We are back to a topic near and dear to me, seed saving. But this weekend I'm looking at the business side of it. Have you ever considered growing seeds to supplement your income?
If you already garden, saving seeds is often a natural progression and can fit in with market or home gardening quite nicely. Seed saving is one of those skills that you just dive in and start doing. You don't need a university degree in the subject, though if you have one, all the better!
To be honest, when we started growing seeds on contract in 2007, we were very green. A friend who had seed contracts with Seeds of Change was able to introduce us to the buyer and before we knew it, we were growing Serrano peppers and a few other crops on a trial basis.
We scrambled to get our Organic Certification in place and learn all we could about seed saving. The certification was pretty straightforward since our farm venture was new. We were only in our second year on the farm and open to anything that could help us pay our mortgage. Seed growing seemed like a viable option.
To learn about seed growing we read and re-read the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth with the zeal of neophytes. Our copy was soon well scuffed and earmarked and still, all these years later, it is the first book I always recommend to newbies.
Suffice to say, during those first years we made mistakes, learned, experimented and ultimately found our passion. Through personal experience I can say that seed growing can be a viable option to earn a living while farming. It can complement market veggie production, animal husbandry, CSA farming or stand alone.
How To Start:
Educate yourself about seed production. You can start by checking out our seed saving page on our website. It includes guides I have created for saving seed for cool and warm season crops. The book I mentioned above is also a good place to start. If you like watching videos I suggest checking out resources from the Organic Seed Alliance. They have an online free webinar series about seed production and have an more intensive course as well.
Decide if you will certify organic. It is certainly not mandatory to certify and there are many seed companies that will buy non-organic seeds. However, certification will open more doors and you can ask for a higher price for your seeds. Expect to pay about $1000 to certify your property and incur ongoing expenses for yearly inspections and fees. (Our seed company only buys and sells certified organic)
Be familiar with the crops you intend to grow for seed. Having prior garden experience goes a long way and will immensely increase your chance of success. That said, seed companies also expect a certain number of crop failures. In our early days we tried growing lima beans on contract for Fedco Seed Co and bugs ate the whole crop. If I had grown lima beans before in Manton I would have known this and said, ‘No thank you’ to the seed contract. After this, we tried several more times to grow limas for ourselves with the same results.
Reach out to seed companies. Check out this list of seed growers and companies on the Organic Seed Alliance website. It includes seed producers and seed companies: we are on there too. You will find that many seed companies are willing to give new growers a chance. Once you establish yourself as a seed grower you can get on this list and seed companies may seek you out.
Ask for stock seed. This is the seed the seed company will give you of the variety to grow out. This should be high quality, high germinating seed. However, you will still be expected to rogue out any off type plants. Be sure to educate yourself on what the common characteristics of this variety are so you know how to properly steward it.
Negotiate a price. Seed companies usually pay per oz or lb for seed. When you first get started it can be hard to know what a good price is. Some large companies source seed for really cheap from large distributors. Seeking out regional seed companies that regularly contract with smaller growers will likely be the best place to be adequately compensated. Seed companies are generally open to negotiation so if the price seems low for the amount of work you will be doing, ask for more.
Germination testing is the norm. Seed companies will test your seed for its germination rate before paying for the crop. These tests are usually done either in house or will be sent out to a lab. Each seed crop has its own federal germination rate it must pass and some seed companies will have stricter standards. When the contract is given be sure to ask what a passing germ rate will be for the crops you are growing.
Seed cleaning can be tricky when starting. Start collecting all the random screens, colanders, buckets and fans you can find. Usually with very basic seed cleaning equipment you can get seed mostly clean. Some seed companies will charge you a cleaning fee for any extra cleaning the seed needs when it arrives.
Expect growing pains and persevere. Crop failures and low yields are common, especially when starting out but will become less so as you gain experience and knowledge. There are many good resources and a thriving seed community centered around the Organic Seed Alliance.
If growing seeds is something that truly interests you as more than a hobby, reach out and I'd be glad to answer any further questions.