Flash in the Pan 

Seeds of discontent

Fedco Seed Company enclosed a letter with its spring seed deliveries, asking customers what, if anything, to do about a recent Wall Street transaction. Seminis Inc., North America’s largest seed company, had been purchased by agribusiness giant Monsanto, a move that makes Monsanto the largest vegetable seed company in the world.

Fedco is a small employee- and customer-owned cooperative in Waterville, Maine. The Fedco seed catalog is an impressive yearly compendium of prose, art and networking information, all related to growing food. The biases revealed therein are pretty much the antithesis of all that Monsanto is known for, including factory farms, genetically modified organisms and agri-chemicals.

The problem is that several of Fedco’s most popular varieties—including many short-season peppers, tomatoes and onions grown in Montana—came from Seminis. Fedco’s average seed order from Montana is more than $100, suggesting that many local farmers and hardcore gardeners buy from Fedco.

In the letter to its customers, Fedco asked if they should continue doing business with Seminis now that it’s owned by Monsanto. The majority of Fedco’s customers, according to Fedco founder C.R. Lawn, responded with a preference to “drop Seminis.”

If they do, Fedco could take a financial hit. Many farmers and gardeners who have come to depend on Seminis varieties will seek them elsewhere, taking the rest of their business with them.

“Getting farmers to change varieties is like getting someone to change religion,” confirms John Schneeberger, founder of Hamilton’s Garden City Seeds.

I asked local farmer Josh Slotnick what he would do if he couldn’t grow his beloved Sugarsnap peas, a stalwart of his growing season, and until now available from Fedco. Slotnick looked at me blankly. “Sugarsnap is the snap pea to grow in Montana,” he says. “That’s the one. There is no substitute.”

Seminis, meanwhile, was hardly a mom-and-pop family farm before Monsanto took over. Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo cobbled the company together by purchasing smaller companies with money from his tobacco and insurance holdings. Romo also owns companies involved in GMO research.

And even if Fedco were to continue selling Seminis seeds, that wouldn’t guarantee seed security to small farmers who use less popular varieties. In 1998, Seminis pared down from 6,000 to 3,500 varieties, sending many growers scrambling. Monsanto could pare the selection further.

“Monsanto is going to look at this from a bean-counter perspective,” says plant breeder Mark Hutton, whose employer Petoseed was absorbed by Seminis. “Low profit-margin varieties might get dropped.”

As for Schneeberger’s Garden City Seeds, that company was bought out in 2000. Its headquarters moved to Thorp, Wash., and its operation changed significantly.

“[New management] didn’t turn out to be good stewards,” asserts Lawn. “It’s too bad. We at Fedco felt a kinship to Garden City Seeds. People called them the “Fedco of the West,” or called us the “Garden City Seeds of the East.” They saved some great heirlooms from extinction, like the Scarlet Keeper carrot and the Long Pie Pumpkin. And they had a great catalog.”

Despite the carnage of the seed industry’s merger-mania, Lawn and Schneeberger agree that many good seed companies continue to operate as they did before being absorbed by multinationals, and are still growing good seeds.

So, if “good” growers are working for “bad” multinational corporations that keep gobbling each other up, why fret over where you buy seeds?

“We are concerned about concentration of power in the agriculture sector,” explains Fedco’s Lawn. “Monsanto already controlled 80 to 90 percent of the GMO market, mostly in soy, corn and cotton. Now they control 40 percent of the North American vegetable seed market. Monsanto has also been very aggressive in protecting what they call their intellectual property rights, suing farmers for saving seed, encouraging farmers to tattle on each other. Those actions make us feel uncomfortable.”

Thus, Fedco has decided to drop Seminis after giving the company and its customers two summers to explore alternatives.

“This isn’t going to hurt Monsanto, but I hope it helps serve as a wake-up call for more seed growing and plant breeding. That’s the best way to counteract this concentration of power. We are looking to expand our own production, and we are looking for more growers to work with. We would really like to find a supplier of organic sugar snap peas in your area.”

flash@missoulanews.com

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