by Sabine Rhyne
It seems ironic to set out to visit a harbinger of spring on the coldest morning to date, -17 degrees in Wolcott, VT. At High Mowing Organic Seeds, about 45 employees are ramping up for the busy season, the time when gardeners above the 40th parallel reach for brightly colored seed catalogs to dream themselves out of winter. But there are seeds, and then, there are seeds. High Mowing specializes in organic seeds, and in plants that grow well in northern climates. Sustainability and place.
“We really believe in people working towards sustainability for themselves and their communities, and in a powerful sense of place. Seeds are the physical representation of that; they are the carriers of the message,” said Tom Stearns, High Mowing Organic Seeds’ founder. Since beginning the company as “a hobby” in 1995, Tom and his team have continued to learn and to improve these vehicles that connect us to our natural world.
One third of the seeds that are sold in the High Mowing racks at the Brattleboro Food Co-op are grown in their own fields. Other farmers are also contracted to grow seed for High Mowing, and some are purchased from other breeder partners. All seed goes through a vigorous triage process at the warehouse.
Seed is cleaned. This involves several machines, screens, screws, blowers, and shakers—all artfully supervised and handled by Craig in the cleaning room. Countless racks, representing the wide variety of seed sizes and shapes, are used to clean out debris, chaff, and other seed—all in order to improve germination rates.
Seed is tested. And tested again. All batches of seed in inventory are tested for germination rates twice a year. First, there’s the “dirty germ,” where seed is germinated without rigorous monitoring, to ensure that the quality is good enough to pass through to the next step. The actual germination tests are administered according to voluminous guidelines drafted by the Association of Official Seed Analysts, and seeds are placed in particular heat and humidity conditions. Seeds have three to ten days to germinate, depending on the crop. Interestingly, some seeds break dormancy over time, as some varieties actually increase their rates of germination, whereas others do not. Melanie, High Mowing’s “germ-lab” analyst, described the open and dynamic quality of the data parameters that seed analysts use for each variety. She and many others from around the country—and internationally—gather annually to review these guidelines. Individual seed analysts can petition annually to revise guidelines on any particular seed based on data collection, and are in email contact throughout the year.
This conversation with Melanie, as well as the conversation with Tom, painted a picture of a dynamically evolving industry, essentially mirroring the living seeds that they sell. As breeding and seed production continue to evolve, along with the characteristics that we seek in our produce and flowers over many years (sometimes several decades), so too evolves the supporting infrastructure of seed collection and distribution.
High Mowing has relationships with seed companies and agriculture departments at land-grant universities to grow seed organically, and in northern climates. Their high level of data-collection practices makes them a perfect partner, and Tom indicates that some of the universities, such as Oregon State, Cornell, and Wisconsin, have individuals involved who are committed to including the organic approach in their research. High Mowing is a leader in this segment of the industry. For the first time ever, they hosted the Student Organic Seed Symposium, with agriculture students from 20 different programs who are interested in the organic development of seed varieties. Tom joked that it reinforced those youthful agriculture students’ ideals, just to be in a room with other like-minded seed specialists. “It’s like going to the NOFA conference, or co-op conferences,” he laughed.
Youth is an important part of High Mowing Organic Seeds’ vision. Through his work with the Center for an Agricultural Economy, he has been pushing the state to plan for a more vibrant Farm-to-Plate (F2P) component in the educational system and has cheered the new ten-year plan for F2P, while working with over 1,300 schools at High Mowing to donate seeds for school gardens. All the Brattleboro schools have benefited from seed donations from High Mowing and the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
The visit to High Mowing Organic Seeds was indeed a spring burst. All the employees who showed us around, including Nels, our fine tour guide, were cheerful and proud of their work. Some are former farmers, others seasonal seed company employees who farm in the summer. All realize what they are a part of, and the colorful murals sprinkled throughout the warehouse, all of fecund summer scenes, remind them of the fruit of their labors. What will your garden grow this summer?
Guideline for Seed Storage:
The total of humidity and temperature should never exceed 100, e.g., if temperature is 50º, strive for less than 50% humidity. And generally, lower humidity is more important than lower temperature.
Seeds can be stored in plastic, as long as moisture is not introduced into the bag. Seeds are dried to the proper moisture level, so careful storage in plastic is possible.
Visit the Co-op Friday, February 8, 11am – 2pm, & meet the folks from High Mowing Organic Seedsfor games and demos!