Archive for December 11th, 2008

Are We Seeing the Early Signs of a Seed Availability Crisis?

Sharon December 11th, 2008

Back in March, right before I started the first food storage class, I wrote this post, analyzing the problems likely to face us if we suddenly needed to start growing our own food.  I argued that if we faced a Depression or major disruption of the food supply, we’d find it very difficult to ramp up seed production rapidly for home gardeners.  I wrote:

The home garden trade is a small subset of the seed trade, and the serious home gardening/small farming trade a vastly smaller subset even of that. The majority of home gardeners start comparatively few seeds – they purchase pre-started flats of vegetables instead of seeds. I’m consistently amazed to see things that are grown from seed incredibly easily – lettuce, for example, in flats, and being bought like wildfire. So the majority of home gardeners have little experience planting seeds at all – carrots, perhaps and peas, and that’s probably about it. Although slightly off my main topic, this is something worth noting - even most experienced gardeners may have almost no experience growing food from seeds.

Of gardeners who do start seeds, the vast majority – more than 90% of them – do not order from seed catalogs and companies that specialize in home garden seeds, they get their seeds from seed racks in garden centers, supermarkets, Walmarts and other places. And the majority of seed companies that sell through these seed racks are not deeply invested in producing high quality seed. According to Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seeds and author of _Gardening When It Counts_ the vast majority of seed sales involve simply the purchase of bulk seed, often from foreign distributors, and repackaging of that seed without variety trials, often without germination tests, and with little consideration of what is adapted to particular regions.

In many cases, the cheapest varieties of bulk seeds will have off-types, because hybridization often requires labor-intensive hand pollinating in the field, and high cost isn’t what such companies are after. Solomon also notes that many companies use extremely poor quality seed, even sweepings from the seed floor, in cheap packets to be sold in commercial garden centers. Those 10cent packages of seed you see in various places may not actually even have 10 cents worth of seed in them.

Only about 10% of the home garden seed trade is focused on high quality vegetable seed production, mostly by mail order. These are the seed catalogs whose seed will have the germination percentages they claim. These are the people who will replace your packet that does have poor germination, and who will ensure vigorous seed with varities tested for your region – but it is important to remember that they do serve a tiny percentage of the total seed sales in the US, and they are not necessarily prepared to serve a vast increase in need.

In an agricultural transition period, when people start running short of food, what they will want are seeds that are viable (that is, they are not too old and have been stored well, and thus, will grow), vigorous (that is, they grow well and don’t produce weak plants vulnerable to disease and pests), high yielding (that is, they produce a lot of whatever crop we are seeking), are adapted to their climate and to small scale food production (that is, they weren’t selected for commercial production, or primarily for shipping ability and they grow well where we’re growing food), available in fairly large quantities (most home gardeners buy a packet or two of each thing, but if you are feeding yourself from your garden, or making succession crops, or selling at market, you’ll find you need much more seed), and reasonably priced (that is, you can afford to buy it, or you can save seed and only buy it once).

Most of the home garden seed trade may produce seed that has some of these qualities, maybe even all of them. But only a small percentage is focused on ensuring that all these requirements are met. Assuming that, for example, we were to see food shortages in 2009, and a widespread agricultural transition beginning in 2010, how long would it take to ramp up an adequate seed supply that would serve small scale market gardeners and home food producers, and meet the above requirements?

Well, first of all, we could expect to see serious shortages in 2010. That year, seed suppliers would be unable to meet demand – they have been expecting less than 5% of the American population to plant any kind of garden, most of them flower gardens, and they simply don’t have enough spare production capacity to meet present needs. This is particularly likely if the biofuels boom is continuing, and there is no leeway in the demand for seed among commercial farmers that might be sold to home gardeners.

Imagining that 10-20% of the population begins to garden in 2010 and existing home gardeners expand their production, we can expect seed prices to skyrocket, availability to fall, and many people to have to rely on seed packets that don’t meet the above requirements – that is, seed packets that have been kept in heated supermarkets and thus have reduced viability, or those routinely placed outside where they get wet and are exposed to repeated freezing and thawing, or were of low quality to begin with. So not only will the seed trade come up short, but some of what will be sold will be seed that was never of a quality likely to feed those who depend on them.

Yesterday afternoon, my Fedco Seed Catalog arrived - always my personal favorite.  And on page 6, what should I see but this, in founder CR Lawn’s description of their situation:

And now seed prices.  I’ve ben 30 years in this business and these are the highest increases to us I’ve ever seen.  The ethanol boom diverting land to corn production has ahd a tremendous impocat on farm commodity prices, including vegetable seeds.  Wholesale prices for pea and bean seed are up 30-50%, for corn and squash, 20% or more.  Even so, wholesalers could not find growers for all crops so several varieties are missing from our catalog.  Horrible growing weather this summer has exacerbated the shortage.

This follows on their best year ever, one in which demand for seed outgrew supply not only for Fedco, but for other seed companies - Pinetree Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirlooms and Territorial Seeds all reported dramatic increases in demand, and ran out of some varieties early.  A farmer I know who raises seed as her main crop reported that she was fielding calls from companies she’s never dealt with before, trying to find stock.  I placed a late order to Fedco, only to find that nearly a quarter of my selections were already sold out.

It was inevitable that demand for land for ethanol should affect the seed trade - and because seeds are a lagging indicator - in the case of many biennial crops, one has to begin planning two year ahead - seed supplies are likely to remain affected for several years.  Moreover, the cost of inputs, including fertilizers remains high, and likely to affect seed production.  Farmers are among those most in danger of going out of business as credit lines get cut, and that includes seed growers.

Meanwhile economists are estimating month after month of a million US job losses.  My guess is that some of those millions of people are going to try and compensate for their lost income by growing some food.  We are likely to see more people trying to get ahold of seed - and already high prices, which will probably push some people out of the market.  My concern is that this is just one more sign of what I fear most in the Depression - the inability of food producers (including seed growers) to effectively connect with people who need food.  This was the crisis of the Depression - those who had food couldn’t afford to get it directly to those who needed it, and both were impoverished by the failure of that connection.  Given that we rely heavily on industrial middlemen in giant Agribusiness corporations, this seems even more likely.

What can and should you do?  Well, on a purely practical level, order early, and make space in your budget for higher seed costs if you can.  A lot of us put our seed catalogs aside until after the holidays - I won’t be doing that this year.  And consider donating extras to your local community garden - there will be more people who can’t afford seeds this year.

And make this the year you really commit to seriously learning how to save garden seeds - I  know it seem strange to most middle class Americans, but the world is full of people who can’t afford to buy seeds every year, and we may be joining them.  Moreover, seed savers have seed to share with their neighbors, and are a link in our community food security.  Join, and commit to taking responsibility for one variety that may be lost - an economic crisis means that some of the people who have been doing this work may need to do other work, so we need to pick up the slack. 

Store your seed carefully, so that you make the best possible use of it.  Learn to start plants from seed - people on a budget can’t afford to waste money on transplants they can easily grow themselves. 

Support small seed companies like the ones mentioned above, particularly those that emphasize open-pollinated seeds, and do extensive variety trials and testing - we’re going to need them.  Do not allow them to be victims of the credit crisis.

If you farm, Fedco and likely others are seeking growers for seed varieties - this could be a win-win situation for people struggling to make money as farmers in this economy. 

Most of all, pay attention to the little seed.  Like many other tiny things, it is far more important than most people realize.