Grantee: NOFA-VT: Organic Seed Production TA Program
In 2002, the passage of the National Organic Certification Law fueled an increase in the demand for certified organic seed. Seed companies nationwide were desperate to find organic seed to meet this increased demand. With the highest percentage of acres dedicated to organic farming in the nation, Vermont is home to many organic vegetable growers 3/4 and would seem a natural fit for this market. Until recently however, Vermont had not been a big seed-growing region. Vermont farmers were interested in growing organic seeds because they could diversify their farms in a sustainable way, produce a value-added product that fits with their small-scale farms, and capitalize on the increased demand for organic vegetable seed. But the farmers’ high level of interest did not reflect a high level of seed growing experience. Even if a farmer is an experienced vegetable grower, they might not have the necessary education or experience for growing seed.
For many years, Tom Stearns, owner of High Mowing Seeds, and Enid Wonnacott, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) have fielded questions from Vermont’s organic farmers and seed growers. Both Stearns and Wonnacott wanted to help the growers, but they lacked the time and resources. They realized there was a need to educate and train seed growers and provide resources to help them be successful growers. A training program would provide the farmers with the experience and opportunities to diversify their operations and tap into this rapidly emerging organic market.
VSJF provided a $9,935 grant to NOFA to support the Seed Production Technical Assistance Program to educate and train organic seed growers in Vermont. A second grant for $9,185 was provided the subsequent year to continue the program. With money from the grant, NOFA-VT hired Stearns to serve as project leader for the program. Organic farmers and seed growers statewide were invited to participate. Through the program, growers received site visits, one-on-one training, and a written program tailored to their needs and skill level.
Thirty-five farmers joined the program. During the year, Stearns met with the farmers and served as a resource to them. Many farmers had difficulty finding a market to sell their seeds. Through Stearns’ involvement, some farmers sold their seed to High Mowing Seeds. Through his experience, Stearns was familiar with the needs of other organic seed companies. He worked to make a match between farmers and the seed companies. Organic seed companies like to have a close relationship with the growers to monitor quality, especially when they are producing rare or heirloom seeds, and will often visit a farmers’ property. Stearns also served as an independent advisor to the seed companies, to verify the quality and production of specific farmers’ crops.
By June 2003, the seed production program had already provided opportunities for farmers to diversify their operations and tap in to this rapidly emerging market. In 2002, the average contract for seed was $275. In 2003, the average was $2,200 an eightfold increase. In addition to developing a strong network of Vermont organic seed growers, the technical assistance provided through this program has helped make Vermont growers more marketable to companies outside Vermont. More than half of the growers in the program sell to seed companies outside Vermont. The project provides an opportunity for Vermont farmers to earn greater income per acre by helping them enter the growing wholesale organic seed market. With the organic food industry growing at a rate of 20% each year, the future continues to look bright for these growers.
“The economic viability of a number of farms was certainly enhanced by the VSJF grant, as more Vermont farms now have the ability to sell and use their own organic seed. But the biggest area that can be measured is High Mowing Seeds itself. HMS went from 2 employees at the start of the project to now having 35 employees. The VSJF grant project provided HMS with critical feedback from Vermont growers – about how they work best with seed companies! And HMS was able to integrate growers in a way that made sense for both the growers and HMS.
What was the greatest success of the VSJF grant project? The ability to hone in quickly on what is economically viable and what isn’t in terms of organic seed growing in Vermont. We knew it could work, but we also knew it was tricky. What we needed to find out was the best model – and discovered that only if a farm focused on seed production alone would it be guaranteed to succeed. We needed to see 35 farms fail at it to validate the best options – it takes a certain scale of working at something to figure out how it will work. VSJF’s support and grant funding helped us figure this out!”
– Tom Stearns, High Mowing Seeds