The Organic Growers Alliance is a network of growers, farmers and horticulturalists. This article by Katie Hastings was originally published in their Organic Grower No 55 Summer 2021 Newsletter. https://organicgrowersalliance.co.uk/
The journey from producing your first seed crop to selling it is not so much a straight road as a labyrinth. While growing seed is in many ways the simple act of following a crop through its full cycle from seed back to seed, there are intricacies that can take years to fine-tune before it can sit in a packet ready for sale.
At the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme, we have been supporting a fledgling seed selling coop to embark on the adventure from training in seed production to selling seed. This spring has seen the Wales Seed Hub offer up our first two varieties for UK sale: the Kew Blue French Bean and the Red Ruffled Kale.
Working as a coop of six small-scale commercial growers, we have navigated group agreements, license registration, quality standards and distribution models. Growing the seed on members’ farms, we have joined together to collectively package and market this seed. Currently our stocks are very small, but these first sales represent an important landmark in our journey to distributing larger quantities of Welsh-grown seed in the future.
The Wales Seed Hub growers learnt to produce seed crops in the early years of the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme (2018), taking part in our training which was designed to fill the startling gap in UK on-farm seed growing knowledge. Our ambition was to move these apprentice seed producers into growing contract seed, providing them with added income streams while also boosting the worryingly low quantities of OP (open pollinated) seed grown in the UK.
As the world experienced pandemic seed frenzy in 2020, with demand for UK seed sky-rocketing across seed companies, the Wales Seed Hub growers took the leap and started preparing seed for direct sale in 2021. Motivated by both the need to increase UK seed resilience and the financial resilience of their own land-based businesses, the time had never felt more right. It was hard to think of reasons not to produce seed for sale.
Wales Seed Hub grower Chris Vernon runs a One Planet Development smallholding with his partner Erica and two young children. Chris says, “We’re aware that most seed is imported and represents a narrow range of hybridised varieties. We wanted to bring seed production closer to home and work with open pollinated seed.” At the same time, the One Planet planning policy which has allowed Chris and Erica permission to start a new farm in Wales, requires that they earn their livelihood from that land. “Our farm is highly diversified, producing honey, apple juice, live poultry, hatching eggs and plants. Seeds are a new product we are offering. Seeds are a small but significant contribution to our farm income.”
Chris and Erica took on production the Kew Blue French Bean. “We were impressed by their uniformity, vigour, colour and flavour,” says Chris. “We wanted to make these more widely available to other growers.” Stewarded for many years by the Heritage Seed Library (HSL), Kew Blue originally came from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “This cream-seeded variety has been handed down for at least three generations in our donor’s family,” says the HSL “The purple-pink flowers are complemented by purple-tinged leaves and stems, and followed by flat purple pods. These pods have excellent flavour, perfect for eating fresh or freezing, and when dried the beans have a rich, nutty flavour.”
Originally unsure of the ethics around selling a seed which is being stewarded by volunteers and preserved for the common good, we consulted Catrina Fenton of the HSL. “Ultimately we want to see these seeds widely available,” says Catrina. “If they are being marketed and grown on in more gardens, then we no longer need to steward them and can focus our resources on some of the more endangered seeds in our collection.”
There are of course varieties in the HSL collection which would not be appropriate to sell: it could be that donor families might have stipulated they do not want the seeds sold or they could still ‘belong’ to a community who would like to maintain some control over the seed. Opening up discussions around seed ownership and ethics, we realised that seed origins are not always clear-cut. When searching for new varieties to introduce into the Wales Seed Hub catalogue we were confronted with the big question of who actually owns a variety.
On the face of it, seeds should be in common ownership and seed diversity should be preserved for the good of all. But once we start selling seeds, the waters get muddier. Would it be OK to sell a seed which had originally come from an indigenous community if we had not ensured that community benefited from the sale? Would it be OK to start replicating a variety which another seed business had spent many years selecting and bulking out? How should we recognise the years of work that goes into developing a new variety, while still trying to sell our seed at affordable prices and pay our growers a fair wage?
Wales Seed Hub member Sue Stickland, author of Back Garden Seed Saving, is working on introducing new varieties into our seed catalogue. “There are varieties out there which are little known about” she says. “Chinese violet cress is a delicious salad crop with beautiful violet spring flowers. Mentioned in Joy Larkcom’s book Oriental Vegetables, it is listed as being very difficult to obtain seed for. We would like to grow this seed on in Wales, ensure it is adapted to our conditions, and then make it available for others to buy”. Providing a double whammy of increasing seed diversity and offering livelihood to producers, this is exactly why we need more seed growers on the scene.
Although UK OP seed producers have been as rare as cuckoos in the last 50 years, we do have a small dedicated crew of seed growers beating the drum of regional adaptation. While Real Seeds have been offering a plethora of reliable Welsh-grown varieties for over 20 years, we have seen the likes of the Seed Coop, Vital Seeds, and Beans and Herbs join their ranks in providing OP seed to the UK home garden market. As we work within the Seed Sovereignty Programme to train more seed producers, we also have to be mindful not to flood the market with OP seed and potentially impact these valued existing seed companies.
Kate McEvoy from Real Seeds has been hoping to see a stronger network of UK seed producers for decades. “We started Real Seeds to increase the diversity of UK adapted varieties available to home growers,” she says. “Seed Sovereignty has always been important to us and we never wanted to be the only ones doing this, we have seen demand increase year on year and we think there is room for more people to be selling UK-grown seed.” Having always been supportive of new seed enterprises, Real Seeds have offered invaluable training and advice to our Welsh Seed Hub growers.
As legalities change around UK seed sale in the wake of Brexit, the Seed Sovereignty Programme has been hosting a forum of small packet seed sellers to share experiences and information around topics such as seed imports, plant passports and seed stocks. Sinead Fortune is programme manager for the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme, she says “What started as a response to the confusion around Brexit has now become a place for small seed companies to collaborate, learn from each other, and share tips and ideas. It’s been fantastic growing the solidarity among these companies, who are all in their own way working towards a more resilient seed system in the UK.”
It’s a pivotal time for the UK Seed Sovereignty movement. As we move out of lockdown, will those who found new resolve to grow from UK seed continue to support our local seed companies in the years to come? With the 2 – 3 year lifecycle from sowing to selling seed, do we still have seed shortages on the horizon? Will the market gardeners going through our seed production trainings start to produce more varieties on farm or continue to order off farm seed? At the Seed Sovereignty Programme we have teamed up with the Landworkers Alliance to put out a survey to UK commercial growers to assess current seed stocks and the state of our UK seed resilience.
In the meantime, growers like Sue and Chris continue to put seed crops in the ground for our seed catalogue next year. With sales of Wales Seed Hub packets low this fledging season, we need to work on introducing new varieties, building our stocks and increasing our profile.
“One of our key unique selling points is quality,” says Sue Stickland. “Our seed is fresh, grown agroecologically and to high quality standards. We have drawn up guidelines for all our producers on their isolation distances, population sizes and disease vigilance. We have agreed germination test procedures and regularly discuss our crops throughout the season to give some collective accountability within the coop.” While it does take several years for a new seed producer to learn to grow to these quality standards, we have seen our growers move through this process and into confident seed producers offering saleable crops.
It is our hope as the Seed Sovereignty Programme to support and incubate more seed-selling initiatives such as the Wales Seed Hub. The cooperative model offers a prototype for other seed growers wanting to keep the seed production on multiple farms while sharing the central work of packing, distribution and administration. Utilising improvements to software like the Open Food Network which enable us to easily list and sell seed online, and further aided by increased awareness about the importance of seed provenance, the time is ripe to start selling seed.
As market gardeners and farmers, perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is can we afford not to be growing seed? Where do we envision our seeds will come from in years to come? Who holds the keys to our local crop diversity and how can we unlock the door to ensure we all have access to the seeds of the future?
Katie Hastings is the Wales Coordinator for the UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme and acting Secretary for the Wales Seed Hub. Seed is still available to buy from the Wales Seed Hub: http://www.seedhub.wales