Tag Archives: heirloom

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.

Fall Reads: Five Books on Seed Saving

From the outset, seed saving can seem like a rather simple affair. How hard could it be to collect seeds from your vegetable plants right? When you start trying to learn, it becomes apparent that things are a bit more complicated then that. All of a sudden your thrown into the world of seeds and you’re trying to learn about things like isolation distances, pollination dynamics, and seed cleaning methods. This fall, add one of these five books to your garden shelf for all the seed saving information you need.

Seed To Seed: Saving Our Vegetable Heritage

Written by Suzanne Ashworth , Seed to Seed provides a comprehensive look at seed saving. It’s perfect for complete beginners or those looking to improve their knowledge. Find information about both common and rare vegetables and herbs from seed collection and storage to maintaining variety purity.

The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving

This wonderful book was a partnership between The Organic Seed Alliance and Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a great companion to Seed to Seed. It focuses more on main vegetable varieties with helpful guidelines for both farmers and home gardeners. It also features new seed saving research.

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties

Create your own locally adapted varieties. Carole Deppe provides an informative look at seed saving and plant breeding for both farmers and gardens. Plus, the book is filled with inspiring tales of such interesting vegetables as popping chickpeas, hairy mustards, purple peas, rainbow corn, storage watermelons, and many more.

The Organic Seed Grower

“An essential guide to high-quality, organic seed production: well grounded in fundamental principles, brimming with practical techniques, thorough in coverage, and remarkably well organized, accessible, and readable.” – Jeff McCormack, Southern Exposure founder. This book is a valuable tool for any seed saver, covering topics like seed-borne diseases, reproductive biology of crop plants, seed crop climates and more.

Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties

This book obviously doesn’t provide a comprehensive look at seed saving like those mentioned above, but it is perfect for any tomato enthusiast. Author Craig LeHoullier introduced Cherokee Purple tomatoes to SESE and the world. His book offers incredible insight into all aspects of tomato growing and breeding.

Perfect for your fall reading list, these 5 books can help you save seeds of your own, whether you want to help preserve your favorite heirlooms or breed a local cucumber variety. They’re also a great option to keep in mind for the holidays.

6 Ways to Celebrate Gardening Heritage at Home

This past weekend we had the pleasure of being part of the 12th Annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. This festival which SESE’s Ira Wallace helps organize is a celebration of agriculture, history, food, culture. It was an amazing opportunity to learn more about historical gardening methods, heirloom seed varieties, traditional cooking recipes, and so much more. While we encourage everyone to attend the harvest festival (we can’t wait to see you next year), we realize that it isn’t possible for all to attend.

If you were too far away or just couldn’t get away from work this year to attend there’s a few things you can do at home to celebrate your gardening heritage this harvest season, and the use of pest control services could be essential to maintaining your garden, and a roach exterminator could be great for this.

Organize a seed swap.

The Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello includes an awesome seed swap but there’s no reason you can’t set one up in your neighborhood with a few friends. Alternatively there are even a few Facebook groups dedicated to seed swapping.

Read, read, read!

Thankfully many of the wonderful speakers at the Heritage Harvest Festival also have books available. Adding these to your reading list can help you preserve history and become a better gardener or cook!

The Cooking Gene by Micheal W. Twitty

Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties by Craig LeHoullier

Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine by David S. Shields

Sustainable Market Gardening by Pam Dawling

Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast by Ira Wallace

“A Rich Spot of Earth” Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello by Peter J. Hatch 

Host a variety tasting.

At the festival, SESE puts on a huge tomato, pepper, and melon tasting. It’s a lot of fun but it can also be really helpful for gardeners unsure about which varieties they might want to add to their garden next year. If you can find others growing heirlooms in your area swapping samples may help you plan your seed order. If other gardeners in your area aren’t growing heirlooms offering a tasting of varieties you grow may encourage them to plant some of their own.

Visit a farmer’s market and try to buy local.

One awesome part of the festival at Monticello is seeing all the vendors with products grown and crafted in Virginia. Visit your local farmers market or search the web for people in your state producing food, beverages, clothing, crafts and more. Buying local is better for the environment and supports small business owners.

Take a local gardening or cooking class.

The workshops at the festival are a wonderful place to learn each year but you may be able to find some offerings close to home. Many communities have affordable classes with local chefs and master gardeners that don’t get the attention they deserve. Don’t be afraid to ask around!

Pass on your knowledge.

It was wonderful this weekend to see people of all ages from all walks of life get together to celebrate agriculture and history. You don’t actually need a festival setting to accomplish this though. Whether you’re talking to your neighbor about heirloom varieties, teaching your friend how to cook with fresh ingredients, or getting your kids involved in the garden you’re helping to protect valuable skills and history.

If you were able to attend we hope you enjoyed the festival as much as we did. If not try some of these ideas and celebrate at home. We hope to see you next year!

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