Karl Sutton is an organic farmer in Polson, Montana, who owns and operates Fresh Roots Farm with his wife, Darci Jones. Their farm specializes in mixed vegetable, fruit and seed production. Karl was one of five farm partners collaborating with OSA on a Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant focused on seed economics. The result of that project is this Seed Economics Toolkit. Below is an interview that OSA conducted with Karl following the conclusion of that project.
What drew you to farming?
I became a farmer by happenstance. I used to be a wilderness guide, so did my wife. We got ruined from 9:00 – 5:00 jobs. I worked as a teacher for a while, and then in cooperative business development. We got into farming because we wanted to be our own bosses. We moved to western Montana during the recession to give it a shot.
How did you get involved in growing seed?
I sought out my first contract. I reached out to seed companies, introducing ourselves as a new organic farm, and seeking out contracts. The first two years, we had failures.
In year four, Montana grower Doug Baty, well known for growing ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn seed, had decided to stop growing carrot and radish contracts and agreed to coach me through the process. We were successful with those contracts, which was what made us say, “We could really do this!”
What seed crops are you growing now?
Cool and warm season dry seeded crops are really in our wheelhouse. We primarily do brassicas. As many as we can, isolating by genetics. We also grow carrot, beet, onion, leek, four different flowers and lettuce seed under contract. I keep trying to get bigger contracts and do larger lots of those we do well.
Is all of your seed you grow under contract?
We provide some seed for Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative.
How much of your farm acreage is in seed production yearly?
This year we have five acres in production, and seed is approximately half of it. Last year, we grew two carrot varieties, so I leased some space on another organic farm to grow the second lot.
Would you say that’s similar to your farm income? Does seed provide 50% of income as well?
Yes, on average.
How has that percentage changed over the last five years?
We’ve grown our seed based income from approximately 15% to 50%.
Which seed crops have you grown that have done particularly well?
Brassicas, Rapas and Oleracae family do well for us and have very high germination rates. We do especially well with arugula, beets, cosmos and carrots.
Luckily, we don’t have to worry about cross-contamination from Queen Anne’s Lace in Montana. We’re also isolated from genetically modified (GM) sugar beets and canola in our area, so we have a nice pocket of GM-free production.
Other than growing seed for profit, are there ways that your farm benefits from seed production?
Definitely. Especially within the cooperative model, growing seed has provided an opportunity to come together as farmers.
Produce is so competitive, with direct sales in a small market, nobody really talks about what they do or how varieties perform. With seed, we had a chance to be in a non-competitive field and just talk. Within the co-op, there is multi-generational sharing of knowledge. That is a real bonus.
Personally, I like the pace of growing seed on the farm as opposed to growing produce, and I love walking through flowers. Growing seed has added so much diversity of pollination. We already had good pollination, but growing seed added different timing of pollinator presence.
Are there crops that you grow for seed as well as for food?
We grew ‘Lower Salmon River’ winter squash for a number of years. It’s a great squash and it’s bred for our area. There’s a community processing facility just down the road from us. They would process 1500 pounds of the squash and then the Western Montana Growers’ Cooperative (WMGC) would distribute it to the food bank. The food bank paid for the processing, they got the squash for free and we got the seed. The squash got used in a good way, we got the seed extracted and then we just cleaned it. We did that for a couple years.
Another example is that we grow carrots for WMGC, so we overproduce our carrots and do a nice selection for seed saving. Then, we sell the rest as bulk produce.
What seed crops haven’t worked for you?
There’s a long list. Watermelons haven’t worked out. We’ve also grown zucchini that had high germination and low yield for one year. Tomatoes don’t do very well in our short season.
When those things didn’t work out, how did that affect your contract?
I didn’t get paid. It’s a year investment. Sweet alyssum is a prime example of a contract that we entered into and the yield that we expected didn’t add up to what the crop actually produced. It wasn’t even in the ballpark. It wasn’t our environmental conditions, it was a lack of adequate information.
We’ve had some seed contracts that have been offered to us that should not have been. I’m not sure whether I haven’t accurately communicated what our farm is like, or if it’s a contract that no one else wants and that’s what I get offered.
How many companies do you generally contract with in a year?
We contract with three different seed companies, some of which we have it more dialed in than others. It seems to work best when companies focus on crops that are for the Rocky Mountain region.
I’m learning that I should say no more often.
I say yes to more contracts than I should because we’re a new farm and I want to get in the door. I’m concerned that if I don’t take a contract, the company may not offer me another. I want to grow the business. However, if I do take the contract, and don’t perform well, that’s not growing the business either. I’m getting a little smarter.
The industry is totally relationship based, which is challenging, because it’s all by email. I come to the Organic Seed Growers Conference every year, which is how I’ve grown the business, meeting in person with the seed company representatives.
How has your experience of the enterprise budget tool been?
We used the enterprise budget tool for two years. We grew lettuce and beets and captured data both years. We also captured data for carrots and bachelor buttons for one year.
I am not scared of spreadsheets, I like them. I’ve always been interested in making enterprise budgets for the farm, but I had never before put in the time.
It was eye-opening on some crops. Beets, for example. With the price we were offered in our contract, I didn’t know if we were making that much money. After looking at it through the enterprise budget tool, I realized that we were doing okay, but that the price could be better.
Typically the crops that we’re doing well on, we’re making about $30,000 an acre. And that gives us a little wiggle room for seasonal fluctuations.
Two years ago, we had a really good lettuce crop. We made about $35,000 an acre. Last year was a bad year for the same crop but we still made a profit at $10,000 an acre. We’re only growing a tenth of an acre of lettuce. If I put it in the enterprise budget framework, I can see that it’s worthwhile. The income per acre for the lettuce seed was better than wholesale produce.
With other crops, like bachelor buttons, the enterprise budget tool has shown me where I am losing money. Based on our contract price, I didn’t think we were making any money. Despite that the crop performed really well and had extremely high germination rates.
After seeing that we were under water on the crop, I talked to another seed company and learned that we would have made money with their contract price for bachelors buttons. Now I have a tool to advocate for a higher price.
Do you find that there’s a significant difference in what one seed company is willing to offer you over another?
Oh, yeah. Sometimes double.
I’m being more forthright with seed companies now. I name the price I need and ask them if they can get near it. If they come somewhere close, I will agree.
It’s also possible to create contracts for half the desired amount, but twice the per pound price. That’s less work for almost the same amount of money.
The enterprise budget spreadsheet is definitely a seed grower’s tool to be able to better negotiate. It’s also a tool for the seed buyers to know that this is what production costs growers at our scale. If companies want to work with small-scale seed growers, they have to provide a fair price. If seed companies turn to a bigger operation, they should be transparent about that decision.
I would like to grow the seed enterprise on our farm, and produce more organic seed but we have to make a living.
What do you see as being the major barriers facing financial success for organic seed growers?
I don’t know about all seed growers, but I find risk to be a major deterrent. There’s so much risk. Growers require more information to reduce risk. In our area, relevant information is scarce because we’re different. We’re not a wheat farm or a seed potato grower.
Do you have ideas about training, resources or organizing that would better support and protect the financial success of seed growers?
I’m interested in learning more about the whole farm crop insurance. The carrot seed contract we have is a third of the seed we grow. We had crop failures last year as a result of really crazy weather. Our insurance is just having the revenue from other income streams.
There’s a dearth of information about cool and warm season dry seeded crops. We’re still learning which varieties perform well.
Montana has a lot of micro-climates. Better information and documentation on successful varieties would be helpful for newer seed producers. This would also help buyers have a better understanding of the environments in which they work.
I would be interested in receiving training or having more conversations about becoming better adapted for climate change. How can we be better adapted? How do we mitigate that risk?
The most useful thing for me as a seed farmer has been all the Organic Seed Alliance training opportunities. Being able to access experts such as John Navazio, The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative and organic plant breeders has been powerful. We don’t have that in Montana.
What advice do you have for new growers?
Don’t take it personally when a crop does badly. I’m getting better at not beating myself up about it. I have to allow myself to be imperfect.
Communication with seed companies is key. Let them know what to expect in a timely manner. Even if you don’t perform well on all of your contracts, a strong line of communication will enable you to grow.