Conflicting Futures of Seed

During my winter at the Farm School, I remember my student mailbox gradually filling as Alex Vaughn, head vegetable grower, delivered seed catalogue after seed catalogue: a kaleidoscopic glimpse into our future from Johnny’s and High Mowing, Wild Garden and Fedco, Turtle Tree and Seed Savers Exchange. This is the “fun side” of seed that Adrienne Shelton remembers from her time at the Farm School in 2004—going through the catalogues in the winter, picking out varieties for the season to come. But when somebody posted a flyer in the kitchen at Maggie’s Farm about a seed gathering happening up in Brattleboro, Adrienne sensed that maybe there was more to seed that she wanted to know. At the last minute, she changed her weekend plans and headed to Vermont.

The gathering was called “Restoring Our Seed,” and it was a collaboration between Fedco, High Mowing, and the Organic Seed Alliance. “Essentially it was a weekend to talk about seeds, what was happening at the time in the seed industry,” Adrienne recalls, and there were a lot of big names in organic seed in attendance. Going in, “I didn’t really know anything about seed,” Adrienne says. The experience “was quite transformative.”

When Adrienne got back to Maggie’s, she planted a small plot and started learning to save seed. After finishing at the Farm School, she started a seed-saving effort at Red Gate Farm. But still, there was more she wanted to know. “I decided I wanted to understand more of the science of [seed-saving], so I decided to go to grad school to study plant breeding.” She earned first a Masters and then a Doctorate in plant breeding from the University of Wisconsin, with a focus on organic plant breeding. After spending some time at High Mowing, Adrienne now works in product development for Vitalis Organic Seed.

Dandy Rich, LTF class of 2013, also gravitated toward seed during her time at the Farm School. “I got introduced to the idea of growing seed at the NOFA-NY conference,” she says, via a workshop with the Hudson Valley Seed Library. She went into the workshop knowing that she didn’t want to be a market gardener but still wanting to work with food plants, and she left hooked on seed. “I came out of that workshop just loving the idea of getting to see the whole life cycle… this part of growing food that most people don’t get to see.”

Now Dandy works for Fruition Seeds, a certified organic seed company in Upstate New York. Of her breeding work at Fruition, she says, “I love how it asks you to really slow down and look at individual plants and individual fruits on plants and the structure of that plant, and how your selections can make that variety go one way or another.” She relishes the level of observation careful seed breeding requires, the way she has to “tune in.”

Both Adrienne and Dandy contribute to the development of seed for growers in the Northeast, where, they say, farmers are most interested in varieties that are highly disease-resistant and cold-tolerant.

“There’s still so much work [to be done] to make sure that growers have a diversity of options available to them, and ones that are really designed for their growing systems,” Adrienne says. But she senses that things are moving in the right direction.

When Adrienne first became interested in seed in the early 2000’s, the industry was hurdling toward consolidation. “It was getting really bad,” she remembers, with “fewer and fewer seed companies providing seed for growers, especially organic growers.” Since that time, though, “I would say that a lot has changed, and for the most part it’s been positive.”

The root of that positive change is awareness among growers. “There are more growers seeking out organic seed, not just because it’s part of the requirements for organic certification,” Adrienne says, but because they recognize the way that organic seed is designed to perform well in their organic growing systems. Dandy agrees. “From the successful organic gardener perspective, seed that has been raised organically and bred in organic systems… know all the more to go to the soil for nutrients, are all the more able to compete against weeds,” she says. “If you’re an organic grower, you’re going to have better luck with organic seed.” The growers she works with recognize this benefit.

As a result, there’s now more funding available for graduate students interested in organic plant breeding than when she was looking at schools, which has led to increased skill among organic seed growers and elevated quality of organic seed on the market.

“We continue to see consolidation happening,” Adrienne says, but at the same time, she observes “a large diversity of seed companies looking to provide seed for organic growers… everything from really small companies that are super well-adapted regionally, [focused on] open-pollenated varieties,” (like, for example, Fruition Seeds) “to companies like [Vitalis], looking to incorporate really strong disease tolerance and other traits commercial growers need to be really successful.”

This optimistic outlook runs contrary to that detailed by Leah Douglas of Food & Power, a website that provides “original reporting, resources, and research on monopoly power and economic concentration in the food system” by way of the Open Markets Institute. Douglas describes the seed business as “one of the most concentrated industries in American agriculture,” and notes that “the number of independent seed companies has fallen from 300 in 1996 to around 100 today.”

Consolidation, the website indicates, is driven not by consumer demand (which in this case translates to grower demand), but by company bottom lines. “Concentration in the seed sector is deeply tied to concentration in the agrochemical sector,” reads a newsletter posted by Chris Wager in May 2016. “The same six multinational corporations (Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, DOW, and DuPont) control 75% of plant breeding  research, 60% of the commercial seed market, and 76% of global agrochemical sales. Accumulating power across both chemical and seed sales help these companies sell more of all of their products.”

Pairing those numbers with the decline in funding for public plant breeding programs, which historically focused on “crops with high social returns on investment… but low private returns,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s blog, the future of seed—at least from a public good perspective—looks a little less rosy. But while the odds certainly appear stacked against them, Adrienne and Dandy, speaking from within the burgeoning organic seed movement, may be tuned into a shift that has yet to be picked up by statistics. The latest Census of Agriculture from the USDA found that 69% of surveyed young farmers had college degrees. These young farmers are also more likely, according to the National Young Farmer Coalition’s most recent report, to grow organically and be actively engaged in their local food systems. Such a combination of education, ideology, and inclination toward activism may prove a potent cocktail when it comes to marshaling change in agriculture. Seed, as inconspicuous as it seems, is at the very heart of that change.