Category Archives: Seed Growers

Seeds, Small Farms, and Resiliency: The Story of SESE Seeds

Neighboring seed farmer Edmund Frost (Common Wealth Seed Growers)

As most of you probably know, we’ve been inundated with orders this last month. We’re thrilled that folks are looking to our seeds during this challenging time but we’ve also had trouble keeping up. We’ve had to suspend taking new orders several times now while working to get seeds packed and shipped. We thought this would be an appropriate time to take a look behind the scenes at Southern Exposure.

The graph below compares the number of daily orders for some days in March and April from 2013 to 2020. Not shown in this graph is that we also saw an increase in order size. Folks that maybe would normally purchase just a few packets ordered more packets and larger packets (bulk sizes) this year.

The graph below compares some of the 2019 and 2020 sales by category.

Our Network of Growers of Small Growers

Did you know SESE gets approximately half of our seeds from our network of small growers? These are the seeds you see marked with a purple “S” on our website and in our catalog.

That’s a really high percentage of seeds!  Most larger seed companies buy most of their seeds from wholesalers – it’s a ton of work to fill all the seed orders that come in, and directly contracting with seed growers adds a lot of extra work on top of all that order fulfillment.

Each year about 60 small farms grow seed for us. Most are family farms with few if any employees. Some grow as little as one variety while others grow as many as 40.

Before each growing season, we make a list of seeds we need and send it out to our growers. We include a price per pound or ounce of seed and a range of how many pounds/ounces we’d like. The lower end of this range is estimated to be about 1 year worth of seed and the higher side is about 2.5 to 3 years of seed. The range may be different depending upon the crop type and how well it stores.

Almost all of our farmers, aim for the high end of the range. Different varieties need to be isolated from one another, so it benefits farmers to get the most they can out of each isolation plot. For the most part, we provide the option for growing one year of seed to avoid penalizing farmers who have a bad crop due to pests or weather.

Small Growers and the Pandemic

As far as the pandemic is concerned, we see a few benefits from our network of small growers. The first is that we purchase more than 1 year of seed. This helps us be prepared for years like this year when we received more and larger orders than expected. Also, on small family farms with few employees, we don’t see workers crowded into tight conditions that you see with larger industrial-scale operations.

However, many of our seed growers are older folks who would be considered at relatively high risk of experiencing serious side effects from COVID 19. We love our seed growers and are hoping they all have a healthy, happy, and successful growing season.

Wholesale Seed

We also purchase wholesale seed. These seeds don’t have the purple “S” in our catalog and on our website that seeds from small growers do.

We strive to work with companies that value organic agriculture as we do. Terra Organics, Seven Springs Farm, and A. P. Whaley Seeds are great examples of our wholesale sources.

SESE Seed Storage

Seed Storage

SESE Seed Freezer

Partially because of the quantity of seed we purchase at a time, we have a lot of seed storage. We keep our seeds in a walk-in freezer and climate-controlled storage room.

Seeds can remain viable for many years if properly harvested and stored. As we only want to provide our customers with quality seed with high germination rates, we only store for a few years at a time and test our seed each year.

What does the future bring?

  • If sustained, our unusually high sales mean that we might sell out of half of the varieties grown by our small growers. First, we’d run out of seed grown and then shipped to us in the fall of 2018, which we sold in 2019 and 2020. The seed grown in 2019 is expected to last through 2020 and 2021.
  • We expect our wholesale seeds already on hand to last until the fall of 2020 (some until late 2021).
  • We may sell out of certain varieties but we won’t sell out of whole crops.
  • Beans and southern peas were most affected by the sales surge. Pole beans in particular are difficult for growers because they require trellising which involves extra work and expense.
  • We had a few crops that were removed from the 2020 catalog due to lower sales that may be back for 2021 if we run out of other varieties.
  • We’ll be asking our growers if they’re interested in increasing their production by 10% this year.
  • You might see a change in the size of our seed packets to make things easier on our supplier, Cambridge-Pacific.

While not all of our seeds come from small growers, we feel supporting these farms goes a long way to making our company more sustainable and resilient. Thanks to all of our customers for joining us in supporting family farms each year.

Growing Grain in a Home Garden

Jake Holt, a physician and a father of young children, somehow finds the time to grow small seed crops for Southern Exposure in his home garden.Jul2015 (301) in Jake Holt's garden smallJul2015 (306) Jake Holt demonstrates small scale rye threshing small Not only that, but he also processes home grown rye into flour for pancakes.

During a visit this summer, Jake showed us one way to thresh rye at home.  We pulled seedheads off rye stalks until we had about half a gallon of seedheads in a bucket, enough for a demonstration of the process.

Jul2015 (313) Jake Holt demonstrates small scale rye threshing small Then Jake brought out a flail made of chains attached to an eye attached to a cordless drill. The contraption also included a shield made from a plastic dish. He put the flail in the bucket and ran the drill for several seconds to thresh the grain.

Jul2015 (312) Jake Holt demonstrates small scale rye threshing small The deseeded husks, still attached to the stem, were easily lifted off, leaving us with a few handfuls of rye seed and light https://www.southernexposure.com/blog/wp-admin/post.php?post=3351&action=editchaff. Jake would then winnow the chaff off by pouring the grain in front of a fan, then grinding it with a hand-crank mill. There is no need for a separate dehuller, as the hulls remain on the stems.  You can read more about Jake’s type of thresher in this Mother Earth News blog post.

It isn’t very difficult,  and his famJul2015 (319) threshed grain to be winnowed and ground smallily really loves the pancakes, but this process is long enough that almost none of us will get a significant portion of our calories this way.

If your goal is to get a significant portion of your calories from home grown grain, grinding corn is much easier – you can harvest it with a pair of hand pruners, shell it with a hand corn sheller, and hardly winnow it at all.  But most of us want wheat products, too.

You can grind corn as well as small grains at home in a hand-crank grinder such as a Grain Maker mill.  With some grains, you can also find recipes that use whole kernels.

For wheat, rye, oats, and other small grains, I hope there will be a revival of intermediate scales of threshing, winnowing, and milling – larger in scale than Jake Holt’s method, and smaller in scale than modern commercial millers – so that homegrown or locally grown rye flour can once again be used as a staple, rather than just a once-a-week pancake treat.

Yanceyville mill

It might be a long shot, but then again, so was the organic movement 30 years ago.  And even as recently as the mid-1980s, a water-powered grain mill in our part of central Virginia was grinding grain from neighboring farms.

You might think, “Flour doesn’t cost much at the supermarket. Why grow grain in a moist climate like mine?” Michael Pollan, in his book Cooked, provides us with good reasons.

fromdon'twastethecrumbsdotcom
image from http://dontwastethecrumbs.com/

Almost all the flour at the supermarkets has been separated by modern roller mills into its component parts: germ, bran, and endosperm. Even the whole grain flour at the supermarket has been separated out before being reconstituted. Commercial mills just aren’t set up to do it any other way anymore. As Michael Pollan writes,

“Not long after roller mills became widespread in the 1880’s, alarming rates of nutritional deficiency and chronic disease began cropping up in populations that relied on the new white flour. Around the turn of the century, a group of French and British doctors and medical experts… many of them posted to Britain’s colonies in Asia and Africa, had observed that, soon after white flour and sugar arrived in places where previously what one of them (Robert McCarrison) called ‘the unsophisticated foods of nature’ had been the norm, the Western diseases would predictably appear.”

Pollan also cites a 2003 study by epidemiologists at the University of Minnesota, showing that “the health benefits of whole grains cannot be completely explained in terms of nutrients we know those grains contain…. Either there are synergies at work among these nutrients, or there is some X-factor in whole grains that scientists have yet to identify.”

You might think, “In that case why don’t we all just buy whole wheat flour or whole wheat bread at our supermarkets?”  I’ll mention a few of the reasons:

— Once the germ is separated from the rest of the grain, it can deteriorate and become rancid.
— Former workers in big commercial mills told Pollan that those mills leave out the germ (and thus most of the identified vitamins) when they reconstitute “whole-wheat” flour.
— When modern industrial bakeries make dough, they usually add a lot of ingredients that most of us can’t pronounce.
— When we use local grain, we support the local farm economy rather than CEOs and shareholders.

There are still wheats, ryes, and other small grains (in addition to corns) that are adapted to growing in the Southeast.

In an upcoming blog post I’ll share our experiences visiting two bakeries that mill their grain, bake with wood heat, and buy from farmers, two of whom I’ll also profile.
Jul2015 (452) at Farm and Sparrow bakery small

Breeding Peppers and Tomatoes

Continuing our summer road trip adventures!   We visited two individuals doing exciting vegetable breeding work.  While lots of universities and other institutions do great work with agricultural research and breeding, valuable information and great new varieties can also come from individual farmers and backyard gardeners.  If you’re thinking about doing your own breeding, you might be interested in our books Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe or Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step-by-Step Guide for Growers by Rowen White and Bryan Connolly.

Craig LeHoullier is well known to tomato fans.  Starting in the ‘90s, he introduced many heirloom tomatoes through SESE, including Cherokee Purple.  A more recent project that Craig and tomato breeders from all over the world have been involved with is the Dwarf Tomato Project – using great-tasting heirlooms in breeding new, shorter tomatoes (2-4 feet tall) that are easier to trellis and to grow in containers.

We stopped by Craig’s house in Raleigh, NC to see Craig’s garden.  This year Craig is growing out all 36 dwarf tomatoes that have been released so far.  Craig cautioned us before we visited that with the heat and rain and all, his tomatoes were starting to get some diseases, but we thought that was great – a nice chance to see how the different varieties handle disease!  We already carry one of the dwarf varieties, Rosella Purple, and as we tasted our way through the dwarf tomatoes, we were taking notes for our wish list of more dwarfs to grow for seed crops.

Craig grew these plants in straw bales in his driveway!  A great gardening technique is to add some compost to the top of a straw bale and plant into the compost; as the plants grow, they’ll reach their roots into the straw, and since straw bales hold a lot of moisture, the plants won’t need much watering in between rains.  It’s a great way of growing tomatoes in containers without actual containers – Craig’s writing a book about it, look for it sometime this next year!

Craig’s book Epic Tomatoes came out last December, and he’s been busy giving talks and doing book signings for it.  He’ll be at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, giving a special pre-festival talk on Thursday, September 9th as well as giving talks on Friday and Saturday.  Many of the tomatoes featured in Craig’s book will be featured in this year’s tomato tasting at the festival, so expect to see Craig hanging out there as well!

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Pittsboro, NC farmer Doug Jones is an passionate about pepper breeding.  If you’ve ever been to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference, you’ve probably seen him at the Seed Swap table, sorting through his peppers, checking each for taste before he takes the seed out to save.

The photo below shows pepper seed from different fruits spread out for drying.  Doug bred Sweet Jemison, a long yellow pepper, which we now carry; he’s a big fan of long Italian bell peppers!

Doug farmed for many years at Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro.  Here’s a photo from November 2011 of Irena with 10 foot tall peppers in their high tunnel!

This year Doug is dividing his time between The Farm at Penny Lane and Paz Farm, where he’s also doing pepper trials for Johnny’s Selected Seeds and continuing his pepper breeding work.  Hot, wet weather had him going along the rows to prune off infected pepper leaves to keep Bacterial Leaf Spot at bay; as Doug himself described it, wet weather had him despairing that the disease would get out of hand, while a few days letter dry weather had him optimistic that the peppers would pull through…