Building farmer capacity to produce and market vegetable seed in Minnesota through seed production trials and education

Final report for ONC19-058

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2019: $40,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Organic Seed Alliance
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Kitt Healy
Organic Seed Alliance
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Project Information

Summary:

A sustainable food system depends on a seed system that is decentralized, robust, and responsive to farmers’ needs. Over the last 100 years, seed systems have become consolidated and corporatized, with 3 global companies now owning over 65% of the world’s agricultural plant genetic resources (State of Organic Seed Report 2016). Farmer-driven plant breeding, coupled with local seed production and marketing, relocate control of seed in farmers’ hands. This project engages Minnesota vegetable producers in demonstration, experimentation and education on seed production and marketing, with the goals of understanding which seed crops are practical to produce and market locally, and growing the community of skilled seed producers.

 

This project will assess the viability of commercial seed production of five economically important vegetable species on six partnering organic (certified and non) farms in Minnesota. The selected varieties were bred or successfully trialed on farms in the upper Midwest, but have not been evaluated for seed quality or economic feasibility. The project builds farmers’ capacity to produce high quality seeds though consultation with seed production experts and hands-on demonstration. The five farmer partners will use project results to launch a collaborative seed marketing enterprise led by project farmer-partner Zachary Paige.

Project Objectives:

1) Build farmers’ capacity to produce high-quality seed of regionally-adapted crops for commercial contracts and on-farm use

2) Build farmers capacity to track labor and inputs to inform future contract negotiations

3) Understand which seed crops are most practical for Minnesota farmers to produce through enterprise budgeting, on-farm observation of seed crops and seed quality testing

4) Develop farmers’ ability to grow and save seed of culturally important crops, particularly for farmers in ethnic and socially disadvantaged communities.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

The research component of this project evaluated the costs of production for 5 vegetable seed crops on a small seed contract scale. At an initial meeting participating farmers selected five seed crops to fit their markets, production capacity and climatic constraints: Tomato, Kale, Squash, Potato and Carrot. Tomato is a very common crop for beginning seed producers. Because most tomato varieties do not easily cross, growers can be relatively certain of the genetic purity of the seed. Furthermore, the seed ripens in the flesh of the fruit where it is somewhat protected from seed-borne disease, and relatively easy to extract and clean. Squash is similarly straight forward, though it is an out-crossing crop, requiring significant isolation distance or pollinator management. Kale and carrot are more difficult because they are biennial crops, and dry seeded so they are more vulnerable to the effects of humidity. Seed potatoes are difficult to produce disease-free in this climate, but there is a high demand for locally grown seed potato tubers, so the project partners wanted to experiment with this crop. 

 

Most of the project partners grew out 1-2 varieties of these crops, and North Circle seeds produced all of them. The varieties were chosen based on adaptation to the Upper Midwest climate (discerned from previous production, selection or trialling history), as well as the variety’s “averageness” or closeness to what is generally considered the archetype for that crop (eg. large red slicer tomato). Each partner recorded their labor and expenses in producing the crop, which were used to assess the fitness of that crop for each farm system and to guide pricing for the seeds. Tables A, B and C include the information growers tracked in order to create basic enterprise budgets of the seed crops they grew. Table A outlines the activities farmers included in their labor tracking.  For repeated activities such as weeding and watering, some growers chose to use a labor tracking sheets provided by OSA. Table B includes information used to calculate the cost of equipment and supplies used, prorated per crop.  Because all the growers used minimal mechanization to produce seed, they chose not to worry about equipment depreciation in their reporting, but a larger more mechanized operation would likely include depreciation in their calculations. Table C was used to calculate the cost of land used to produce the seed crop, also prorated per crop. To calculate the total cost of production, we added the totals for each of these and then added a 10% overhead fee to account for various costs associated with marketing and business management. Together, all these costs gave us an estimate cost of production, which growers could compare to the seed prices offered from seed companies or through retail sales via North Circle Seeds. The project leads helped the farmers organize and analyze this information, so they could determine whether the seed crop was worthwhile to produce at their scale, and whether an investment in seed cleaning or other production equipment would be appropriate to help lower costs. The information that farmers were asked to track is included in the tables below. 

 

Table A. Labor Tracking (per crop)

Task

Hours spent

Seeding/ greenhouse

 

Planting

 

Weeding

 

Trellising/ training/ pruning

 

Watering

 

Pest control

 

Applying fertilizer

 

Harvesting

 

Processing/ drying

 

Cleaning

 

Total labor hours

 

Cost of labor @ $XX/hr

 

 

Table B. Equipment or supplies tracking (per crop)

Activity

 

Name of item

 

Cost

 

Expected life of the item

 

Hrs spent using for this crop

 

Hrs spent using total in 2020

 

Prorated cost of equipment

 

 

Table C. Land cost (per crop)

Acreage

 

Cost of land (rent or land value) per acre

 

Sq. feet of land used for the crop

 

Prorated cost of land

 
Research results and discussion:

Conventional systems were not previously used for this work. 

One general trend was the relationship between the maturity of the farming system and the marginal costs of producing the seed crop. The more experienced growers, though they were not producing seed on a larger scale, had an easier time fitting seed production into their existing system, and already had labor-saving equipment to help reduce the cost of labor. However, more mechanization led to an increase in equipment cost that would be more easily borne across a larger scale of production. So the smaller scale farmers had higher labor costs but lower equipment costs, and the larger scale farmers had lower labor costs but higher pro-rated equipment costs. On balance, the larger scale more mechanized farms had slightly lower costs overall.

The Winnow Wizard proved to be a worthwhile expense for the growers overall. For the amount that North Circle Seeds and the nearby partner farms used the winnow wizard (approximately 30 hrs in 2021) we calculated that it cost approximately $20.83 per hour to use (taking the cost of the machine, projected upkeep, an expected 20 yr lifespan, and the $15/hr cost of labor into account). Participants estimated that the same amount of seed cleaning (to the same level of quality) would have taken at least 40 hours by hand at $16 per hour (taking the minimal cost of materials and $15/ cost of labor into account). So the total cost of using the Winnow Wizard in 2021 was approximately $625, while the cost of cleaning the same amount of seed by hand would have been an estimated $640. Though this is not a significant difference, the cost of using the Winnow Wizard will continue to be spread out across more seed crops as the growers scale up, and the savings will increase as this occurs. 

Isolation was also an important cost to consider, as the larger scale growers were able to keep out-crossing crops separated by distance, and to spread out the cost of isolation over a large operation; while the smaller growers needed to invest in isolation equipment. 

The cost of organic certification was not included in these budget estimates. It would be interesting to analyze the scale of seed production at which the cost of certification (in money and time) would become worthwhile, and the price premium needed to make it so. 

Approximate Cost of Production by Crop

Tables (D) through (H) include cost of production information for each of the trial crops. All of the data presented here was collected and contributed by Zachary Paige at North Circle Farm, as an example of costs per crop for a small scale, hand-labor based seed operation. The information collected at the other participating farms was analyzed and kept for use at each farm.

Conclusion

All seed crops had the potential to produce a profit for the seed company. Winter squash was the only crop for which the projected revenue may not have justified the expense of production. This was likely because of the weight of the squash, and the amount of labor required to harvest the gourds,  move them and then extract the seed. A more mechanized operation would be able to minimize these costs using labor-saving equipment such as a vine thresher. The cost of testing seed potato lots for disease, and the potential losses associated with not selling disease tubers also jeopardized the potential profit from seed potato sales. 

Demand for regionally adapted and regionally-produced seed in the Upper Midwest will continue to grow as consumers re-invest in local and self-produced sources of food. In order to meet this demand, farm-scale seed savers will have an opportunity to professionalize their seed work and step up to contract seed production. Organic Seed Alliance will continue to partner with farmers in the region to support skill development in seed production, seed business and the cultural elements of seed work. 

 

Tables D- H(Formatting got odd when I pasted these in here)
Crop and Variety Carrot, Early Scarlet Horn
Variety info 8 in. orange carrot
Labor hours 44
Labor cost $660.00
Equipment used Broadfork, sheers, paper bags, screens, winnow wizard
Prorated equipment cost $45.48
Land used 250 sq ft
Prorated land cost $4.10
10% overhead $75.51
Estimated cost of production $830.57
Seed yield 14.5 oz – 426,471 seeds
 
Crop and Variety Tomato, Kathy’s Red Barn
Variety info Large red beefsteak, selected in MN
Labor hours 39
Labor cost $585.00
Equipment used Harvest bins, wagon, 5 gallon buckets, dehydrator, screens
Prorated equipment cost $23.71
Land used 200 sq ft
Prorated land cost $3.28
10% overhead $58.83
Estimated cost of production $647.11
Seed yield 1 oz – 32,000 seeds
Table D. Carrot (biennial, two seasons included)
Crop and Variety Kale, Wild Garden Lacinato 
Variety info Broad lead dark green kale with red stem
Labor hours 59
Labor cost $885.00
Equipment used Shovel, root bag, shears, paper bag, winnow wizard, screens
Prorated equipment cost $115.40
Land used 256 sq ft
Prorated land cost $4.20
10% overhead $100.46
Estimated cost of production $1,105.06
Seed yield TBD, 100 stecklings saved
 
Crop and Variety Winter Squash, North Circle Butternut
Variety info Classic butternut, selected in MN
Labor hours 42
Labor cost $630.00
Equipment used Wagon, dehydrator, hose, screen, winnow wizard
Prorated equipment cost $11.05
Land used 560 sq ft
Prorated land cost $9.18
10% overhead $65.02
Estimated cost of production $715.26
Seed yield 2 lbs – 10,000 seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table E. Tomato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table F. Kale (biennial, stecklings produced in 2020, 2021 costs projected)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table G. Winter Squash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table H. Potato (tubers)

Crop and Variety Potato, Dark Red Norland
Variety info Red skin white flesh
Labor hours 61
Labor cost $915.00
Equipment used Wagon, Broadfork
Prorated equipment cost $9.16
Land used 240 sq ft
Prorated land cost $3.94
10% overhead $92.81
Estimated cost of production $1,020.91
Seed yield 840 lbs
Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

18 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: A series of three brief instructional videos about seed production and cleaning.

Participation Summary:

289 Farmers
10 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Consultation: 18

These include a conversation between Kitt Healy or Ryan Pesch and each of the participating growers about how to track all activities related to producing the target seed crops over the course of each season, and a follow up to help growers put their notes into a standardized format at the end of the season to aid data analysis. Each grower also communicated with Zach Paige or Kitt Healy a few times during each season, ad hoc,  about seed production methods. 18 refers to 2 consults per grower for 5 growers in 2019-2020, and 2 consults per grower for 4 growers in 2020-2021. One grower dropped out of the project in the second season for personal reasons. 

On-farm demonstrations: 5

Five Minnesota farmers grew trial plots for seed production (2 crops each) on their farms in 2019. Four growers did this in 2020. 

Published press, articles etc: 2

https://www.thelandonline.com/news/osa-hopes-to-strengthen-seed-supply-resources/article_989140e6-43ac-11ea-b51b-87978e2e44a9.html

Second article "Seed Production Demonstration Report" is published on the Organic Seed Alliance website and promoted through newsletters and our online regional seed networking space.  https://seedalliance.org/publications/midwest-seed-production-demonstration-report/

 Webinars, talks, presentations:5

Paige and Healy (along with Emily Reno) presented on an overview of seed economics and an introduction to enterprise budgets at the Sustainable Farming Association Conference February 8, 2020. The presentation was accompanied by a large group discussion, and additional powerpoint about North Circle Seeds' market analysis (not SARE funded, so not included here). Here is the PowerPoint file: SFA-Seed-Presentation

Healy coordinated a live-streamed and interactive panel discussion on Biennial Seed Production with Laurie McKenzie (OSA), Petra Page-Mann (Fruition Seeds) and Beth Corymb (Meadowlark Health Organics) at the Organic Seed Growers' conference in February 14, 2020. This session was especially advertised to and call-in Q+A was made available for Midwestern seed growers. Session description: Producing biennial seed crops is challenging for seed growers in many climates. This workshop is designed to help seed growers gain confidence and skills in biennial seed crop production. A panel of presenters will dig into the details of handling specific crops in different climatic conditions while offering tips on storage, timing of planting, the optimum size, and protecting crops through winter. This session will combine a presentation format with group discussion at the end so participants can learn from others’ experiences. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aE7t_-C2Rw&t=1s

Micaela Colley (OSA) coordinated a live-streamed and interactive panel discussion on Seed Economics with Karl Sutton (Fresh Roots Farm), Judy Owsowitz (Terrapin Farm), Steph Gaylor (Invincible Summer Farm), Beth Rasgorshek (Canyon Bounty Farm) and Winston Oakley (Highland Economics) at the Organic Seed Growers' conference in February 15, 2020. This session was especially advertised to and call-in Q+A was made available for Midwestern seed growers. Session description: Seed growing holds immeasurable value – from the empowerment of adapting crops to thrive in a region to the urgent need for genetic and cultural preservation to the potential for increasing on-farm habitat. For many growers seed is a calling and makes agronomic sense in a diverse farming system, but the economics of seed must also be considered to ensure economic sustainability. This session will share tools developed by an agricultural economist working with farmers to track production costs and assess profitability. Panelists will include experienced and beginning seed producers across a range of crops, scales, geographies, and business models. Discussion will focus on how to use economic tools to make decisions in seed production and how these growers balance their assessment of the economic, environmental, and personal values of growing seed on farm. This moderated panel will include ample time for audience questions and honest exploration of the challenges and rewards of life as a seed grower.

Healy coordinated a webinar on seed potato production in the Upper Midwest on April 15, 2020.This webinar features Rue Genger from University of Wisconsin-Madison who discusses how seed potato crops are kept healthy through careful inspection and testing, what it means for seed potatoes to be “certified,” and where organic certification fits into this picture. You’ll also learn about true potato seed, potato breeding, and how true seed is developing as a possible alternative to seed potatoes.Rue Genger, from the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been working with organic growers for the past 13 years to trial potato varieties and seed potato production on-farm. This webinar is part of a collaboration between OSA, North Circle Seeds, and North Central SARE. https://seedalliance.org/publications/seed-potato-production-and-breeding-in-organic-systems/

Healy coordinated a webinar on contract seed production for Midwest Seed Growers. The COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for seeds in 2020 to an unprecedented degree. As seed companies assess their needs for replenishing seed stocks, farmers at all scales are considering producing seed for their own use or for sale to seed companies. This forum was designed to provide beginning or intermediate seed growers with a foundation in how to pursue, negotiate and deliver on seed contracts. The conversation is targeted toward growers in the Midwest region, but will be useful to growers in other regions as well. Featured speakers include: Mike Levine and Erica Kempter from Nature and Nurture Seeds, Ira Wallace from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Koby Jeschkeit-Hagen from Seed Savers Exchange. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H8GYuUniyY&t=1s

 

Workshop/ Field Day: 2

North Circle Seeds hosted a field day, seed cleaning demonstration and seed growers' meeting at their farm in Vergas, MN. Unfortunately, the day had to be rescheduled due to snow so did not overlap with SFA's farm tours as originally intended. Only 4 growers were in attendance, but good plans and connections were made and we plan to re-do this event in 2020. 

Kitt Healy coordinated an online "Midwest Seed Growers" community meeting February 19, 2021. This took the place of and in-person field day, and featured networking activities and break out rooms for participants to dig deeper into topics of interest. 

Other Educational Activities: 1

A series of three brief instructional videos about carrot and tomato seed production and cleaning: https://northcircleseeds.com/pages/education-videos

Number of farmers/ranchers who participated in education and outreach activities: 289

5 participating in growing seed demonstration plots on farms, 18 in attendance at SFA conference, 37 in attendance online and in person in biennials session at seed growers conference, 45 in attendance online and in person at Seed Economics session at seed growers' conference, 88 in attendance at the Seed Potato Production Webinar, 65 in attendance at the Seed Contracting Forum, 31 in attendance at the Midwest Seed Growers Community Meeting. 

Number of agricultural professionals who participated in educational activities: 14

7 total panelists at in sessions at the seed growers' conference. 4 panelists at the seed potato and contract production webinars. Healy as project lead, consultant and presenter at SFA conference. Ryan Pesch as extension educator, field day participant and consultant on enterprise budget development. Emily Reno as co-presenter on local seeds market analysis.  

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Seed production knowledge

  • Seed cleaning knowledge

  • Awareness of economic opportunities in seed

  • Input tracking and enterprise budget creation

Project Outcomes

16 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Our project has helped 4 farmers scale up seed production on their farms and build a collaborative network of seed producers in Minnesota. Our project has also introduced over 200 farmers to advanced concepts in biennial seed production seed economics, seed potato production, and pursuing seed contracts, which are important for growers interested in entering or increasing their work in commercial seed markets. 12 additional growers filled out webinar evaluations saying that our potato and seed contracting webinars would lead to immediate changes in their practices and pursuit of seed contracts. At least one grower obtained a contract with Seed Savers Exchange after the Seed Contracting Forum (likely others, but only one reported). 

Agricultural sustainability depends on economic return, environmental health and social interconnectedness. Our project supports economic return by consulting with farmers on the creation of enterprise budgets for each seed crop that they produce, which can help them negotiate a fair rate for their seeds as they enter in to commercial contracts. Seed growing can be very satisfying, and potentially lucrative, but it is important for farmers to choose seed crops that will be economically viable for their farms. Our project is helped to generate information that will be useful to the farmers in the project and other farmers in the North Central Region interested in seed production. The 4 farmers who stuck with the project found the resulting enterprise budgets to be very useful in determining what and how much to grow for seed in the future. 

Our project contributes to environmental health by working with organic (certified and not) farmers in organic production environments. Organic farmers depend on high quality, well-adapted organic seed to be successful. Regional seed companies can help ensure the availability of organic and regionally adapted seed, and support farmers' long-term ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. By helping to connect growers to a regional seed company (North Circle Seeds) our project helps ensure the long-term sustainability of environmentally conscious farming in the North Central Region. 

Finally, our project is helping to build a network of seed producers in Minnesota and neighboring states. Farmers engaged in this project are sharing knowledge, equipment, seeds and best practices to support each other in growing the supply of local seed. This type of network development is one important element of social sustainability in agriculture, since it creates a sense of fellowship and shared purpose among growers doing the courageous work of growing organic seed. We recently received a grant from the Blooming Prairie Foundation to offer an in-person gathering of Midwest Seed Growers in 2022, which will draw heavily on the learning goals and priorities articulated during the Midwest Seed Growers' Community meeting held in February. This network will continue to strengthen and grow in the post-COVID era when seed growers can gain hands on-experience and build in-person connections at this 2022 event!

Success stories:

From one of our farmer collaborators, a seed grower and retailer in Minnesota:

This SARE grant has provided me with important economic insight to help my business become a sustainable enterprise and supply our region with local Organic seed.

Through increase in vital supplies, equipment and education outlets and opportunities, this funding was vital for my farm, and the seed collective we building with others to propel us forward and become a stable source of seed saving education. With help from our OSA partners we increased the enterprise opportunity for Minnesota seed producers and our localized seed supply.

 

Recommendations:

Additional work on the costs vs. benefits of scaling up seed production, particularly exploring when to invest in seed cleaning equipment would be very interesting. Seed yield trials for economically important crops in this region would also be very helpful. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.