Company on a Mission: Saving the Safe Seeds

By Arianne Pfoutz

Tom Stearns and his organic seed company, High Mowing Seeds, are on a mission. This independently-owned, farm-based seed operation not only produces over 500 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid organic seeds that thousands of commercial growers and home gardeners rely on each season, but it’s also involved in an agricultural renaissance. The community surrounding Hardwick, Vermont is creating a robust model for sustainable agriculture, community collaboration, and regional economic growth. High Mowing Seeds is also on the front lines of a legal battle with the US Department of Agriculture over planting of GM sugar beets. Add to that the company mission of transforming our country’s food system. It’s all important work that Stearns takes in stride.

Vermont Vigor

Stearns, who grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, began saving seeds as a hobby in 1995, as a home gardener who was completing a degree in sustainable agriculture in Arizona. In 1996, he turned his backyard shed into a seed packing area and sold 28 varieties of produce seed wrapped in small, hand-labeled packets. He moved to Vermont because organic agriculture was thriving there.

“I feel fortunate to be in Vermont, in a community of positive people in a booming agricultural area. Vermont farms are small, due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s a history of being innovative, creative.”

By 2001, Stearns was recruiting organic farmers from around the country to grow seeds. Still, High Mowing is one of the few seed companies to grow their own produce to acquire seed; 35 employees produce 30% of the seed they sell on their 40-acre farm. Today, 70% of sales are to commercial growers; 20% are to retail seed racks; and 10% are purchased by home gardeners.

This time of year, workers are cleaning seed, performing germination tests (High Mowing has its own plant lab and biologist on staff) and then packaging. During winter sales staff is filling 120 to 160 orders a day.

“We’re growing at 30% a year,” he adds. “We get new customers all the time and our returning customers are buying more.”

Avoiding GMOs

The release of the first commercial GM crop in 1996 further motivated Stearns to build his organic seed business. “I realized high quality, clean, organic, non-GMO seed was a precious and valuable resource that needed protection,” he said.

To ensure that GM traces don’t enter the seed supply, High Mowing takes four steps. First, it has control of the seed stock grown at the home farm that is used to produce its seed crops. Second it inspects farmers’ fields. High Mowing requires that farmers notify them if they grow crops where a GM variety of that crop is grown within 10 miles. Third, when harvesting and cleaning, farmers can only use equipment specified for organic or that has clean-out affidavits to avoid mixture. Fourth, incoming seed is tested to confirm its GMO-free.

“If anything is questionable we send it off to an outside lab,” Stearns said.

Stearns sees genetic modification as a crude, technological fix that perpetuates unsustainable farming. “GMOs put a band aid on the problem, one of the problems being the way crops are cultivated on such a large scale.”

Fighting for Safe Seed

Stearns was particularly concerned when GM sugar beets were approved. This crop is wind pollinated and easily able to breed with itself and its cousins, table beets and Swiss chard.

In 2008, High Mowing, along with the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, Wild Garden Seed, and the Organic Seed Alliance, sued USDA for approving plantings of GM sugar beets without conducting an Environmental Impact Statement. Judge Jeffrey White ruled for the plaintiffs, but Monsanto and the USDA circumvented the decision and found a way to plant anyway.

On November 30, 2010, Judge White ordered the destruction of 256 acres of the GM sugar beet seedlings planted in September, the very first ruling requiring destruction of a GM crop.

“It all starts with seed,” Stearns says. “And not all seeds are created equal. (Seed) Genetics are crucial in determining how a plant will grow and the type of agriculture where it will thrive. Organically adapted seeds are an essential component of rebuilding our food system.”

To that end, Stearns developed The Safe Seed Pledge in 1999, with a coalition of nine seed companies. The pledge states that farmers will not knowingly buy or sell GM seeds.

“At that time, the seed industry seemed to be in favor of GMOs, and no other group of seed companies were promoting non-GMO. I wanted to draft something that seed companies could sign onto.”

Over 70 companies have signed the pledge.

Building Community

Collaboration is built into the corporate culture at High Mowing Seeds. Instead of turning to traditional investors when his company needed to expand, Stearns acquired resources from local banks and community members. A volunteer advisory board offers business expertise. High Mowing and its neighbors buy equipment together, share employees, make co-marketing arrangements—a deeper collaboration than normal for businesses.

Innovation is also lively here—Stearns prefers fixing problems at home rather than farming them out. He’s willing to try new things, such as the mechanized seed extractor he built to squash pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and tomatoes and collect their seeds.

“I’m no Luddite,” he says. “I’m a believer in progress, and using technology for that…but to count as progress, the solution must lead to greater health—environmental, economic, human, and community. More elegant, robust solutions are really in order…other than genetic engineering. It requires a different worldview, a holistic and not a Cartesian one.”

What’s High Mowing’s biggest challenge? “The seed supply,” Stearns says. “It’s a huge responsibility—if we didn’t produce these varieties, they wouldn’t be available. Seeds are the best place to start in the rebuilding our country’s food system.”

(Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, February 2011)