Judy Owsowitz is owner and operator of Terrapin Farm located outside of Whitefish, Montana. Terrapin Farm specializes in producing vegetables, fruits and herbs from seed that is regionally adapted for Northwestern Montana. Judy stewards and improves many varieties as part of an on-farm breeding program. In this interview between OSA and Judy Owsowitz, Judy shares from her forty years of experience as a grower about how she has made seed production an integral part of her operation. Judy 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 between OSA and Judy following the conclusion of that project.
Could you tell me about Terrapin Farm and your farming background?
Well, I’ve been farming for forty years, twenty-five in this location. The farm itself is about 7 acres. It’s all fenced for deer and bear because we have a great deal of wildlife pressure. We have a greenhouse, hoop houses, raised beds and drip irrigation.
What are your main products and marketing streams?
We grow over 500 varieties of plants for bedding plants and seed. We grow a lot of specialty crops for our wholesale customers including local restaurants and grocery stores.
How does growing seed fit into your farm?
We grow seed because I believe in it. I’m not sure it’s the most economical thing as far as time and land use goes. I can make more profit out of selling fresh beets than I can having to shuck & clean seed. I believe it’s a responsibility and a privilege and that every farmer should grow, maintain and improve at least a couple different varieties.
In the late ‘80s, I started saving seed because of the decreasing short-season varieties offered. We have a pretty challenging climate, some years we only have 60 frost-free days. When some of our short season varieties started disappearing, I felt like I had to keep them going.
The first variety that I focused on was the ‘Karlo’ pepper. ‘Karlo’ is a beautiful, early, semi-hot, semi-sweet Romanian type pepper that disappeared from the seed catalogs when I had very little seed left. I had a few plants, but they were growing near some sweet peppers (and peppers are very promiscuous) so I spent many years reselecting. Now it’s available in the public domain, with the original traits. It’s a wonderful pepper.
What other seed crops do you grow?
We grow a pepper called Hot Candy. I crossed a sweet pepper called Lipstick with a Czechoslovakian Hot Black and got this scrumptious, gorgeous, sweet-hot pepper.
We grow poppies, calendula, sunflowers and tomatillos. We’ve de-hybridized a shallot known as Glacier Rose. I also grow seed under contract: assorted tomatoes, broccoli, orach, four varieties of fava beans and sumo peas. (Those peas disappeared. You see, when things disappear, you have to grow them.) There was previously a beautiful Australian snow pea that was erratically available through seed catalogues. We started saving the seed for on-farm use. After the companies had lost it, they wanted it back. I started selling them stock seed for it.
Where do you sell the seed that you grow?
We sell seed under contract with seed companies and through Triple Divide Organic Seed Cooperative.
How do you decide which market outlets to pursue?
Well, you have to consider the economics of price and timing. Under contract, a grower receives payment after the company tests your seed for quality. In my experience, seed contracts are not compensated in a very timely manner.
However, at Triple Divide, you receive payment after that seed is sold in the form of a per packet payment. That’s truly a devotion of principle, not of economics.
I get a check from Triple Divide in 2020 for what they sold in 2019, which means that I grew it in 2018. There’s at least a year between growing the seed and getting paid.
If I start shallots, a biennial, this spring, next spring I plant the bulbs a second time and harvest seed the following fall; it gets sold in spring of 2022 and then I’ll get a check at the end of 2023 for work I started in 2020.
How much of your total farm acreage is dedicated to seed production each year?
Ten or fifteen percent.
Is that reflective of your total farm income, due to seed sales?
No, our income from seed is five percent of our total.
Has this percentage changed over the past 3 years?
Not dramatically. It fluctuates based on how many contracts I have and how well we fulfill them. Last year, the conditions were really bad for growing seed. We never had any heat and nothing dried down. Without heat the seed never matured. Our farm experienced a major loss of a lot of time and energy, weeding, irrigating and harvesting with very low yields.
How do you mitigate the risks of seed growing?
Seed contracting does provide some certainty, but if you go through all of that work and then your germination rates are down, they’re not going to accept it. You don’t get paid anything. We have had that issue when I grew butternut squash for seed. The seed had very low germination rates. It takes a long time to mature the seed out. Butternut doesn’t really make it here.
But, if I harvest it carefully rather than just running it through the masticator, I can sell the butternut squash halves after I de-seed them. We ended up double dipping in produce sales, which was great because I never got any money for the seed. I recommend having a market for the other part of the product.
Most of the time we do really well. The peppers performed really well considering our season. We grow them in a hoophouse. The economics of growing under cover is different because it’s difficult to determine the most efficient use of that infrastructure.
What do you see as being the major challenges limiting the financial success of organic seed growers?
Contract price, but I see both sides of that because I’m a seed grower and a vegetable grower, so I buy a lot of seeds too. As a seed grower, we don’t really make much money and a lot of work goes into production. Another challenge is the availability of appropriately scaled seed cleaning tools. The equipment is designed for either small or large scale seed lots, but not mid-size.
Do you have ideas about training, resources or organizing that would better support seed growers?
There’s such a lack of information, but it seems like it’s growing. For example, I didn’t start growing leek seed knowing that leeks needed much more time to mature than the onions did. Or, I had a contract for three different kinds of marigolds from the same company. I asked if they would cross pollinate. How much distance do I need to give them? No one knew. There are so many varieties that can cross.
We really need more information. Not just about isolation distances, but about production costs and difficulty of production for different crops. Seed growers need more details, and the information isn’t available. There are a lot of pieces missing. I would like to see a lot more research about organic seed production and education of the public in general. Customers need a deeper understanding of the work that goes into seed and that seed is a very very valuable resource.
Can you tell me about your experience of working with Organic Seed Alliance?
I think that OSA does a great job in all that they do. Without OSA, I wouldn’t have been able to get involved with seed work in the way that I have. OSA has been critical in providing networking opportunities between growers and seed houses. That’s really important. We couldn’t have set up Triple Divide Co-op without the support we received from OSA. Many times, I have reached out to OSA with questions and received answers and encouragement.