We’ve all faced the spring task of combing through the seed catalogs trying to decide which squash, or tomato or whatever variety to buy. Will it be dark green Raven zucchini, the light green Magda or the striped Safari? We might be considering days to maturity, disease resistance and spininess of the plant.
If we agonize over our few choices, can you imagine what a seed company has to take into consideration?
Recently I spoke with CR Lawn, the founder of Fedco Seeds at his Colrain home. He spends part of his year in Maine where Fedco is headquartered. The first question was how do you get into the seed business at all? Lawn explained that in the early 70s he was involved with the cooperative movement and worked for the Maine Federation of Cooperatives. “We had done successful pre-order days of staple foods with everyone arriving at the warehouse to do the break-down. I thought we could do a coop seed order the same way. The model worked and this was the forerunner of Fedco.
“We had a lot of luck along the way. I extrapolated from our experience to calculate the number of buyers and the amount of seed. Those numbers were amazingly accurate. We’ve been in the black ever since we started 34 years ago.”
When I hear people talk about the Fedco catalog, I hear them talking about the prose style as much as about the seeds they buy. “We have fun with the catalog. We’ve attracted six or seven writers, New Yorker Magazine wannabes, who like to write and edit. We are very serious about the quality of the writing,” Lawn said.
Lawn himself writes the seed section of the catalog. Others each take on the separate potato, bulb, and tree catalogs. All the writers then submit the work to the team of editors who go over everything from punctuation to content. “The front of the catalog text gets a lot of scrutiny.”
Lawn walked me through his garden which includes the vegetables that he and his partner, Eli Rogosa coordinator of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, eat but he also has multiplier plots. While Fedco, like all seed companies gets most of its seed from wholesale seed producers, about 20 or 25 percent of the seed comes from their own suppliers.
This year he is multiplying Mega sugar snap pea seed. “I have a 20 or 30 foot row of Mega sugar snaps off to the side of the garden. Peas aren’t supposed to cross pollinate, but they do a little bit. If you are growing peas for seed you need to keep them isolated. ”
Because Lawn has very limited space he can only do the first multiplication, for example, turning two ounces of seed into two pounds of seed. Then the seed will go on to someone with more space who can turn the two pounds into 20 pounds of seed. “It usually takes three multiplications before we have enough seed to sell. The seed business is not for the impatient. Slow Food might be slow, but seed growing is exponentially slower, and breeding is exponentially slower than that. Breeding is the slowest of the slow,” he said.
Lawn will not usually work with pea seed in Colrain because New England is more susceptible to pea diseases than other parts of the country.
He is also growing some Beerfriend soybeans for seed. These are harvested at the edible green stage for edamame. “We’ll bring them to Maine for seedstock, but they will have to pass the germination test before they are accepted, he said.
I asked how varieties were chosen for the catalog. “We usually get a group of people together to taste and we rate the variety. It’s all very democratic, but I’m not convinced that is the best way to choose. I think there is some expertise involved, like an expert wine taster.
“I’m passionate about tomatoes and I’m looking for a complex flavor. I’m not sure anyone can taste a tomato and choose the best one. There are legitimate disagreements about preferences. Some like acid tomatoes, and some like them sweeter. Brandywine is my favorite. Nothing can beat it. I also like the Sun Gold cherry tomato,” he said.
Lawn said he doesn’t get to Colrain until April, but he likes to start his tomato seeds in mid-March. I’m a convert to early planting. I don’t wait until Memorial Day. I think the best time to plant in this garden is the second week in May. Last year I planted the summer squash on May 13, which turnd out to be two days after the last frost.”
He also noted that as the season gets warmer there is more drought. The rain is more reliable in May. June is drier, and July is drier still. That certainly has been true this year.
We walked around the garden and he pointed out all the self seeded plants, beautiful red amaranth, sunflowers, kale, lettuce, and even parsley. “The self seeders make this garden semi-wild,” he said. Part of the garden was given over to cover crops because crop rotation is vital to the health of the soil and of the plants and the seeds.
I don’t think I’ll ever again complete my seed without considering the thought and labor it took to get my choices into those neat little seed packets.
Between the Rows July 28, 2012