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25
Sep

In advance of our Winter Conference in January with Fedco Seeds Founder CR Lawn as our keynote speaker, we thought it would be enlightening to make this into a Q&A blog. He answered with his usual fascinating, insightful, and practical--answers. We hope you find them interesting and helpful.

Question 1: How did you discover your passion for seeds?

My parents did not wish to raise their children-to-come in New York City so in 1940 they put down a $20 deposit and purchased a 25-acre farm in Vermont complete with an 1820s cape and a large barn, for the princely sum of $1,000, and made their big rural move shortly after my birth in 1946. As a 3-year-old I enjoyed foraging peas in their market garden. That memory must have resonated because in 1972, not long out of law school, I eschewed the law, choosing instead to buy the back forty on a discontinued town road in very rural Maine for a mere $4,000, one of the last great Maine homesteading deals. I grew my first over-sized garden there in 1973. Very active in the new wave food co-op movement, and tired of long isolated Maine winters in a home-built cabin with no amenities, I made the Maine Federation of Co-operatives an offer they could not refuse. For $90 per month and a warehouse bunk during December, January and February, I would come work on special projects. One of the first was organizing a statewide co-operative garden seed order. I had thumbed through my 1979 Harris Seed catalog and discovered we could purchase 5 lb. of beet seeds for $3.15 per lb. I did the math and learned we could break down each lb. into 90 good-sized packets costing us less than 4¢ apiece, resell them for 15¢, and still have a profit after paying ourselves. The seed order took off like wildfire, crossing state boundaries with impunity, and Fedco Seeds was born. My adventure with seeds had begun; I had found my life work.

Question 2: In your many years in the seed industry, how have things changed since you first started?

In my 39 years in the seed business many regional seed companies folded, bought out by giant national or multinational corporations, with an accompanying loss of geographically adapted regional varieties. Simultaneously, classical public breeding programs in the land-grant universities declined or disappeared, replaced by genetic engineering research. Most public research no
longer focuses on benefiting growers, instead aiming to maximize profits for the participating institutions and their corporate partners. Seed, no longer seen as a commons accessible to all, increasingly is regarded as proprietary intellectual property protected by a tangled skein of licenses, patents and other restrictions. The entire seed system is less collegial, more competitive; less
public, more private, much more secretive. Especially in the large agronomic crops such as feed corn and soybeans, farmers' choices and available varietal diversity have declined. Utility patenting threatens to extend the same trends into vegetable crops such as lettuce. Seed prices have increased faster than the consumer price index, more like the cost increases in our out-of-control health care system. In reaction, a legion of small and medium-sized alternative seed companies arose, often with regional and ethical focus, mostly tied to or part of the burgeoning organic seed network, with an emphasis on diverse crops and regional trials.


 

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