Training Small Farmers for Commercial Seed Production while Exploring Profitability of Annual Vegetable Seed Crops in West Virginia

Progress report for ONE21-403

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $16,996.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. Mehmet Oztan
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

While I have been working with farmers to establish commercial seed market in the state since 2019, this will be the first time I will work one-on-one with farmers on the field tasks related to seed production.

This project aims to:

  • Train the partner farmers to grow and maintain selected seed crops of tomato, pepper, bean, squash, lettuce and arugula in open-field and tunnel conditions;
  • Train the partner farmers to produce high quality seeds that meet the minimum federal seed germination requirements and commercial seed standards;
  • Train the partner farmers to evaluate the seed yield of each crop for profitability;
  • Walk the partner farmers through the successful completion of commercial seed production contracts and development of seed enterprise budget;
  • Improve the productivity of the partner farmers and the economic viability of their farms through increasing land use by commercial seed production as a financial incentive;
  • Educate the partner farmers to steward regionally-adapted heirloom seed varieties, carry on the cultural and agricultural traditions associated with seeds, and engage other farmers in their network for growing seeds; and
  • Reach out to more small farmers, via workshops, visual materials, Zoom presentation, seed growers’ manual, and social media, who would be interested in growing seeds, to assess their needs and answer their questions.

In early 2021, I distributed an online needs assessment survey (attached to my proposal) to WV’s small farmers to better understand the needs of and evaluate the interest among the state’s small farmers to grow seeds as an economic opportunity. I asked the 24 respondents why they never explored growing commercial seeds. Among the 17 people who answered this question, 13 of them said that they were not aware of this economic opportunity, they didn’t have the network to connect them with seed companies, or they don’t have the resources/training needed. Most importantly, 18 out of 24 farmers expressed interest in growing seeds for the commercial seed market that would also advance their sustainable farming practices.

The farmers’ responses were consistent with the observations I have made since arriving in WV in 2018. In a conversation with April Koenig, co-owner of Gaea Farm (Lindside, WV) and the executive director of Sprouting Farms (Talcott, WV), she stated that “Seed saving and generally more regenerative practices are definitely part of the direction we are looking to go with our practices. We are trying to figure out how we can produce higher volume and quality farm products.” Encouraged by Koenig’s statement, in 2020, I remotely did a pilot study with two farms in the state, to grow tomato and bean seeds for our seed company’s catalog. This study generated an income of $900 for the farmers while allowing them to also save seeds, a new skill that will help them advance their sustainable farming practices, preserve regionally-adapted seeds, reduce their dependence on hybrid seeds, and decrease their overhead costs.

In our pilot study, I identified the problems that reduced the quality of the seeds that farmers delivered to us. These problems include low seed yields, lower-than-ideal germination rates, moldy seeds, seeds that weren’t clean, and problems with packaging for delivery; these issues require training to be resolved. Farmers also need help in identifying which crops can potentially be more profitable and how they can improve seed yields without changing the production scale.

There is a growing interest in the retail seed market nationwide (Mordor Intelligence, 2018; National Gardening Association, 2014). The value of the seed market was $717.6 million in 2017, and forecasted to reach $827.4 million in 2024. Furthermore, vegetable seed category is predicted to be the fastest growing (Mordor Intelligence, 2018). In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic increased nationwide awareness about how important seeds are to maintain food security. This awareness reflected on seed sales of small seed companies across the U.S. Since spring 2020, small seed companies have seen an increased number of orders. This growing demand for seeds also increased the demand for seed growers. We can take advantage of this by training seed growers in West Virginia to grow commercial seed.

This project will help me train the partner farmers in growing and harvesting high quality seeds for a variety of annual vegetable seed crops, improve farmers’ use of land, and analyze the profitability of commercial seed crops.


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Materials and methods:

January 2023 update:

Partner farmers April and Doug Koenig left West Virginia in spring 2022, which meant that I wouldn't be able to work with them for this project. At that time, I communicated with Susanna Wheeler, director of New Roots Community Farm in Fayetteville, WV, to add her to the project as a partner farmer. We transferred the materials bought for the other partner farmers from Sprouting Farms' farm location in Talcott, WV, to New Roots Community Farm. Wheeler supervised the farmers she works with to accomplish project tasks and was also personally involved with the tasks throughout the growing season.

Sprouting Farms in Talcott, WV, purchases fertilizer and lime in bulk before every growing season from sources outside the state for the farmers they incubate on their farm. We don't have any commercial sources of organic fertilizer available in bulk quantities in West Virginia. Hence, using the grant funds, we purchased the fertilizer (Ohio Earth Food) and lime which the partner farmers used for this project through Sprouting Farms at cost. Partner farmer Silas Childs is located in Morgantown. In collaboration with Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective, Sprouting Farms delivered the fertilizer and lime to Childs in Morgantown via one of the produce trucks in the Collective's network. I also made arrangements to have the fertilizer and lime and other materials including trellis and liquid fertilizer previously ordered for April and Doug Koenig transferred to New Roots Community Farm. Tamara Eskridge directly picked her materials up from the Sprouting Farms' office since her high tunnel is on this farm.

All farmers completed project tasks from planting seeds to harvesting and processing them with varying results. I visited the farmers three times throughout the growing season to follow their progress and answer their questions. My communication with Tamara Eskridge was not very effective. Eskridge went through family-related health problems and were challenging to communicate with via phone in my last two visits to Sprouting Farms. It is also true that poor infrastructure in rural West Virginia has a negative impact on success and professional development. I was still able to see her seed crops in the tunnel she utilizes on the farm and observed her progress.

Silas Childs delivered the seeds he grew for this project on time, early in the fall. He also delivered data including data related to labor hours, row lengths and seed yields. His seeds overall have germination rates above federal standards. Seeds he delivered also overall look with some discoloring on seeds due to the wet summer of 2022 which caused some bean pods rot as they were drying, eventually affecting seed quality. 2022 was also the year of bean beetle which significantly affected bean seed yields. Pole bean crop that Childs grew had many hard seeds because of the beetle which reduced the germination rate below federal germination standards which also makes this bean variety non-marketable.

Despite the communication issues, Tamara Eskridge, who is an experienced seed saver was able to deliver the majority of the seeds she grew for the project except the tomato seeds on time, while overall seed yields she had from her crops in the high tunnel were low. Eskridge was also the only grower who delivered lettuce seeds. Lettuce seeds require a dry period at the time of seed maturity to harvest high quality seeds which can be maintained in high tunnels. Although quantity of the seed Eskridge grew is small, seed quality visually looks high. I will test her seeds for germination, very soon.

As I am writing this progress report, I am expecting to receive the seeds Susanna Wheeler and her team on New Roots Community Farm shipped this week. First three months of the year is the peak period in terms of the seed orders that small seed companies receive. Hence, they are late delivering the seeds. After Wheeler replaced April and Doug Koenig, we had to modify the field plan because New Roots Community Farm is a CSA and market farm. They wouldn't be able to isolate the summer and winter squash seed crops or give additional labor to hand-pollinating these crops to maintain seed purity. We removed these plants from their growing list, and added one eggplant as well as one okra as a dry seed crop to their growing plan. We also eliminated the bush bean variety to save labor and space on the farm and focused on a pole bean variety for seed production. I will test their seeds for germination, very soon.

August 2022 was very wet in North Central and Southern West Virginia which made it impossible for Silas Childs to successfully grow his lettuce seed crop despite his attempt to temporarily cover the crop with the help of greenhouse plastic and t-posts. However, he was able to grow a high quality arugula seed crop, another dry seed crop, with high germination rate which is one of the highlights of this project. Pulling the plants with their roots intact as the seed pods matured but weren't entirely dry and curing them in his shed with plastic cover helped him successfully harvest seeds from this crop. Due to poor planning and overwhelming tasks on the farm, folks at New Roots Community Farm couldn't grow neither the lettuce nor the arugula seed crops.

I will provide data for seed yields with the final report.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

After April Koenig, executive director, and Doug Koenig, farm manager, of Sprouting Farms left West Virginia, the organization couldn't appoint their new executive director, TJ Flexer, until later in 2022. I was able to communicate with him in the fall to initiate planning for the outreach event. Susanna Wheeler and other folks at New Roots Community Farm were also very busy in the fall. Hence, we couldn't hold the outreach/workshop event at that time, as initially planned. I am working with both farms' directors to schedule a meeting with farmers in their respective networks in late February 2023 for me to answer their questions and walk them through the fundamentals of commercial seed production and the project tasks we completed in 2022 growing season. Silas Childs will not be able to attend the outreach event in Southern West Virginia due to a private reason that I recently found out about and that keeps him from traveling.

Throughout the growing season, I traveled to farmers' fields and answered their questions via email and phone. I previously posted about the project on social media, and will also do so for the outreach event as well as for the achievements of the project.

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.