Our Seedy Evolution
My Dad's wonderful new partner Chris found a bag of my Mom's old seeds in their shed and opening it brought a trip down memory lane along with all the expected accompanying feelings..."How sad she never got to plant them" leads to "Why the hell didn't she plant them? Did she just buy them to support her daughter's business endeavors? Of course that's what she did"...and finally "My oh my, how far we've come in all these years!" Hope you enjoy this little photo expose of the evolution of our seed company, as shown through the evolution of our seed packets!
Ahh, the beginning of a project...where you dive into an overwhelmingly vast sea of hard work wearing nothing but your oh-so-transparent suit of blissful ignorance...I was with my Mom in the car when I got a call from Lindsay Schramm, the owner of the soon-to-be open North End Organic Nursery in Boise. She had heard I was into seed saving and wanted to carry some of my seeds in her new store. I went home and found about 10 varieties of horribly cleaned, likely poorly isolated seed from a clearly smaller-than-recommended population size I'd saved that year and put them into little coin envelopes with my farm logo on a sticker. I knew nothing about the Pure Seed Law, nor the laws about germination testing or needing to include the year they were packed for. I just put them in the envelopes and sold 'em. Probably made about $25. And voila...I'd caught the bug. It was 2009, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
The new decade brought a ridiculous new addition to the plan--in addition to learning a minuscule amount about the laws governing seed sales, I also heeded the half-baked advice of my delightfully audacious friend Lindsay Medoff, an ex- Anthropologie fashion designer turned farmer who coulda birthed Pintrest has she seen what was coming down the pipe. Instead, she convinced me, a person who had never before really sewn a thing, that it would be a good idea to sew my own packets for my seeds. Really drive home the hand-scale aspect of it, you know? And so I embarked on a multi-year project where I literally went through dozens of spools of hot pink thread and completely trashed a couple cheap sewing machines making my own seed packets. At first, this involved cutting big spools of kraft paper into rectangles, designing and printing a little card with some information (thankfully including the "Packed For" year), sewing the packet together on 3 sides, filling it with seeds, and then sewing the top closed. All things considered, it worked better than it seems like it should have, except with varieties like ground cherries with very small seeds. I think I had around 33 varieties in my collection at that time.
There's nothing like spending hundreds of hours hunched over a sewing machine or cutting out thousands of little paper rectangles with crappy dollar store scissors to make you start questioning your life decisions. I started looking for ways to streamline this absurd process but still keep the "handmade" feel. The compromise: cut and fold long rectangles and only sew the packets on two sides. Then print and cut out hundreds of stickers on my home model HP printer and stick them on the packets, and use a flap with a sticker on the other side, which also added the benefit of not making the customer cut into the packet to open it. In retrospect, I think this version added more steps, and included the added suck-bonus of having to get stickers to come off their backing. On the bright side, I was getting better at seed saving by this point. My elders Donna Ferguson and Beth Rasgorshek had showed me some basic seed cleaning skills, and I'd been reading Seed To Seed like it was the last book on earth. The game was definitely being upped. I was getting lots of positive feedback from folks using my seeds, and I was actually starting to see the benefits on my own farm as well. I was surprised to see that my seeds almost always germinated better and grew better than the "real" ones I was still buying, and slowly they were working their enchanting magic on me. I was starting to believe I might actually be onto something. Beth took me to my first Organic Seed Alliance conference in Port Townsend, Washington, and I couldn't believe it...there were all these young wackos like me who were growing seeds and selling them in packets through these tiny-ass seed companies they started. They looked at me like I was a freaking lunatic when I showed them my hand-made packets, but I think it sort of endeared them to me in some sort of twisted way as well..."At least I've got half my shit figured out compared to this girl," they seemed to be thinking.
I think it was their appalled faces when they calculated the hours it must have taken me to create what they were holding in their hands that started me thinking I ought to go a different direction. So in preparation for the 2013 seed selling season I hired a graphic designer to help me design a template for a packet I could populate myself, printed on recycled paper by a local company, Lithographics, who got drug into this mess by proxy. They also had no idea what a pain in the neck they'd signed up for. They had to build special die-cutters, and use super heavy paper to get it to run through their machines OK, and even hire a bunch of teenagers to glue them together at the eleventh hour, with stacks of people in my living room hunched over sewing machines desperately trying the meet the Black Friday deadline we'd for some reason locked ourselves into. Yes, you read that right. I still couldn't give up the damn hot pink thread! It had latched and hooked its way around my neck, and I couldn't let go.
Finally in 2014, I let it go. We traded it for that particular high of rubber cement and prayed through the year that the department of ag wouldn't noticed that I accidentally put the wrong "packed for" year on every single packet when I sent them to the printers...with around 100 varieties at that time, this whole seed business thing was becoming a kind of a big deal, and we were thousands of dollars into those packets. Luckily, no one seemed to notice, even though we'd expanded into several more retail stores by then. I'd also gotten my act together on germination testing, which really amped us up for the next big move...
The Snake River Seed Cooperative was born in 2014! We launched our first line of seeds for the 2015 season, with 7 growers, and with that I was whisked into the world of seed company management. The benefits were numerous--with more growers, we could offer more varieties of seeds to our growing customer base of Treasure Valley gardeners. It was also a selfish move for me. As more folks started relying on my seeds, my anxiety about letting them down also ramped up. With more growers, we could spread out the risk and create more resilience, and that's what we've been working on in the 4 years since. We started working with Cambridge Pacific, who makes seed packets for small seed companies all over the country, and they're hella fancy...self-sticking and everything! Our packets have stayed the same over these years, except for the little slogan at the bottom of them, which has changed as we've expanded from an Idaho-only seed company to a bioregional seed company based in Idaho. We still have the same commitment of providing a living wage for farmers while offering gardeners an increasingly diverse selection of locally-adapted seeds. And the added benefit of our newer year's packets.......no ABOUT!!!
For those who've never had the pleasure of packing seeds with us, you may not notice that on the back of some of our older SRSC packets there is a word crossed out. It is the word ABOUT, and we have literally crossed out tens of thousands of that word over these years, after we were informed by the Department of Weights and Measures (yet another entity I didn't realize existed until they came a-knocking...) that you are not allowed to use "approximations" on seed packets. You cannot say "at least" 100 seeds or "about" 100 seeds, or "minimum" 100 seeds. Nope. You have to say "100 Seeds" even though you and they know darn well that the likelihood of there being exactly 100 seeds in a packet is about the same as the likelihood of me being able to complete a triathalon. But nevertheless, we have dutifully purchased dozens of sharpies and crossed out every damn ABOUT we come across, and each time we finish an old 500 packet box and move into a new box that doesn't say ABOUT the office crew cheers. Slowly and surely, we're wiping every shred of approximation out of our collection....and along with it, becoming more "legit" as an entity all the time....I'll leave you with the picture of me with my first Seed Dealer's license to prove the point...just don't look at the year I got it....
Thanks to everyone for following along the journey, whether you early adopted in the rogue coin envelope days, logged hours behind a sewing machine with so stinking much pink thread, or are a relative newcomer who had no idea that your beloved local seed company has such scrappy roots. What a ride it's been. And I think it's now safe to say this baby that took a lot of pushing and pulling to birth is now standing on its own 2 feet. Now if we can just survive adolescence......