April 25, 2012

Natural Foodie: Maine's organic seed companies see warming trend

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

When it comes to the economy, prognosticators would do well to forgo tea leaves and instead look to vegetable seeds. Not only are they a sign of spring, their sales can reflect larger financial trends.

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Marybeth Dunham, an employee at Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, fills envelopes with seeds for “Slenderette Beans” for shipping.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Nordica Danieli packs asparagus, seed potatoes and strawberry plants for a shipment to Wisconsin.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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THE ANNUAL FEDCO TREE SALE takes place 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 4-5 at the Fedco Seeds warehouse, 213 Hinkley Road, Clinton. More information can be found at fedcoseeds.com/trees/treesale.htm.

SEED TERMS

OPEN-POLLINATED: These seeds produce plants that are pollinated by insects and the wind. Seeds saved from open-pollinated plants will generally produce plants true to form.

HYBRID: Plant breeders cross-pollinate two distinct varieties to produce a hybrid that contains traits of the two parents. Seeds saved from hybrid plants will produce plants that differ from the hybrid variety.

GENETICALLY ENGINEERED: Using viruses and other vectors, scientists inject genes from an unrelated animal or plant into the DNA of another plant in hopes of introducing desired traits into the plant. Certified organic seeds cannot be genetically engineered.

HEIRLOOM: Before modern plant breeders began selling hybrid seeds in the 1960s, almost all seeds came from open-pollinated plants that were saved from year to year. Heirloom generally refers to varieties of open-pollinated plants cultivated prior to the 1950s that were selectively bred over the generations for characteristics such as taste.

Maine is home to five certified organic seed companies, and some are seeing signs of economic recovery in this season's sales.

"I think people were more comfortable economically this year," said Gene Frey, who works at Fedco Seeds in Clinton.

He came to this conclusion after watching sales of trees and perennials shoot up this year.

"The only thing I can think is people are finally at an economic point where they can think about a longer time frame," Frey said. "Because fruit trees take at least five years (to bear fruit)."

At Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, sales are down just slightly this season.

"We think it might have to do with the fact that the economy is turning around a little bit and people might feel like they need to be a little less self-sufficient," said Melissa Emerson, who runs the company with her husband, Jef Wright.

At this time of year, seed companies have made it through their busy season. Most seed orders are placed in the winter and are shipped in April. However, this year's early spring means many customers wanted their orders shipped sooner.

"People are ready to plant," said Alison LaCourse, whose family runs the Maine Potato Lady in Guliford. "I'm shipping as quickly as I can."

LaCourse said sales are up again this year, and the company will continue taking orders until all the inventory is gone. She predicts the company will be sold out of all seed potatoes within a few weeks.

"It's been crazy," LaCourse said.

"People are wanting to plant earlier," said Jim Gerritsen, who, along with his wife and children, runs Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater. "People all up and down the East Coast are calling and asking us to move up their orders."

At Wood Prairie Farm, which sells a variety of organic vegetable seeds but specializes in potatoes, this season's popular potato varieties have been Carola and Island Sunshine, which is resistant to late blight.

For the second year, the Maine Potato Lady offered sweet potato slips and has already sold out of them.

"A lot of the blue-fleshed potatoes are pretty hot this year," LaCourse said. "There's been some write-up about their antioxidants and how they can lower blood pressure."

The story is the same at Pinetree Garden Seeds.

"We sold right out of a bunch of potatoes this year," Emerson said. "The Adirondack blue and Adirondack red were the first things we sold out of."

Fedco has sold out of Vortex pole beans, Floriani Red Flint corn and New Ace peppers.

Blueberry plants always sell well at Pinetree Garden Seeds, and this year hasn't been any different.

"We started carrying a blueberry that the University of Maine developed, the Patriot blueberry," Emerson said. "That's been selling really well."

The early spring means many Mainers have already planted cold-tolerant crops such as kale, spinach and peas. But even if the temperatures soar into 80s again, gardeners should resist the temptation to plant heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes and peppers.

"My philosophy is you've got to keep one eye on the sky and one eye on the calendar," said Gerritsen. "Anything can happen in Maine into mid- to late-May."

And by "anything," Gerritsen means a hard freeze.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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Additional Photos

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Bins of some of the 1,100 vegetable and flower seed varieties sold by Pinetree.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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FEDCO SEEDS; fedcoseeds.com; 873-7333; In business since 1978; Sells a wide variety of vegetable, herb and flower seeds, along with fruit and nut trees and berries bushes. Roughly 30 percent of its seeds are certified organic. The company is run as a cooperative. It doesn't sell genetically engineered seeds or seeds treated with fungicides.

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JOHNNY'S SELECTED SEEDS; johnnyseeds.com; (877) 564-6697; In business since 1973; Sells a wide variety of vegetable, herb and flower seeds, plus berries. The company is employee-owned and cultivates 40 acres of seed crops. It offers a separate organic catalog, and its seeds are never genetically engineered.

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PINETREE GARDEN SEEDS; superseeds.com; 926-3400; In business since 1979; Sells a wide variety of vegetable, herb, flower and sprouting seeds, plus mushroom-growing kits and berry bushes. The vast majority of its seeds are organic.

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MAINE POTATO LADY; mainepotatolady.com; 343-2270; In business since 2007; Sells a wide variety of seed potatoes, plus sweet potatoes, onion sets and seed garlic. Most of its seeds are organic, and are never genetically engineered or treated with fungicides.

Contributed photo

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WOOD PRAIRIE FARM; woodprairie.com; (800) 829-9765; In business since: 1976; Sells a wide variety of seed potatoes, plus vegetable, herb and sprouting seeds. All of its seeds are organic and are never genetically engineered or treated with fungicides.

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