Gardening Articles: Care :: Seeds & Propagation

Inside the Seed Business (page 2 of 5)

by Warren Schultz

From Field to Packet

When you ship 100 million packs of seed per year, as NK Lawn & Garden does, you have to rely on a vast network of growers. The privately owned NK buys seed from as many as 50 different growers around the world--from large distributors to mom-and-pop operations. Since NK has no trial grounds of its own, company horticulturist Janis Kieft spends a lot of time visiting the trial grounds of breeders and growers, looking for new entries to fill out the 500 or so varieties that go on the company's seed racks every year.

Kieft may place an order up to two years in advance. After harvest, the seed is all shipped to the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When it arrives, the seed spends 72 hours in a fumigation chamber, then it is tested for germination. From there it's fed through one of several machines that packs either by weight or, in the case of expensive hybrids, by count. Then the packs and racks are shipped to stores starting in January.

Kieft says that other than a slight difference in germination percentage, there's little difference in the quality of seed from one grower to the next. "If it has the same variety name, no matter who sells it, it should be the same."

Lin Harris agrees. She's the horticulturist for another large company, Ferry-Morse, owned by Groupe Limagrain of France, the world's largest vegetable seed company. Her company needs large quantities of seed from reliable sources, so it deals primarily with big distributors. "We contact several growers and get bids, and buy whatever is most economically feasible," she says. The germination percentage can vary from grower to grower, but "Protection is built into industry regulations. We can't sell seed that isn't good. The standard germination percentages are dictated by the government." Those standards vary for different kinds of plants. For example, 85 percent of tomato seed must germinate or it can't be sold, unless it is marked as below standard. But some flower seed meets the standard at 35 percent.

Seed packets sold on seed racks (but not necessarily those sold by mail order) must display a "packed for" date. That assures that the seed passes minimum germination standards for the current growing season. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is fresh seed grown during the previous growing season. Producers don't normally grow every seed every year. They stagger production, growing excess for the off-years. The seed is stored under strict humidity and temperature conditions until it's time to sell it. So the seed you buy might be fresh, or it might be 2 to 3 years old. You only know that it has passed the germination requirements, even if they're not printed on the package.

Of course seed viability decreases somewhat during storage. (The worst storage conditions are encountered when a seed packet sits in a store awaiting sale.) From time to time, producers offer discounts to retailers on seed that is approaching the lower limits of its viability.

What happens to the seed that isn't sold--if a retailer has bought the seed rack outright, it's allowed to resell the seed the following year. If the retailer is working on a consignment basis, it returns unsold seed to the company. There, the leftovers may be dumped. They might be donated to charity. Or--in the case of expensive seed, such as hybrids--they may be retested and repacked for sale the following year. Mail-order companies do not generally repack, but they may hold leftover seed from one year to the next.

Some people in the seed industry maintain that a basic disparity in quality exists between retail and mail-order seed. George Ball, Jr., the president of Burpee, one of the 10 largest nursery products companies in the country, is among those who think mail-order seed is superior.

"More rigorous company standards are applied to mail-order seeds vs. packet seeds," he says. "A company in the mail-order game has to have higher standards--no mistakes are allowed. That's because the customers are more demanding in terms of variety, performance, and final outcome. In general, the packet seed buyer is less demanding. For the casual seed packet buyer, it's an impulse buy. The person is rushed. The seeds are cheaper."

Renee Shepherd disagrees. With her new company, Renee's Garden, she has crossed the great divide from mail-order company to packet company. "I wouldn't say that all mail-order seeds are better than all retail seeds," she says. "It really depends on the company. For someone like NK or Burpee, the quality is there. But that's not the case with those 10-for-a-dollar seed companies. They buy seeds by calling the vendors and saying: 'Here's what I need. How cheaply can you get it for me' and you get what you pay for."

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