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Seedy fellows talking shop

A conversation with the Organic Seed Alliance

SeedySeed is the ultimate input, and the organic seed market continues to be challenging and dynamic.

Recently, Andrew Rodman spoke with the Organic Seed Alliance’s Matt Dillon and John Navazio about some of the trends in this emerging market.

Matt–This year I had a representative of a large dairy call me up looking for a sorghum seed for their growers that was certified organic. All of the seed companies that I directed this grower to were sold out. 

There continues to be a lack of commercially available varieties to meet the field and market needs of farmers. It is happening in field crops, and continues to happen in vegetable crops. Many of the vegetable seed companies report selling out early in the year, out of key varieties, organic hybrids in particular. 

The over-arching issues that continue to come up in organic seed are availability and appropriateness. Estimates remain between five and 10 percent of the seed planted by organic farmers is actually organic seed, and the rest is conventional non-treated. Those estimates come from talking to people in the industry.

From the very beginning, the organic community was reliant on two sources for our seeds; the conventional sector, which has little to no interest in organic seeds, and second, heirloom seed companies, which were more focused on gardeners and small quantities of seed. Organic producers made due for decades, and in many cases certainly their needs have been met, the conventional varieties have been good enough, the heirlooms have been good enough for them to produce and thrive. But “good enough” varieties and optimum varieties are two different things.

John– There is the whole issue of varieties bred for the farmer’s cultural practices. The best breeding is done for the environment and the practices of farmers. That’s what’s optimum. 

When organics started hitting the big time, the best organic farmers took commercially bred varieties, that have not been bred for their cultural practices, and tweaked their cultural practices within organics…they scoured through what is available, trialed it all out, and found the ones that are closest to fitting their needs.
Andrew–What do you mean by cultural practices? 

John–Say you are planting corn at a certain date because you don’t want it to rot in the soil. If you are a conventional farmer, you are using the corn varieties with seed treatments.

If you are doing early cultivation to kill weeds, or flaming to kill weeds as an herbicide, that is a cultural practice.

Matt–If an organic farmer doesn’t have the chemical seed treatment in the corn to prevent diseases, like rotting in the cold soil or early emergence in cold soils, this could push planting to a later date, which could cause them to have less of a yield or incur other risks later in the season. 

John–All of those conventional corn breeding programs have an attitude of: that’s not a problem, we have these state of the art seed treatments with thiram pesticides. So our growers don’t worry about that. In fact, we are going to use those seed pesticide treatments even in our breeding program to artificially avoid that reality that every organic farmer in the field is facing.

Matt–There’s even the genetic element of how a plant responds to cultivation. 

John–Like when you have your tines on, you are disrupting the soil very close to the plant or throwing the soil back. Conventional farmers that are using herbicides don’t need nearly as much cultivation. If you are truly breeding a plant good for organic farmers, it has to be tough enough to have soil thrown up on it.
The percentage used of organic seed is one thing, the percentage of seed being used that is appropriate and most ideal for the cultural conditions and market conditions are even lower than just the basic seed.

The first organic seed companies that ventured into the movement early on are finding success. There is a lot of growth in the true 100 percent seed companies. Their sales are up because they are making improvements in their production quality and practices. 

They are finding that growers are increasingly purchasing their seed.
Some of the conventional seed companies have seen that the organic market is not just a fad, that it is here to stay, and that it continues to exhibit growth, and they become interested in potentially transitioning their seed lines into organic production.
Very few of these companies however, are making the plunge in breeding for organic systems. Part of the reason is that there is hesitancy around the dollars and cents of it. It is very expensive to breed and test any kind of plant. It takes considerable money and time, it can take 10 years or more to breed a new variety, as well as infrastructure for growth chambers and disease and pathology testing for the plant.

Andrew–So even though the market for organic seed has been shown to be strong, there’s still the uncertainty of making back the investment.

Matt–Even though they can sell the seed for more, they cannot sell it for that much more. 

The majority of conventional companies still don’t care about organic in one way or another, and will likely never convert their lines to organic. So a farmer who uses a specific variety owned by only one company, if that company is never going to convert to organic, that farmer could be in a situation where they would never have the variety they want produced organically. 

The other issue that comes up with soybeans and corn, and increasing concern in brassica crops, and of course with chard, is the contamination with genetically engineered crops. At the Organic Seed Alliance we are having farmers call us and ask, “how can I be certain that the organic seed I am purchasing is free of genetic contamination?” Some of those calls are from people who just don’t understand contamination and their concern that their carrots may be contaminated, those are rare and those are usually gardeners that are calling, not farmers. Farmers are calling and asking questions about field corn and sweet corn, about brassica crops, about beets and chard, and they are frustrated in some degree that they don’t have that information, and can’t seem to get that information clearly from those companies. There is a push right now for further testing of organic seed, but of course it is a very precarious situation because organic seed companies who test for contamination, and test positive for GE contaminants that they recorded and tell their customers, their customers are likely not buying. They have no recourse to pay for their crop loss. It is a difficult situation for the seed companies, but meanwhile farmers are nervous they might be contaminating their fields with contaminated organic seeds. Some of the companies do test, but very few of them have an open policy, or print much about it in their catalogs because they are not sure they will have any recourse for liability. 

OSA’s goal is to try to create better feedback loops and communication between farmers, researchers, seed companies to improve all parties’ understanding of the potential benefits that come from further investment in the trialing of organic seed systems, and try to get beyond the conflicts and into solutions.
We also are doing an in-depth questionnaire for the seed industry and asking them questions about their perceptions and attitudes about farmers’ purchasing organic seed, and asking the organic seed industry questions about what are the road blocks they face, the technical obstacles in production and disease obstacles in the field production of plants. I think this is going to tell us a lot.
We are going to be doing another questionnaire for certifiers about their questions, concerns and experiences around seed issues, and organic food companies that buy on contract from farmers about their perceptions, and what their future needs are. Processors or food companies are looking for quality traits that they can get out of good genetics.

Right now this is the most important thing: increased education across sectors to understand how we can work together and move this forward, rather than drop dead deadlines of “farmers must use organic seed by this date or else” or the opposite of “oh, eventually it will catch on.” 

In 2010, in cooperation with the Midwest Organic Farming Conference, OSA will be hosting a “State of Organic Seed Symposium.” It’s a working meeting to actively discuss what is working and what is not in organic seed systems. We want diverse representatives from the organic community at this event, not just the seed heads. We will be building off of the National Organic Action Plan to create an Organic Seed Action Plan. To work together to minimize contamination, and to improve the overall quality of organic seed so that organic farmers have the seed they need. If you’re interested in attending the symposium, look for info on the OSA web site. There’s also links to the questionnaires I mentioned. We really need organic farmers and food companies to fill these out.
We think there does need to be a stimulated, dynamic dialogue amongst all of the parties in the organic community on this issue. Now is the time to engage in it. The organic seed sector is at an exciting place, and its true potential will emerge if we work on it collaboratively as a community.

Matthew Dillon and John Navazio co-founded Organic Seed Alliance in 2003. Matthew serves as the director of advocacy. John is the senior plant breeder. 

For more information on the State of Organic Seed Report, symposium, and questionnaires please go to

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