Cooperative Boosts Organic Seed System

A community based co-op works to diversify organic seed sources and preserve rare varieties.

| January/February 2013

  • Organic Seeds
    A number of farms team together to create a seed co-op and encourage organic seed production.
    Photo By Fotolia/Petra Louise

  • Organic Seeds

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.”

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