- Ann Arbor Seed Company joined the Green Things Farm Collective in 2020 as one of three founding members. Now that seeds have become a full part of the Collective’s offerings, they are retiring the name Ann Arbor Seed Company to reduce customer confusion. The online seed store is available at www.greenthingsfarm.com/seeds, and seed packs will have a new design starting in 2024.
- Since the late 1990’s agro-chemical companies have been buying out seed producers. As of 2022, just four multinational corporations (Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and Dow-DuPont) control over 70% of plant breeding research, 51% of the commercial seed market, and the vast majority of global agrochemical sales. (Source:(https://www.etcgroup.org/files/files/food_barons-summary-web.pdf)
- Seed company consolidation also means that very few varieties of produce are grown which creates a monoculture locally (and nationally) that is vulnerable to potential attack. Over 80% of corn and over 90% of soybeans grown in the U.S. feature Monsanto seed traits. (Source: https://fortune.com/2014/06/26/monsanto-gmo-crops/) A new pest or disease can wipe out the entire food system. Alternatively, a local food system that grows many varieties of produce that are well adapted to the local climate conditions is resilient. If one variety fails, others may have more resistance. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 75% of genetic diversity in crops has been lost since 1900. (https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2021/10/26/Crop-diversity-underpins-food-security-Scientists-flag-enormous-diversity-loss)
- To bolster the resilience of the food supply in Washtenaw County, locally-operated seed companies are selling seed from a wide variety of produce and grains that are historically adapted to the growing conditions of Washtenaw County (soil, sunlight, disease resistance, moisture, etc…).
- Following the COVID-19 pandemic, more people in the greater-Washtenaw County region are growing their own food. The pandemic caused unprecedented supply chain disruptions, and growth in the “green industry” exploded. According to a 2022 study from the University of Georgia, one in three people began gardening in 2020, and at least 1 in 10 planned to continue. About 14% of participants said they planned to garden in the future because they were concerned about food shortages. Locally-owned Green Things Farm Collective (which operates the former Ann Arbor Seed Company) reports that the pandemic bump increased seed sales in 2020, but sold half that in 2021. Fluctuations in demand can be tough on local seed companies because producing seed is labor-intensive relative to profits, which may explain why there are few companies to purchase seed from locally.
Stacy Mates, Seed Company Manager for Green Things Farm Collective, says that some of the benefits of buying regionally-grown seed from smaller companies are:
- You know it can be grown successfully in this area!
- Open pollinated (usually), so you can save your own seed if you want.
- Preserving genetic diversity by growing crops in all different areas of the country. This increases the chance a variety/crop can adapt to changing conditions (climate change!)
- More likely to choose varieties based on taste and uniqueness vs. ones that fit best in a commercial system.
- Supporting local economy and building local food security – less vulnerable to supply chain disruption.
- There are challenges to working with seeds that are not mass produced or coated in proprietary chemical coatings. Stacy says some of the particular challenges to producing seed in our region are related to cross-pollination (carrots for example cross-pollinate with Queen Anne’s lace, which is a non-native species of flower). Another challenge is the relatively short growing season in southeast Michigan. She says, “melons and eggplants barely have a long enough season to ripen all the way to mature seed.” Climate change is also starting to affect what varieties thrive. She says, “(we) grew lettuce successfully for 8 years, and the last two years have struggled because of hotter summers with more extreme cycles of rain vs. dry spells.” In Washtenaw County, there is only one other similar local seed business, Nature and Nurture Seeds in Dexter.
- Despite the challenges, Stacy says getting to see crops through their entire life cycle is rewarding. She points out that flowering seed crops attract tons of pollinators and beneficial insects. In addition, cleaning seed used simple tools, time, and lots of problem solving to transform this tangled mess into lovely clean seed, making seed saving less vulnerable to technological interruptions.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and gardening season is just about upon us. We’ve learned through the pandemic and the resulting supply shortages and inflationary food costs ever since that there needs to be a greater focus on a sustainable and more resilient local food supply. Whether you’re working a small farm community garden or home garden, knowing what seeds to use and how to best take care of them is important. It will also help combat, or at least somewhat offset, the dominance of the monoculture farming practices of the big agrochemical companies. Our guest today is dedicated to that notion. Stacy Mates is seed company manager at Green Things Farm Collective. And thank you so much for making time today, Stacy.
Stacy Mates: Thanks. I’m excited to be here.
David Fair: Have you been able to document a renewed trend in home gardening both during and in the wake of the pandemic?
Stacy Mates: Oh, that’s a good question. What I would actually say is what we saw was a huge bump during the more sort of lockdown portions of the pandemic–2020, for sure. Our seed sales were phenomenal compared to every year previous. What we’ve seen, though, is that as people have gotten back into other activities and kind of rejoin their regular lives more, they haven’t sustained that passion for gardening. Certainly, people who get really into it–it becomes a lifelong passion.
David Fair: Even a lifestyle.
Stacy Mates: Yes, very much so.
David Fair: I think a lot of folks think you have to have an experienced green thumb to get started. Is that true?
Stacy Mates: Absolutely not. I think the key is to start small and not let your dreams overshadow the reality. You know, have a sense of do I travel every summer. And plan your garden accordingly. You know, I have a good friend who actually lives in Baltimore, but texts me periodically with seed questions. And, you know, he has a tiny patch in the backyard. But, every year, he figures out how to get a little more out of it. And he works full-time. He’s a busy person. So, I think it can fit. It’s just a question of, you know, finding your niche.
David Fair: It all starts with seeds. How, in your opinion, is the ongoing consolidation of the kind of macro seed producers impacting the health of our agriculture and resilience of the food supply?
Stacy Mates: It’s something that concerns me a lot. First of all, as of 2020, there were four agrochemical firms that controlled over half of the seed sales globally. All four of those firms: they also produce pesticides and fertilizers. So, they’ve got a really strong incentive to look for varieties and to breed varieties that depend on pesticides and fertilizers. So, that’s going to really limit what kind of varieties you have that are actually appropriate for your garden. There’s not a lot of interest because there’s not the financial incentive to breed seeds that are appropriate for small scale, for organic, for low-input agriculture.
David Fair: Our Issues of the Environment conversation with Stacy Mates continues on 89 one WEMU. Stacy is manager of the seed company at the Green Things Farm Collective. So, with the seeds in mind, what exactly are the implications for the health of the soil and resulting food products if we continue down the path of increased macro company seeds.
Stacy Mates: There’s, first of all, that the focus becomes the selection of seed available goes down, and we’re more vulnerable, especially at a farmer level. You know, a gardener can afford to pay a little more for a pack. But, for a farmer, the price of seed can go up. We also have to be concerned about seed crops just being grown where they are easiest to grow to seed. And so, that means that they are adapted to that area. So, if you only grow lettuce in the Pacific Northwest, that seed–I mean, it’s beautiful seed–but it’s not necessarily adapted to a climate like the Midwest.
David Fair: Well, you just also touched on the existential crisis, which is the climate crisis.
Stacy Mates: Yes.
David Fair: With that in mind, is climate change more or less likely to impact a large scale monochrome planet with agrochemical, patented seeds, or the kinds of seeds that you are selling?
Stacy Mates: I think that climate change is going to affect all seed production. But, when you have diversity, you have more flexibility, and you also have kind of built in backup plans, so if you’re growing, you know, a very limited set of I’m going to go back to lettuce, lettuce varieties. Then, if none of those varieties adapt well to unusual summers, then you’ve lost them all, whereas, across the country, there are small seed companies growing hundreds of different lettuce varieties, so you’re hedging your bets in a sense of what’s going to make it.
David Fair: As you assess the present and the future at Green Things Farm Collective, are you having to start to change planting and harvesting seasons because of the changing climate?
Stacy Mates: We are up to an extent. We are sheltered in a way because we have switched to doing organic no-till agriculture, which means we don’t have to plow our fields, which means that these really wet springs don’t affect us as much as they do farms that are dependent on tillage. But, certainly, we’ve had some new diseases that we’ve been dealing with and some other challenges that we assume are related to a warming climate.
David Fair: You are listening to 89 one WEMU’s Issues of the Environment. Once again, we’re talking with the manager of the seed company at the Green Things Farm Collective. Her name is Stacy Mates. And, Stacy, if we should continue the path of monoculture and a near monopoly on agriculture seeding, what is the potential human impact? Are there health implications?
Stacy Mates: Hm. That is an interesting question. I think that yes, again, because the variety is that a large seed company that is also selling agrochemicals is going to prioritize are not ones that are selected for taste or nutrition. They’re ones that are selected for easy shipping, for uniformity, for predictability. I know there is some research that looks at the actual, like, vitamin and mineral content of some of our produce has diminished over time. And I would be concerned again if there’s not an excitement over figuring out what are the best varieties for all different kinds of uses. That might be something that could continue.
David Fair: If someone were to put a value on their time and compare what it may save at the grocery, do you think it’s a favorable financial decision to start planting at home?
Stacy Mates: Unfortunately, because of the way, you know, different price subsidies work, I’m not sure that I would do it as a financial decision. However, fruits and vegetables are generally the most expensive thing at the grocery store. And they’re also, if you’re looking at, you know, someone who’s in a low-income community, they’re generally less available and lower quality–you know, someone who’s living in a food desert. So, in that case, yes. I think there could be a financial advantage. But I think the biggest advantages are flexibility, taste, and the pleasure of producing something that you’ve grown yourself.
David Fair: You may have surmised by this point, as I’m sure the entirety of the audience has. I am not a gardener. In fact, I’ve been known to unintentionally kill off indoor cactus. Nearly impossible. And yet, that is me. Can someone like me be taught to do this successfully?
Stacy Mates: Um, I think absolutely. And I can say that I think I’m a pretty good gardener and a pretty good farmer, and I kill all my health plans.
David Fair: All right.
Stacy Mates: So, you’re in good company. Um, yes. I think, again, there’s some great resources around. There’s organizations like Growing Hope in Ypsilanti, Project Grow. You know, you can be working with other gardeners. You can get information. I think, again, it’s just some of it is starting small and also accepting that failure is a part of growing things, whether you’re doing it as a farmer or whether you’re doing it as a, you know, a tiny pot of herbs in your windowsill. That’s part of the learning process. And so, having patience with yourself and being willing to know that some plants aren’t going to make it. That’s okay.
David Fair: I get the impression from the way that you’re talking that this is not only an environmental issue, but it really does build community as well.
Stacy Mates: Yes, I think very much so. I love being part of this sort of local food community here in southeastern Michigan and then also part of the small-scale seed growers community across the country. There’s a lot of mutual support and a lot of just excitement for everyone. And that’s really wonderful.
David Fair: Well, the Green Things Farm Collective has five acres off Nixon Road. Am I correct on that?
Stacy Mates: So, we have about five acres in active vegetable production. The total farm is significantly larger, but that’s also pasture for pastured cattle and some woodlot too. I think it’s about 50 to 80 acres total?
David Fair: The farm stand is going to open mid-April, as I understand it. What’s the best way to get educated and loaded up with what I need to know right now?
Stacy Mates: So, our website lets you know what’s coming up at the farm. Then, if you’re interested in getting started gardening, like I said, I would probably look at some of the local organizations, Growing Hope and Project Grow are two that come to mind, or Seed Savers Exchange is an organization that particularly focuses on seed saving and has some wonderful information that’s kind of geared toward gardeners who are interested in maybe trying out their own seed crops.
David Fair: Well, I’d like to thank you for the time today and sharing your insights. I appreciate it.
Stacy Mates: Absolutely. This was fun.
David Fair: That is Stacy Mates, manager of the seed company at the Green Things Farm Collective. And for more information on Stacy, the seed company, and the collective and the work it’s doing and the difference it’s making, visit our website at WEMU dot org. And we’ll get you all linked up. Issues of the Environment is brought to you every Wednesday, and it’s produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. I’m David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.
window.fbAsyncInit = function() FB.init(
appId : '646925493247952',
xfbml : true, version : 'v2.9' ); ;
(function(d, s, id) var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s); if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); (document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));