Organic farmers have long fretted that there isn’t enough high-quality seed available in the marketplace. While there are several highly regarded organic seed companies, they often can’t keep up with demand, as the number of certified organic producers mushroomed from 2,500 to 3,000 in 1994 to 13,000 in 2007, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
A new coalition of just more than a dozen family farms is hoping to fill the void. The Family Farmers Seed Cooperative (FFSC) is a group of farmers in the western United States working to boost the supply of organic seed, improve genetic quality, and tailor seed stock to meet regional needs of organic growers. The cooperative is a community-based effort to decentralize the seed industry and improve the genetics and variety of seed stock in an era of increasing seed consolidation and diminishing varieties, says Joshua Cravens, FFSC board president. It focuses on growing and developing open-pollinated, non-patented seed varieties so farmers are encouraged to save seed and improve varieties.
Good seed growing is intricate work, says Dan Hobbs, a Colorado farmer, former executive director of the Organic Seed Alliance and an FFSC member. Farmers who grow seed stock must understand the constant interaction between a plant and its environment, he says. They also must have more resources for a longer growing season than the standard vegetable grower, as seed harvesting happens just after the traditional farming season winds down. Above all, Hobbs says, a seed farmer has to have patience.
Growing seed also takes a substantial financial investment, says Hobbs. In the 1990s, he and a handful of other Colorado seed growers talked about starting a cooperative venture, but found there wasn’t enough interest to create the infrastructure needed to make a group seed company worthwhile. Seed-processing equipment can be expensive. The idea had to be shelved until 2008, when the FFSC was formed partly with technical assistance from the Organic Seed Alliance.
FFSC has carefully grown its membership to revolve around several hubs of seed-growers in the West, with clusters of farmers in places like Colorado, Arizona and North Dakota. Growers can share transportation costs and equipment.
There has been an uptick of joint seed ventures like FFSC, from urban seed banks to native seed projects, Hubbard says. “We are seeing a groundswell of more community-based seed cooperatives.”
Increasingly, independent seed growers realize they cannot make a dent in the trend towards seed consolidation and the winnowing of genetic diversity without banding together.
Hobbs thinks the cooperative has welcomed into the fold some of the best organic seed growers in the United States and the world, and it is carefully expanding, with talk of welcoming several new farms to form a hub in northern California.
It takes a unique farmer to grow good seed, one who loves the mystery of the interaction. Both Cravens and Hobbs speak of being drawn to seed production, with Cravens first starting his study of seeds with a weekend volunteer trip that grew into a career. They both speak of being part of history and being entrusted with a legacy of food production for future generations.
“You’re either going forward or going back,” Hobbs says.
Read more: Learn how to save your own seeds in this post, Saving Seed, from the "As My Garden Grows" blog.