Midwest Seed Production Demonstration Report - Organic Seed Alliance
PUBLICATION DATE: May 24, 2021
AUTHOR: Kitt Healy, ORGANIC SEED ALLIANCE
FUNDER: North Central SARE Project Number ONC19-058
Table of Contents
- Project Summary
- General Tips for Beginning Seed Growers
- Seed Production Demonstration: Seed Economics by Crop
- Appendix A: Additional Resources
- Appendix B: Midwest Seed Crops
- Appendix C: Seed Price Comparison
- Appendix D: Labor Tracking Tool for Seed Producers
A sustainable food system depends on a seed system that is decentralized, robust, and responsive to farmers’ needs. Over the last 100 years, seed systems have become consolidated and corporatized, with 3 global companies now owning over 65% of the world’s agricultural plant genetic resources (Organic Seed Alliance, State of Organic Seed Report, 2016). Farmer-driven plant breeding, coupled with local seed production and marketing, relocates control of seed in farmers’ hands. As the climate changes and consumer preferences evolve, regional seed systems and collaborative plant breeding allow farmers to adapt crops to their unique and shifting circumstances, and to keep the revenue of seed sales circulating locally. This model of a decentralized, regional, collaborative seed system allows farmers more power in their seed choices compared to a system that depends on large agricultural companies to meet farmer needs and benefit from the resulting profit. There is a resurgence of interest in on-farm seed production and breeding in the Midwest as a means to counter these trends in industry consolidation and to reinvigorate robust regional seed systems.
As farmers’ awareness of the importance of regional seed systems grows, so does the demand for regionally adapted varieties and regionally produced seed. The COVID-19 pandemic gave an unexpected boost to that demand, as a population suddenly stuck at home developed a strong appetite for gardening and homesteading. Nature and Nurture Seeds, based in Ann Arbor, MI, reported a sales increase of 400-500% in April of 2020 over the previous year, and that level of demand appears consistent with seed sales in 2021 . Given the surge in demand, seed companies are in need of more seed growers and are often willing to help guide beginning seed growers in producing their first commercial contracts. The goal of this report is to provide prospective seed growers in the Upper Midwest with some baseline economic and production information to consider when exploring a potential shift into commercial seed production.
The information in this report was gathered as part of a North Central SARE Partnership Project, completed as a collaboration between Organic Seed Alliance and North Circle Seeds beginning in 2019 and ending in 2021. The goal of the project was to explore the viability of commercial seed production of five economically important crops on four small market farmers throughout Minnesota. The varieties selected for the project were bred or successfully trialled on farms in the Upper Midwest, but were not yet popularized in commercial seed catalogues. Farmers were compensated for their time producing seeds and tracking data for enterprise budgets, and the seeds produced were sold through North Circle Seeds. The project also had a strong peer to peer educational component, including four webinars on seed production and seed business topics delivered during the project period. Links to recordings of these webinars can be found in Appendix A.
The four project partners were Zachary Paige, farmer and proprietor of North Circle Seeds, Sue Wika at Paradox Homestead, Greg Reynolds at Riverbend Farm and Kaare and Pam Melby at Finskogen Farm. All seed grown in this project was produced in accordance with the standard of the national organic program, though not all participating farms are certified organic.
- Build farmers’ capacity to produce high-quality seed of regionally-adapted crops for commercial contracts and on-farm use
- Build farmers capacity to track labor and inputs to inform future contract negotiations
- Understand which seed crops are most practical for Minnesota farmers to produce through enterprise budgeting, on-farm observation of seed crops and seed quality testing
- Develop farmers’ ability to grow and save seed of culturally and economically important crops
General Tips for Beginning Seed Growers
As a beginning seed grower, it is important to select seed crops that can ripen and be produced relatively disease-free in your climate. The climate of the Upper Midwest presents unique challenges for organic seed production. Summers are short and humid, winters are long and cold. Since many fungal and bacterial pathogens spread through moisture, the humidity of the summer months can make managing disease in seed crops difficult. Cultural practices that increase airflow- like spacing, trellising and cultivating- are very important in this climate. Dry-seeded crops, which reach maturity when the seed and surrounding plant tissue are dry, can be especially difficult to produce disease -free, as the dry months of late summer yield quickly to the threat of first frost. The long cold winters make it difficult to over-winter biennial crops in the field. Most seed producers in the Upper Midwest dig up and store steckling of biennial plants over the winter, and replant them in the spring. While this presents additional work for the grower, it also allows an opportunity for additional selection based on steckling characteristics. For more information on which seed crops generally grow well in the Midwest, and which are more difficult, see Appendix B. Midwest Seed Crops, contributed by Erica Kempter of Nature and Nurture Seeds in Ann Arbor, MI.
The Upper Midwest has experienced more dramatic weather events in recent years due to climate change. Alternating periods of drought and flood challenge farmers of all kinds. As with other farming operations, seed growers can mitigate the effects of extreme weather somewhat by growing a diversity of seed crops. If extreme weather hits one crop in a particularly vulnerable point of its life cycle, chances are a different crop will be strong enough to pull through and ripen seed. Seed growers in this region also rely on a good sense of humor about the weather, noting that “a bad weather year is a good selection year.” This means that whatever plants survive a bout of bad weather are the heartiest of the bunch, and the best candidates for perpetuating into future generations.
It is important to choose seed crops that fit within your farm system. If you grow on a small acreage and are also producing vegetables for market, it is best to choose seed crops that tend not to cross pollinate. If you do choose to grow seed of an “out-crosser” make sure to observe the proper isolation distances, or create pollination barriers to make sure the seed crop is not crossing with other varieties. It is also best to produce seed of crops that you are familiar with growing for market. This will help flatten the learning curve of transitioning to seed production. At first, try not to select seed crops that require additional equipment for harvesting and cleaning, beyond what you already use for market farming. Screens, buckets, paper bags, tarps, and fans for winnowing and drying are the basic equipment that serve seed growers in their first experiments with seed production, and often throughout their seed growing career as long as they remain at a scale appropriate for hand-labor. As the scale of production increases, assess the return on investment of purchasing key pieces of equipment that can increase seed cleaning efficiency and precision. OSA is developing a seed cleaning equipment toolkit in the that will help growers navigate equipment choices, access, and costs.
Clint Freund, midwest seed grower and proprietor of Cultivating the Commons in Milaca, MN, recommends experimenting with growing seed crops that you really like working with, rather than tailoring crop choices to potential markets. Curiosity and a natural inclination toward the crop will pull you through the many rounds of trial and error that lead to competence in seed production, while an intellectual understanding of a “market opportunity” might not provide the same motivation. Getting really good at producing some seed crops can help solidify your relationships with seed company buyers, and help growers generate the confidence they will need to eventually take on crops that are harder to produce.
Regional seed companies are generally very supportive of beginning seed growers, especially those who communicate regularly, deliver on contracts and demonstrate their commitment to continued improvement in seed production. Some regional seed companies structure their pricing to incentivize new growers, working at a hand-labor scale, to continue refining their skill set. Still, the early years of seed production can be a lot of work, for not much return. Erica Kempter from Nature and Nurture Seeds in Ann Arbor, MI encourages beginning seed growers to start small, and to ensure that the time and resources they dedicate to a crop can at least be covered, if not exceeded, by the contracted price for the seed. For more information on general trends in contract pricing, see Appendix C. Seed Price Comparison.
Clint Freund also recommends growing seed of crops that can serve a dual purpose in your business plan. For example, he grows a hot pepper on contract for a regional seed company and also sells the pepper flesh to a local hot-sauce maker. He also sells cabbage heads to a sauerkraut maker, and keeps the base and stems for making seed. This is not possible for all seed crops, of course, but might entice a beginning seed grower to think creatively about the revenue potential of producing seed of particular crops.
Seed Production Demonstration: Seed Economics by Crop
For this project, the participating farmers selected five seed crops to fit their markets, production capacity and climatic constraints: Tomato, Kale, Squash, Potato and Carrot. Tomato is a very common crop for beginning seed producers. Because most tomato varieties do not easily cross, growers can be relatively certain of the genetic purity of the seed. Furthermore, the seed ripens in the flesh of the fruit where it is somewhat protected from seed-borne disease, and relatively easy to extract and clean. Squash is similarly straight forward, though it is an out-crossing crop, requiring significant isolation distance or pollinator management. Kale and carrot are more difficult because they are biennial crops, and dry seeded so they are more vulnerable to the effects of humidity. Seed potatoes are difficult to produce disease-free in this climate, but there is a high demand for locally grown seed potato tubers, so the project partners wanted to experiment with this crop.
Most of the project partners grew out 1-2 varieties of these crops, and North Circle seeds produced all of them. The varieties were chosen based on adaptation to the Upper Midwest climate (discerned from previous production, selection or trialling history), as well as the variety’s “averageness” or closeness to what is generally considered the archetype for that crop (eg. large red slicer tomato). Each partner recorded their labor and expenses in producing the crop, which were used to assess the fitness of that crop for each farm system and to guide pricing for the seeds. Tables A, B and C include the information growers tracked in order to create basic enterprise budgets of the seed crops they grew. Table A outlines the activities farmers included in their labor tracking. For repeated activities such as weeding and watering, some growers chose to use the labor tracking sheets in Appendix D. Table B includes information used to calculate the cost of equipment and supplies used, prorated per crop. Because all the growers used minimal mechanization to produce seed, they chose not to worry about equipment depreciation in their reporting, but a larger more mechanized operation would likely include depreciation in their calculations. Table C was used to calculate the cost of land used to produce the seed crop, also prorated per crop. To calculate the total cost of production, we added the totals for each of these and then added a 10% overhead fee to account for various costs associated with marketing and business management. Together, all these costs gave us an estimate cost of production.
Table A. Labor Tracking (per crop)
|Total labor hours|
|Cost of labor @ $XX/hour|
Table B. Equipment or Supplies Tracking (per crop)
|Name of item|
|Expected life of the item|
|Hours spent using for this crop|
|Hours spent using total in 2020|
|Prorated cost of equipment|
Table C. Land Cost (per crop)
|Cost of land (rent or land value) per acre|
|Square feet of land used for the crop|
|Prorated cost of land|
One general trend was the relationship between the maturity of the farming system and the marginal costs of producing the seed crop. The more experienced growers, though they were not producing seed on a larger scale, had an easier time fitting seed production into their existing system, and already had labor-saving equipment to help reduce the cost of labor. However, more mechanization led to an increase in equipment cost that would be more easily borne across a larger scale of production. So the smaller scale farmers had higher labor costs but lower equipment costs, and the larger scale farmers had lower labor costs but higher pro-rated equipment costs. On balance, the larger scale more mechanized farms had slightly lower costs overall.
Isolation was also an important cost to consider, as the larger scale growers were able to keep out-crossing crops separated by distance, and to spread out the cost of isolation over a large operation; while the smaller growers needed to invest in isolation equipment.
The cost of organic certification was not included in these budget estimates. It would be interesting to analyze the scale of seed production at which the cost of certification (in money and time) would become worthwhile, and the price premium needed to make it so.
Approximate Cost of Production by Crop
Tables (D) through (I) include cost of production information for each of the trial crops. All of the data presented here was collected and contributed by Zachary Paige at North Circle Farm, as an example of costs per crop for a small scale, hand-labor based seed operation. The information collected at the other participating farms was analyzed and kept for use at each farm.
Table D. Carrot (Biennial, produced 2019–2020)
|Variety||Early Scarlet Horn|
|Variety info||8 in. orange carrot|
|Equipment used||Broadfork, sheers, paper bags, screens, winnow wizard|
|Prorated equipment cost||$45.48|
|Land used||250 sq ft|
|Prorated land cost||$4.10|
|Estimated cost of production||$830.57|
|Seed yield||14.5 oz – 426,471 seeds|
Table E. Tomato
|Variety||Kathy’s Red Barn|
|Variety info||Large red beefsteak, selected in MN|
|Equipment used||Harvest bins, wagon, 5 gallon buckets, dehydrator, screens|
|Prorated equipment cost||$23.71|
|Land used||200 sq ft|
|Prorated land cost||$3.28|
|Estimated cost of production||$647.11|
|Seed yield||1 oz – 32,000 seeds|
Table F. Kale (Biennial, stecklings produced in 2020, second season 2021 projections included)
|Variety||Wild Garden Lacinato|
|Variety info||Broad lead dark green kale with red stem|
|Equipment used||Shovel, root bag, shears, paper bag, winnow wizard, screens|
|Prorated equipment cost||$115.40|
|Land used||256 sq ft|
|Prorated land cost||$4.20|
|Estimated cost of production||$1,105.06|
|Seed yield||TBD, 100 stecklings saved|
Table G. Winter Squash
|Variety||North Circle Butternut|
|Variety info||Classic butternut, selected in MN|
|Equipment used||Wagon, dehydrator, hose, screen, winnow wizard|
|Prorated equipment cost||$11.05|
|Land used||560 sq ft|
|Prorated land cost||$9.18|
|Estimated cost of production||$715.26|
|Seed yield||2 lbs – 10,000 seeds|
Table H. Potato (tubers)
|Variety||Dark Red Norland|
|Variety info||Red skin white flesh|
|Equipment used||Wagon, Broadfork|
|Prorated equipment cost||$9.16|
|Land used||240 sq ft|
|Prorated land cost||$3.94|
|Estimated cost of production||$1,020.91|
|Seed yield||840 lbs|
The approximate cost of production calculated for each crop was compared to the expected revenue from North Circle Seeds’ sales of each crop. All seed crops had the potential to produce a profit for the seed company. Winter squash was the only crop for which the projected revenue may not have justified the expense of production. This was likely because of the weight of the squash, and the amount of labor required to harvest the gourds, move them and then extract the seed. A more mechanized operation would be able to minimize these costs using labor-saving equipment such as a vine thresher. The cost of testing seed potato lots for disease, and the potential losses associated with not selling disease tubers also jeopardized the potential profit from seed potato sales.
Demand for regionally adapted and regionally-produced seed in the Upper Midwest will continue to grow as consumers re-invest in local and self-produced sources of food. In order to meet this demand, farm-scale seed savers will have an opportunity to professionalize their seed work and step up to contract seed production. Organic Seed Alliance will continue to partner with farmers in the region to support skill development in seed production, seed business and the cultural elements of seed work.
Hubbard, K and J Zystro. “State of Organic Seed.” Organic Seed Alliance: Port Townsend, WA. 2016.
Appendix A. Additional Resources
Webinars Targeting Midwest Seed Growers
Webinar 1: Improving Brassica Seed Production, recorded February 15, 2020
Webinar 2: Seed Potato Production and Breeding in Organic Systems, recorded April 15, 2020
Webinar 4: Midwest Seed Growers Community Meeting and Skill Share, held February 19, 2020 Breakout groups, not recorded
Related Organic Seed Alliance Publications
Appendix B. Midwest Seed Crops
Erica Kempter, Nature and Nurture Seeds
Best Seed Crops for the Midwest
- Peppers (isolate varieties by covering with screen netting or row cover fabric)
- Ground cherry
- Squash/pumpkins (choose varieties that are sure to ripen in your growing zone)
- Amaranth, sunflowers, other flowers
- Chives, garlic chives, perennial onions
- Annual brassicas (Arugula, Brassica rapa – i.e. Mizuna, Brassica juncea – i.e. Ruby Streaks)
- Radish (annual “spring radish” types) (start in hoophouse)
- Radish (biennial types – i.e. Daikon, Watermelon)
- Onions and leeks (biennial)
- Kale, collards, cabbage (biennial)
- Beans (beware of viruses)
- Peas (beware of viruses)
More Difficult Seed Crops for the Midwest
- Need warm fall to mature seeds
- Choose early varieties
- Grow in hoophouse
- Lettuce, spinach
- Field grown: Rain can cause disease/damage seeds
- Hoophouse grown: high temp may cause harvested seeds to have low germination rates
Most Difficult Seed Crops
- Summers are too short
- Seeds don’t all ripen in time for efficient harvest
- Beets and chard
- Rain/humidity can damage seeds
- High temps affect germination rates
- Plants need to be isolated from wild Queen Anne’s Lace
- Seeds can easily get contaminated with GE corn
- Dill and cilantro
- Can have random low germ rates
Appendix C. Seed Price Comparison
Comparison price per pound for seeds in 2020 (downloads to PDF)
Appendix D. Labor Tracking Tool for Seed Producers
Labor Tracking Tool for Seed Producers (downloads to Excel spreadsheet)
Special thanks to Zachary Paige, Sue Wika, Greg Reynolds, Pam Melby, Kaare Melby, Ryan Pesch, Clint Freund, Erica Kempter, Koby Jeschkeit-Hagen, Ira Wallace, Rue Genger, Laurie McKenzie, Petra Page-Mann, and Beth Corymb for their contributions to this project.