Birthing the Seed Savers Club
a.k.a. Leave it to Casey to make a short story leagues longer and more complicated.
The operative word in our mission, "Growing a robust regional seedshed for the Intermountain West," is growing. As fellow gardeners, we all understand that there's a wild combination of variables that conspire in the process of growing a garden. I liken this business to a garden in that it has been unruly, full of surprises, and constantly changing from the getgo. We've had to learn (and are still learning!) the hard way how to organize all sorts of complicated things, from deciding which growers will grow how much of which crops, to how many plants or row feet of bed space will likely produce the amount of seeds we need. How much should we pay a grower for each crop? Which varieties should we add into our stewardship and which are just too odd to be successful? Which growers would fit well into our producer's co-op model?
This last question of how to decide who to work with as a co-op grower is complicated. We get requests for collaboration all the time from farmers and gardeners of all scales, with a wide range of seed growing experience. Much to the dismay of many of the marketing folks we've ever consulted with, a massive part of our mission is to help more people learn to save seeds and to fall in love with that part of gardening, thus putting us out of business. That would be the ultimate measure of success in this crusade toward a robust regional seedshed!
In the meantime, we need to learn how to make this business cash flow so we can continue the work. Despite my anti-capitalist leanings, I have realized that this model of selling seeds is the easiest way to achieve the goal of growing more seeds in our bioregion, at least for the time being. While our seed library lacked participation because folks were intimidated by the requirement to save seeds on what they checked out from the library and return some of them to the Co-op, people are very happy to drop a few bucks on a packet of locally-saved seeds with no further obligation except hopefully to plant them! And the results are impressive. Last year our growers produced enough seeds to send nearly 40,000 packets of them out into our bioregion. That's hundreds of pounds of locally-grown seeds that didn't exist in our area five years ago. It's freaking WORKING!!!
From the beginning, our philosophy has basically been that anyone can be a Co-op grower, regardless of their garden size or gardening/seed saving experience. About 2/3 of the growers we buy seeds from in the Co-op didn't have any seed saving experience when they started. Most of those are established market farmers who have enough space to grow decent populations of seed crops and enough farming skill to learn quickly and grow successful seed crops. Others are home gardeners with a few raised beds, or aspiring homesteaders with new pieces of land they've just purchased, looking for a potential cash crop. Helen Brookman (a.k.a. Seedster) was one of our first growers. An avid home gardener who'd caught the bug for seed saving, she initially brought a lot of offerings into the co-op. When she showed up to deliver her wares, tablespoons of this and cups of that, she told me that someday we'd become too big to be able to work with small potatoes growers like her. I assured her that no, we'd always want and welcome her little lots of seeds.
So here's the thing about running a business...at some point you have to start calculating your own time, which might be foreign to you if you're a farmer. But I want SRSC to be a functioning business that can outlive me, not just another scrappy labor of love that'll fall apart after I stop pouring my heart and soul into it for free.
Enter Reiley, our wizard office manager who can populate high-level spreadsheets in her sleep. She's been instrumental in helping us calculate the cost of the various aspects of our business. In a nod to her, I'm ballparking that I probably spend around 15-20 hours a year focusing on each grower in the Co-op. If someone is new to gardening or farming in general, they require even more attention than does someone who already successfully farms and is just adding seed production to their existing farm. If after all that time and attention someone fails on most or all of the seed crops they signed up for, or they deliver only a couple of tablespoons of seed of a variety, it doesn't take a math whiz like Reiley to determine that we've just spent a lot of money on labor that we can't make up by selling seeds.
It's been deeply emotional for me to attempt to start calculating my wages. It brings up all the tender sensitivity around having devoted my life to a profession drastically undervalued in society. (See this Edible Idaho article for a side rant on that topic.). I get asked almost weekly to volunteer my time to come teach a class or offer a farm tour or guest lecture. And while I am committed to sharing my time and resources with our community, I'm also getting burnt out and am frankly in the midst of a decent mid-life crisis.
At our annual meeting this summer, we posed the issue to our growers of how to make sure anyone who wants to be involved in the Co-op has the opportunity to do so, even though it isn't practical for us to try to contract seeds from home gardeners or brand new homesteaders. The concept of a Seed Savers Club was born. Club members pay dues, which helps offset the cost of running the program as well as the general operations of the Co-op. This allows a place for folks with varying levels of seed saving and gardening experience to support our work while learning from each other and from us to increase their skills without putting additional financial pressure on our normal operations.
We've settled on a loose framework of organization for the club in the beginning and I am particularly excited to see how it grows and changes over time to suit the needs of the members as well as the Co-op growers and SRSC staff. I see club members as part cheerleader, part student, part leader. They will grow into seed ambassadors for their communities. Some of them may end up becoming SRSC Co-op growers in the future, after their seed saving skills are honed, but of equal importance is their personal journey toward greater seed literacy. A good seed consumer is as important as a good seed producer. We need people who understand the importance of this work and do what they can to support it, in whatever capacity they can. Many of our Co-op growers are also looking forward to the ways the club will grow and have interesting ideas for Co-op grower/Club member collaboration. For now, we'll start small and humble, in true Snake River Seed Co-op fashion, and we'll grow something beautiful and powerful together. Thank you deeply for your participation.