Case Study 2: Seed Saving


About the farm

Lisa feels that farming was in her bones. She wanted to dig up her lawn as a kid. As a young adult she became interested in wildcrafting and foraging. Finally, she moved to a rural area where she had access to a large garden space across the road. It was here that she started experimenting with growing beans and grains because she became interested in feeding herself from the land. She has been growing food for 22 years, and farming for six years. Now she has three acres in production. Her tenure on the land is an informal agreement, and she trades food for rent.

The big push to start a career in agriculture came in the late 1980s as a result of being denied a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture. Lisa had done many years of research trials with soybeans and grains. She felt her data was relevant for a Ministry initiative looking for innovative crops that could be grown in BC. The agrologists wouldn’t take her seriously, so Lisa launched her seed company. Her first catalogue had 12 varieties of beans and grains.

Farm marketing

In addition to selling seeds, Lisa has written books and produced DVDs on seeds, cooking and issues of sustainability. She doesn’t mind the task of marketing because she says she’s marketing her passion: food sovereignty. The bulk of her sales are now coming in through her web site from customers all around the world. Only about 5-8% of her sales come in through Seedy Saturdays and her printed catalogue. She is featured in publications and documentaries, and she feels this is helping people find her. She sells about 80% of her total production, with the rest going to community projects and other good causes.

Seasonal workload

The farming, seed saving and marketing of seed is so much work that Lisa really doesn’t have downtime or an off-season. This year she felt particularly pressured because orders for seed were coming in fast and furious in October and November before she even had a chance to inventory her stock and figure out what she was going to offer in her print catalogue.

Wintertime is spent filling orders and packing seed. Any spare moments are spent writing and researching. Early spring is filled with travel to community seed sales. In early March, Lisa’s farming season begins again. The days are long but the pace is pleasant, and the work is meaningful. She referred to the vitality in the garden as an important source of personal nourishment.

Limitations

Lisa feels that owning land is not necessary for success. She feels secure in her lease but even if she were to lose her tenure, her business is at a stage now where she is able to buy seed from other trusted growers and market it for them. There are quite a few legal barriers to doing business, but Lisa is able to transcend the politics. She recounts a tale with a grin on her face about someone from the Ministry of Agriculture buying her wheat varieties for research purposes, meanwhile it is illegal in Canada to sell unregistered wheat.

She has a deep understanding about the risks of trade in seed, and a very careful and caring attitude toward agriculture. She understands that seed is a vital component to culture, and she acts accordingly. She is one of the few holders of rare varieties of seed, and she understands their value.

Farm Finances

Lisa’s business grosses over $110,000 per year and it keeps increasing by leaps and bounds as more people get interested in growing food. She estimates her yearly net at about $7,000 because she has become very good at tracking expenses and assigning them to the business.

She feels the only barrier to making more money, if she wanted to, is her energy. The business is bigger than she is, and it is starting to have a life of its own. She recognizes the potential of her business to mushroom because her name and target market have reached beyond what she could have imagined. But big isn’t her style, and for now she’s content to keep things as simple as possible and to enjoy her business in its current incarnation. She doesn’t have any one strategy for managing cash flow, but she is very frugal by nature. Her biggest on-farm expense is the potting soil she buys for seedlings.

Assets

Lisa estimated her assets, other than her seed stock, at less than $5,000. Her most valuable investment has been specialized screens for sifting seed that she obtained from friends, garage sales and lucky coincidences. Her other equipment includes garden tools, simple seed processing equipment and recycled ice cream buckets.

Why this business works

Lisa is an authority on a very specific topic: beans and grains. She has built up her credibility by networking and sharing her passion through recipe books, gardening manuals and books about sustainable living. Her authentic zeal for this line of work is attractive to the public. She volunteers her time at community events, and responds to all her customers’ questions. Her generosity with her time and expertise had made her a source that people turn to for information and seed.

What struck me about Lisa is that she would talk about the workload and the yearly list of tasks but there was no stress in her voice and no expectation that she should be doing anything else, or that she needed to get away on vacation. When she talked about hiring staff, it was in the context of if she were to grow the business, not to relieve herself of her full days. The stability of her operation comes from the deep contentment she has with doing her job and living her self-employed lifestyle.

When asked about her sources for tools and materials, her first response was to suggest where one could find building plans to make one from recycled scraps, and to look at garage sales. When asked what tools or resources would make her job easier, she suggested a combine that would be available to the community, or a communal food storage facility. Community bonds are clearly important to Lisa and her fostering of these connections clearly have had a role in the success of her operation.

Lisa feels her most valued sources of information are books and seed catalogues. She thinks there are plenty of opportunities for small-scale growers and that it can be a very fulfilling lifestyle.

 

written by Robin Tunnicliffe, edited by Barbara Joughin