industry really was a calling for Tom. Good thing, too, because there are stiff challenges in his line of work.

Seed crops require many conditions that food crops don’t. For example, seed crops like pumpkin and zucchini could cross pollinate, so it is essential for true seed that they be grown in isolation from each other.

Growing seed crops is far riskier than growing food crops too. After all, the longer growing seasons necessary for maturity, mean there is a greater likelihood of losing some – or all – of the crop to pests, diseases or foul weather.

When trouble does come to an organic farm, those in charge can’t just spray their problems away. They don’t “dumb down” nature with chemicals, they must work with nature to determine the underlying cause of the problem. Oftentimes, a problem rears its ugly head as a result of some imbalance in the farm ecosystem, so organic farmers must take a holistic approach to find the solution and prevent future recurrence.

Those of us who garden organically often do the same, but with a season that spans eight to ten months, you can bet there will be many more complications for an organic seed farmer to solve.

 

Seed sale flyer High Mowing Organic Seeds

The very first flyer produced by Tom Stearns to sell seeds in 1996. (photo: Courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds)

 

As for Tom, he and his staff undertake all these challenges in what some might consider to be difficult circumstances in their own right. There are certainly more extreme climates in North America, but Vermont’s 5b hardiness zone, combined with the long maturity dates of seed crops, have never made things easy on the High Mowing Organic Seeds farm.

The Seed Industry

When he was just getting started, Tom had a lot to learn. For instance, he quickly realized that he wouldn’t be able to rely on the standard seed company model.

A typical seed company generally does not grow the product they sell. They purchase their seed wholesale from large, global producers which focus on breeding and production. It’s those wholesale seeds which retail companies market and distribute to us via the catalogs we love. Most of those retail companies aren’t engaged in breeding, production or growth of any of the seeds seen in the catalogs.

Maybe, like me, you’ve bought a package of seeds only to realize as the plants mature, that those seeds weren’t what you expected?

This year, I purchased Black Krim tomato seeds – or so I thought. I even sold Black Krim seedlings as part of my daughter’s fledgling heirloom tomato business. It wasn’t until fruit set that I realized the wrong seed had been packaged as Black Krim. This has become more common in recent years and is, in part, a direct result of seeds sold – but not grown – by the retail seed companies.

 

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Planting seedlings in the fields of High Mowing Organic Seeds.

 

In High Mowing’s early years, there were no large producers growing seeds organically. Since he couldn’t buy them wholesale, Tom had to grow all his own seed. Although there are now a few wholesale producers growing seed organically, High Mowing continues to grow the vast majority of the seed they sell. It’s harder work, but it keeps the company more in tune with the end product. They observe, firsthand, how a particular variety performs in the field and can eliminate any varieties which don’t meet their standards.

Over the years, more than sixty seed companies – many of whom are High Mowing’s competitors – have visited Tom’s Vermont farm. Just this year, the farm has hosted visitors from Israel, the Netherlands and states all across this country. These breeders, producers and distributors come to study the farm’s methods and to find opportunities to partner with High Mowing in various ways.

Tom sees himself as an educator, so he loves sharing what he’s learned with others – even when they are his competitors. The seed industry is remarkably collaborative. Many of those companies were willing to provide information to Tom at his start. Now, he hopes that sharing his methods will encourage more in the industry to embrace organic practices.

There’s good news on that front. More seed companies are exploring organic seed breeding and distribution than ever before.

 

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Seed crop fields at High Mowing Organic Seeds. (photo: Courtesy of High Mowing Organic Seeds)

 

High Mowing takes an education-based approach with their customers too. Tom is keen to help consumers understand the importance and benefit of organic methods, so they are equipped to make better choices when they purchase.

Like industries all across our globe, many seed companies are consolidating. Smaller companies are merging into larger conglomerates. While these big companies may be seen as a threat to a small businessman like Tom, he sees opportunity in these changes. Large corporations tend to consolidate product and service offerings. This creates gaps – small niches where customers are no longer being served. High Mowing Organic Seeds looks for ways to fill those gaps for consumers.

Did you know that some plant varieties are considered intellectual property? As companies merge and grow and their breeders create new plants through genetic engineering, some of the resulting varieties are patented or “privatized” – meaning that their seed can’t be used by other producers.

This concerns many in the seed industry as a whole, because it prevents breeding of new varieties at a time when our society may require them. As weather patterns shift and new pests and diseases rear their ugly heads, breeders play an important role in designing new plant types which can stand up against new challenges.

The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) promotes varietal development as a global heritage. Through OSSI’s efforts dozens of plant breeders have pledged their varieties in a sort of anti-patent, a guarantee that the varieties they develop will be made available to anyone who wishes to utilize them.

High Mowing is a big supporter of OSSI’s mission, and I encourage you to become familiar with their important work as well. These issues really do affect us all.

 

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Staff at High Mowing Organic Seeds remove floating row cover from spring seed crops. (photo: Courtesy High Mowing Organic Seeds)

 

New Organic Seed Varieties

If you already receive the High Mowing Organic Seeds catalog, you know that they introduce new varieties every year. What you probably don’t know is the work behind the scenes to prepare those new crops for sale.

High Mowing’s primary customer isn’t the home gardener, it’s the small organic farmer. There is a huge diversity within each category of edible plants, but for those who make a living farming organic food, it can be a big challenge to find seed for the best varieties to provide maximum resiliency and flavor.

As they expand their seed offerings, High Mowing collaborates with small farms to try to meet their needs. Recently, farmers in the Midwest were struggling with their tomato varieties. They couldn’t find seed for tomatoes which offered disease resistance and great flavor.

What happens next? High Mowing begins a new tomato trial to find better options. They speak with farmers from other areas as well as breeders and other industry experts to identify varieties which are most likely to meet the need. During the initial trial season, plants are evaluated for yield, flavor, disease resistance, pest resistance, etc. in order to identify a small group of best candidates. The group of best plant varieties are grown the following season in various locations.

After two to three seasons, the top two plant candidates are typically selected for a trial seed crop. It’s only in the fourth or fifth year that a new variety is finally considered fully tested and ready to make available for sale.

High Mowing trials over a thousand vegetable varieties each year but only a few new offerings make the cut into the catalog.

 

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Staff of High Mowing Organic Seeds display crops produced by the pepper trial fields. (photo: Courtesy High Mowing Organic Seeds)

 

Seed for Your Garden

Not all of the seed sold by High Mowing is grown in Vermont. The company utilizes farms across the nation to grow seed crops under the conditions they prefer. This results in the highest quality seed. There are approximately 50 farmers growing seed organically to produce the seeds sold by High Mowing.

Lettuce, for example, grows well as a food crop in Vermont but requires seven to ten months of hot, dry weather to produce seed. That certainly doesn’t describe Vermont, but High Mowing works with a farm in California to grow top notch organic lettuce seed.

As hardiness zones shift, plants need to be able to roll with the climatic punches. Tom believes the strength of organically-grown methods combined with cultivation in the best possible conditions will produce the hardiest seed to weather any hardiness zone.

The organic seed industry is still in its infancy. More and more plant varieties will be available as organic seed each year. This is good news, since we all want the seeds which will perform best in our gardens. But there is another important reason to choose the organic seed option for your next season.

Our economy is shaped by where we invest our dollars. When you purchase any organic product – including seed – you are supporting the organic industry and chemical-free methods across the board. Organic products are an investment in our future – a healthier environment for all of us.

Like Tom, I believe there is power and potential in small things – even as small as a seed. As we each make these small choices, our collective efforts make a big difference.

 

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Seed crops in early spring at High Mowing Organic Seeds.

 

I encourage you to scroll to the top of this page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the title, so you can listen in to my conversation with Tom. He shares more of his background and his passion for long term sustainability. Then, you can tour the farm and see some of their production in action on the episode of Growing a Greener World that we just released this month.

Has this caused you to give more thought to how your seeds are grown? I would really appreciate your feedback in Comments below.

Links & Resources

Growing a Greener World® Episode 911: High Mowing Organic Seeds: The Power of a Seed to Change the World

Episode 064: Tomato Growing Season Lookback: Lessons Learned With Craig LeHoullier

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Growing a Greener World® Episode 904: Waking Up the GardenFarm™

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High Mowing Organic Seeds

Open Source Seed Initiative

Rain Bird®– Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently in production of its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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