If we're to become a nation of farmers, and a nation of people who take home and small scale agriculture seriously, I think it is important to think about our seed sources. After all, without good, safe, reliable sources of seed, there is no agriculture - period.
I'm a big advocate of buying locally, but as I just told a friend, seeds are one thing that I don't always purchase from my local retailer. There are several reasons for this. The first is that my local retailer tends to carry commercial garden center varieties of seed, which come from very far away. There are good reasons to want to buy local seed, from plants that have already adapted to your particular climate. Often the seed I mail order from far away is more local than the seed that I would buy from my neighborhood garden shop. The second reason is that I can often get organically grown seed if I buy by mail - and even though you don't eat the seeds themselves, there are excellent reasons to want to avoid drenching the field your seeds are grown in with pesticides and chemicals. Also, small seed companies often struggle to get along, and they need all the business they can get. Finally, there is so much variety out there in food plants that buying locally simply wouldn't allow me to try as many different things - if I had to rely on local sources there'd be no Glacier Tomatoes coming early, no Stein's Late Flat Dutch Cabbage hanging on in my garden until December.
There has been a heavy consolidation of the seed industry in the last few years, to its detriment. The darkest force here has been the evil Montsanto, the Satan of agricultural corporations (and that's saying something since there are quite a few other dark angels out there), who bought up Seminis a couple of years ago. Now Seminis is the wholesaler that provides much of the seed for the seed trade, including many classic hybrids and nonhybrid varieties. And recently, I've just learned that Seminis has bought Burpee seeds - the largest single mail order supplier. http://groovygreen.com/groove/?p=868. Now I have a fondness for the Burpee seed catalog, and there are a couple of non-hybrid varieties of theirs I love - a red french marigold, a cherry tomato. But I won't be buying there again. Pity, but I have no desire to support Montsanto's chemical agriculture, their attacks on farmers, their attempts to patent seeds created through laborious home breeding. And I try very hard to avoid Seminis varieties of seed. Because Seminis is a wholesaler, and sells to many of the seed companies that send out your catalogs, it can be difficult to tell where your seed originated. That means that I'm pretty much limited to some of the funkier catalogs out there. The good thing about that is that those catalogs have a large selection, a lot of neat stuff, and are usually good stewards of the environment. Giving them my money is an excellent thing.
Fedco seeds, for example, out of Maine, was the first catalog I know of to drop all Seminis varieties, and I applaud them for it. I love their catalog, and http://www.fedcoseeds.com/, and they have wonderful prices and quality. Much of their seed is locally grown, a lot is organic, and they are well worth the visit. They do not sell seed year round, so if you are planning a fall garden, order now. They also have one of the best selections of fruit trees out there in their tree division, and I get most of my potatoes from them. They are my source for, among other things, the bulk sweet alyssum I undersow among my cucumbers and melons to attract pollinators and they were the source for my beloved "Benchmark" green beans, sadly discontinued this year. But I'll trust their recommendations that the replacement is even better.
Baker Creek Heirloom seeds www.rareseeds.com is totally out of my region, and I don't know for sure that they don't get any seeds from Seminis, but I doubt it. They have the biggest selection of open pollinated (that is, not hybrid) seeds I've ever seen in a catalog. They were started by a 17 year old boy, who is now a 27 year old married man, and it is run as a family business. One of my first seed orders ever came from them, before knew about local seed, and I get a lot of things from them anyway - I've almost always been happy with their seeds, and they carry many things suitable to my climate. Plus, they have wonderful service and are strongly opposed to GMOs and are interested in the political implications of our seed choices. Black Futsu squash is pretty amazing, as is their huge collection of sweet peas.
High Mowing Seeds http://www.highmowingseeds.com/ is another one I recommend. They grow all their seed locally (to their Vermont area) and while they are expanding their hybrid offerings, offer an alternative to Seminis by growing out many of the classic OP varieties, including Waltham Broccoli and Long Pie Pumpkins. They have good prices, good service and they sent me 25lbs of buckwheat within a week of my order. What more can you ask for (full disclosure - the family that runs it are somehow connected to the church my mother and step-mother attend, which is how I got my first copy of their catalog, but I assure you my alliegence is purely to their seed) from a seed company?
Seeds of Change is sort of the Industrial good guy. They have a very polished catalog, and lots of wonderful varieties. They are not local to me (NM), but I like them anyhow. I'm not sure I totally trust anyone who has a line of processed foods, but they also do a lot of neat plant breeding, and have a great book section. Italian White eggplants produce very well for me here in upstate NY, and Golden Giant Amaranth is both beautiful and a delicious and nutritious grain crop. Their prices are high, and their bulk selection isn't great, but they are worth a look. www.seedsofchange.com.
You'd think I might want to buy seed from Gurneys, Vermont Bean Seed, Totally Tomatoes, Select Seeds and Jung's, and sometimes I wish I could, but they are all essentially the same company now, part of the great consolidation, so I mostly avoid them. You can read more about this at www.gardenwatchdog.com
There are three grey area companies that I do sometimes support, although less and less because I can't find out their policies on Seminis. I'm very fond of the Pinetree Seed catalog www.superseeds.com, and Johnny's seed company was the catalog I grew up with - until I was in my late 20s, I thought all seed came from Johnny's www.johnnyseed.com. And then there's Territorial, the fascinating catalog focused on the pacific northwest, www.territorial-seed.com. I like them, but I am increasingly focusing my ordering on companies that grow more open pollinated, non-commercial seed. Still, Johnny's was where I discovered "Fortex" pole beans, and got my very first and still beloved Jacob's Cattle seeds.
Given a choice, my favorites are the catalogs that are in a different category entirely - not only are they good catalogs, but they are noble causes, and any money you spend there will enrich the world.
Bountiful Gardens is a terrific small seed company that is run in part by John Jeavons, the person who has most devoted himself to figuring out how to feed the world in small spaces. Not only do they have great seed, but they are a great cause. They also have a remarkable variety of compost, fiber and other uncommon crops. For those of you in northern CA and the Pacific NW, this is probably the place to buy, but all of us can get some wonderful things from them. http://www.bountifulgardens.org/. I'm going to take another stab at rice this year, from their offerings. Don't forget to look at their books, if you are at all serious about feeding yourself.
Sand Hill Preservation Center, run by the amazing Glenn Downs, is devoted to preserving heirloom breeds of poultry and seed. They are a single family operation, and you have to wait your turn for things. But if you can get things from them, you should. They are well worth your dollar, and virtually everything they offer is produced on farm. While you are picking out seed, don't forget to check out the chickens and ducks - I definitely want some Marans. They do not take internet orders, and they are picky about how things work. But that's ok - they are such a good cause that we just have to get over ourselves and wait politely for this tremendous gift they are giving us. http://www.sandhillpreservation.com/ Don't forget to say "thank you" for keeping our heritage alive and our food more secure.
Finally, and in a class entirely by itself, is Seed Savers Exchange, at www.seedsavers.org. You can buy seed from them directly, and they have a wonderful selection. Even if you don't save seed, you should become a member - the Seed Savers Exchange has been losing members, and more and more people are the only repositories of a particular kind of tomato, or green, or millet or pea. The Irish potato famine and the corn blight of the 1970s should be evidence to us that relying on one particular crop is unbelievably dangerous - we need all the genetic diversity we possibly can get. The people at Seed Savers are keeping our heritage, our history and possibly our food security alive, and they need you at the very least to join up and give them money. But why only do that? Because the very best place to get seed is not from a catalog at all, but from your own garden, or your neighbors. So join seed savers and consider maintaining one or two or 20 varieties of seed yourself. Grow them out year after year, and save a little to trade to others. This is good practice for yourself, and enhances your own security - after all, if you ever couldn't get seed, having some at home is a big thing. But most of all, it is a way of your participating in the provisioning of the earth.
There are great books out there about seed saving - my personal favorite is Suzanne Ashworth's book _Seed to Seed_, and I'm also fond of Carol Deppe's _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_, which is a surprisingly fun read for ordinary gardeners, even if you never plan to breed a thing. Because the amazing thing is that when you grow out a plant and save seed, you *are* breeding. That is, the plant begins to adapt to your region, and after a few generations, you've got a strain of something that is truly your own. It is a magical process, and one I'm still experimenting with. But more people need to do it.