Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Where do your seeds come from?

In early March, gardeners begin planning which seeds to purchase for spring vegetable gardens. Seed companies know this, so around this time seed catalogs start appearing in our mailboxes. One of the catalogs I've been receiving for a few years comes from Gurney's, located in Ohio. I'm also on their e-mail list, so I frequently receive special offers, sometimes daily.

Around the same time my last Gurney's catalog arrived, I also received an unsolicited catalog from a company called Henry Field's. So I thought I'd do a little comparison shopping by reading the catalogs side-by-side. I figured this would help me compare the two companies’ products and prices.

That was when I noticed something strange: I discovered many identical products in both catalogs. For example, I noticed that "Rainbow Carrots" were in both catalogs, with the same picture (flipped in one). This seemed off, but it wasn’t exactly shocking – many companies purchase seeds from the same wholesaler, right? No big deal.

Then, a few days later I received two seemingly urgent e-mail messages about major discounts at both Gurney's and another nursery I’ve ordered from in the past, Michigan Bulb Company. Both e-mails were formatted in the same way. Out of curiosity I read the fine print on each message. Turns out they are owned by the same company – Scarlet Tanager LLC.

Out of curiosity, I googled "Scarlet Tanager LLC" and came upon this fascinating piece, reprinted from Countryside Magazine.

According to this article, many seed companies are owned by umbrella corporations like Scarlet Tanager LLC (an organization that, quite interestingly, doesn't seem to have its own website). These companies owned by Scarlet Tanager give the illusion of small and local – when you buy from Michigan Bulb Company, for example, you might imagine that your seeds come from a family farm in Michigan. In actuality, as reported in this piece, most of the seeds sold by these companies are purchased at the lowest price possible from mega-corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto, as you may know, has gained notoriety after being exposed by documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn. These films and many others have accused Monsanto of patenting and therefore controlling their own genetically modified seeds, making it illegal for small farmers to save seeds from patented varieties. [Incidentally, Monsanto crafted a response to the claims made in Food, Inc. I’ll let you be the judge of whether Monsanto has a right to sue small farmers for saving patented seeds].

What I’ve learned from this experience is that one must be very careful when assuming that seemingly local, family-owned farms aren't connected to Monsanto. Take, for example, the Wisconsin-based Jung Seed Company. Many assume that Jung is a local family company and therefore worth supporting in the fight against GMO foods. I looked into the matter of who owns Jung and the answer is somewhat complex, but it does seem that there is a Monsanto connection. The company that was originally owned by J.W. Jung was later split into two groups – Jungs Garden Centers and Jung Seed Genetics, which is owned by Monsanto. Cf. this discussion thread at

To be fair, I've bought products from companies like Jung, Gurneys and Michigan Bulb in the past and have been satisfied with their products (with a few notable exceptions, like the "bare root" hazelnut shrubs from Gurneys that turned out to be complete duds). The tri-color butterfly bush, the Nanking cherry shrubs, the dwarf fruit trees – they have all been quite successful. However, I wonder, what is the true cost of buying these cheap frankenplants? Am I unwittingly supporting genetic modification, corporate patenting of life and the demise of seed saving by purchasing from these companies? These are questions I am now pondering as I prepare to purchase seeds for the 2011 season.

Where do your seeds come from? Do you make a point of buying only locally-grown, unpatented seeds? If so, who are your favorite local growers and seed sellers? Do you participate in a local seed exchange? Do you save your own seeds? Or do you simply buy seeds of those who offer the most interesting varieties at the lowest prices, regardless of who's selling them? Weigh in by leaving a comment below.

From this point forward, it is my personal goal to stick to buying only heirloom varieties of seeds (which are not patented or genetically modified) and/or purchasing from companies that have taken a stance against GMOs and patents. If you would like to do the same, you may find this list helpful (use the search function to quickly locate Wisconsin vendors on the list). Or, join the Seed Savers Exchange,like I did,and get discounts on rare heirloom seeds

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