The owners of Fruition Seeds, Renee’s Garden Seeds, and Hawthorn Farm are leading the way for female entrepreneurs in the heirloom seed industry.
Fruition Seeds is nestled in the hills of Naples, a small town in the Finger Lakes region of New York. On five farms totaling 25 acres, Petra Page-Mann and her partner, Matthew Goldfarb, grow regionally adapted seeds for the Northeast. Born and raised in Naples, with a childhood spent in her father’s garden, Petra says, “I grew up really appreciating plants adapted to this place I call home. Each place has its own unique ecosystem, and genetic diversity is what has allowed plants to thrive.”
The root of Fruition Seeds is the understanding that genetic diversity and collaboration are fundamental parts of a healthy food system. To that end, it’s important to Petra that her customers know where their seed was grown. Most seed companies selling directly to farmers and gardeners are seed distributors, buying wholesale seed from growers and reselling it in smaller packages, but Fruition grows 60 percent of the seed it sells. The rest is sourced from partner farms, with only 10 percent of the seed grown outside the Northeast.
“Each of our cultivars is very personal to us, and they all have a story,” Petra tells me. One of her favorite stories is of growing Valencia peanuts as a child and harvesting a mere two peanuts per plant. She chalked it up to her garden being located too far north. A few years ago, though, Fruition received a gift of 1/2 pound of ‘Northern Hardy’ Valencia peanut seeds, selected and maintained over many years in Northern Michigan. Petra says, “A month away from harvest, a woodchuck moved in under the bed. It was also the coldest season on record. But after the first frost, we dug them out and found 21 peanuts per plant. Last year was hot and dry, and we got 42 peanuts per plant! This is truly an incredible cultivar to ensure abundant peanuts in a short season, and this experiment shows the power of regional adaptation.”
During the last century, some experts believe we’ve lost more than 80 percent of seed cultivars through the industrialization of our food system, the commodification of seed companies, and the decline of seed saving overall. But Petra is full of incredible optimism, bolstered by determination and a realistic understanding of what can be created when we engage with seeds and soil. “Though we’ve lost untold genetic diversity and wisdom in a handful of generations, there’s infinite potential in a handful of seeds,” she says.
Petra looks to the future, developing new open-pollinated cultivars. “We’re creating heirlooms for future generations,” she says. “Can you imagine if we stopped writing books? Every heirloom we know began as a new introduction in its day. If we’re to survive and thrive as a species, it’s only because we’re writing new books and saving new seeds.”
Learn more at Fruition Seeds.
“‘April in Paris’ smells like orange blossoms with a hint of honeysuckle,” Renee Shepherd, founder of Renee’s Garden Seeds, tells me. She means the sweet pea cultivar, not the city, though you might not guess the distinction based on the list of countries she’s visited during her 25 years in the seed business.
“I look for cultivars where they come from — basil from Italy, kale from Holland.” In her search for heirloom and open-pollinated cultivars, she’s traveled to Poland, Hungary, England, Japan, and Brazil, to name a few. The result of these travels is the Renee’s Garden Seeds catalog, with cultivars curated by Renee and cultivated by a wide range of seed growers across the country and the world.
Because her company is “totally devoted to home gardeners,” Renee grows and eats the cultivars she sells in her own garden and kitchen. The experience of fresh bouquets and home-cooked meals is a vital part of her company.
“The connection between cooking and gardening drives selection,” Renee says. To that end, she looks for cultivars that are vigorous, disease-resistant, and delicious. The synergy between flavor and performance is tested for two seasons in the company’s two trial gardens — one in Santa Cruz, California and the other in Middlebury, Vermont — before a new cultivar is added to Renee’s seed catalog.
Among her favorite cultivars are ‘Clarimore,’ a buttery Lebanese zucchini, and ‘Astia,’ a container zucchini. Renee has kept a close eye on growing trends over the decades, and she’s found that container cultivars are becoming ever more popular. Bred to be more compact, these cultivars can be planted densely to optimize small growing spaces. Renee’s 2018 catalog will include new container cultivars of spinach, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.
There’s more than seeds growing at Renee’s. “Education is an extension of our seed packets,” she says. “I want people to be successful with our seeds, so I try to provide everything I can to help them.” If the detailed growing information on each seed packet doesn’t answer your questions, you can call the full-time horticultural advisor at Renee’s, or browse the volumes of articles on the website’s resources page.
Renee’s Garden Seeds donates seed packets to organizations and educational programs around the world, with a special emphasis on growing food for the hungry. “Donation and fundraising are part of the reason I’m in business. Being in the seed business lets you do a lot of good.” Renee says.
The company also offers a fundraising program for nonprofits and community groups. From programs in Uganda, Rwanda, and Nicaragua to the local university where Renee’s is based in Santa Cruz, California, the seeds and fundraising program have helped grow school gardens, community gardens, and prison gardens, sowing social justice through sustainable food.
You can find Renee’s Garden Seeds catalog online at Renee’s Garden Seeds.
In Palmerston, Ontario, Hawthorn Farm is growing and teaching about open-pollinated (OP) and heirloom seeds. “I’m really interested in OPs, and interested in heirlooms because of all the genetics they bring to us through the selecting work our ancestors did,” says Kim Delaney, owner of Hawthorn Farm. “I’m also interested in the continued work of developing OPs. We have to keep doing this work so there’ll be new heirlooms 50 to 100 years from now.”
For Kim, that work includes growing seeds and educating farmers and gardeners on how to save their own seed, as well as offering seed-cleaning workshops and tours at her farm. Beyond the fields, Kim is a public speaker, bringing the politics and importance of seeds to the public forum.
“The importance of seed is connected to the changing climate,” she says. “I think we need a large genetic base in our seed supply so we have a lot of resilience to changes in weather.”
Hawthorn Farm’s catalog offers vegetables, herbs, flowers, grains, and grasses. Witnessing the recent “farm to vase” movement, Kim has been increasing her company’s offerings of cut flower cultivars. One cultivar she’s particularly excited about is chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus). “When chocolate cosmos arrived on the flower scene, it was available only as a plant. The story was that it didn’t grow true from seed.” But when a customer gifted Hawthorn some seed she’d saved, Kim grew it out and found it did come true. Now she’s excited to make it more widely available.
Kim’s favorite seed story is of ‘Sasha’s Altai’ tomato. Originally from the Altai Mountains in Siberia, this tomato was given to Bill McDorman and his wife Belle Starr, who’d gone searching for short-season tomato cultivars. “While there, they met an elderly gentleman by the name of Sasha who said ‘I have the best tomato. I’ll go get you seed.’ And then he disappeared. Three days later the couple was ready to leave the area, but Sasha still wasn’t back. The translator told them, ‘He lives up the mountain.’ He had to walk up the mountain, rest for a day, and then walk back.”
In the United States, ‘Sasha’s Altai’ quickly became a favorite for its earliness and delicious flavor. Rodale named the cultivar one of the top 10 early tomatoes in the world. Years later, Sasha was robbed and severely beaten while walking home. Bill and Belle shared the story in their seed catalog and helped raise enough money to support Sasha’s recovery for an entire year.
“Not only do we get this amazing tomato in North America,” Kim says, “but this whole sort of human cultural connection comes up where we could help someone recover.” That power of connection through seeds is a driving force of Kim’s work.
You can find ‘Sasha’s Altai’ tomato seeds, and many more, at Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds.
What’s now a global community began as an idea in Katie Massy’s own fields.
“On my small-scale, biodiverse market farm, my husband is always the one assumed to be the leader. However, we share farming and parenting equally. Stereotypes still dominate in this industry and I want to change that,” Katie says.
In 2015, Katie began looking for and sharing stories online, and within six months Women Who Farm had 50,000 followers on Facebook and 25,000 on Instagram. “We blossomed instantly,” she says.
The organization celebrates and supports female farmers around the world who are practicing organic, sustainable, regenerative farming methods.
Kate Spring is an organic farmer and writer in central Vermont, where she and her husband run Good Heart Farmstead. She loves photographing the garden almost as much as growing it. Follow along on Instagram @goodheartfarmstead.
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