Two Newbie Farmers Establish Organic Seed Company to Reap Benefits of Growing Market Demand
March 13, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
Farming in Southern California has advantages not available to growers in other parts of the country. The extended growing season, accommodating microclimates and fertile soil can encourage novice farmers to try something they might not normally take on. In the case of All Good Things Organic Seeds, newbie farmers Justin Huhn and Quin Shakra were inspired to go beyond organic farming of their 1.3-acre plot to establishing a seed sourcing company that aims to expand the available varietals of certified organic seeds on offer to backyard growers and small-scale commercial farmers.
Located in the rich, rolling hills of Ojai in Ventura County, All Good Things has been farming commercially for just a couple of years, but Huhn and Shakra knew pretty quickly they wanted to move beyond marketing produce to creating their own seed varietals that thrived in their own “bioregion.”
“You know, when you farm small plots, you are constantly assessing each of your plants,” Huhn said. “You know them all and you see which varieties thrive and which don’t do so well for you. There are so many factors that affect your outcomes – weather, pests, disease, water, fertility – you begin to figure out what works for your area. We decided to get into seed production right away.”
Huhn and Shakra first started marketing their produce through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), producing year-round for local member families. The advantages were obvious (payments made to farmers before planting season, established weekly buyers, direct feedback from customers as to what is desirable). But it was the 2011 planting season that got them interested in seed sourcing.
“Kale was our first,” Huhn said. “We let a couple hundred plants go to seed and replanted next season. Amazing success! The plants really produced. So we got to thinking about seeds.”
Their customers could make suggestions for desired produce and supported the idea of seed production, and the pair started plotting some areas for harvest and some for seed stock. It didn’t all go well.
“We had a really bad pest come up from Mexico,” Huhn said. “Bagrada bugs just decimated our kale and mustards. We’re certified organic so we couldn’t spray for anything and there are no beneficial insects to fight bagradas, so we just let those crops go that year.”
The next growing season was fertile, though, and All Good Things planted for dozens of varietals: tomatoes, broccoli, zucchinis, lettuces, beets, parsnips and more (they also cultivate sunflowers and medicinal herbs like Korean licorice mint and mullein). Direct observation allows them to select seeds from the heartiest plants that seem most resistant to pests and weeds.
“You want to see how they perform in the real world,” Huhn said. “Organics are going to give you better, more flavorful produce and they are going to produce more heartily. Our seeds come from plants that we’ve observed and cultivated to offer the greater harvest.”
As their reputation spread, All Good Things expanded their seed offerings by sourcing from other certified organic farmers around the country. Their catalogue currently carries about 80 varietals and they are planning on devoting large plots in the fall for trials and hybridization to get even richer and more diverse product.
“Organic seed growing is young in the organic movement,” Shakra said. “We’re looking to grow pre-existing varieties as well as mix genetics from different varieties. You can do that seed to seed or root to seed, by pulling, for example, a root vegetable and assessing which plants have the best size and shape, then replanting that particular plant. Genetics are fluid and you can select for the characteristics you want.”
Some of the vegetables they grow are self-pollinating and some are “out-crossers” that require substantial space between plots to insure secure pollination. Different plots require different planting times to make sure they are not flowering at the same time. The more one discusses harvests and yields with Huhn and Shakra, the more one becomes aware of the scientific strategies that must accompany successful seed harvesting.
All Good Things currently markets its products through retail nurseries and health-food stores, but primarily through their online store and through social messaging. Shakra said that such “cloud-based” technology has allowed them to reach markets that they wouldn’t have been able to touch 10 years ago.
“We really don’t do any advertising,” Shakra said. “People find us online. Whether they are just backyard gardeners or smaller-scale farmers, people who are really committed to organics track us down.”
Shakra said that the market for organic seeds is growing as urban communities move more toward eating organic and farmers rush to fill that market niche. It reverses a trend from the mid 20th century, which saw an explosion of industrial agriculture more devoted to higher yields and pesticide use than to flavor and variety.
“Industrial agriculture is such a different world,” Shakra said. “One would hope that the large growers will become more aware of the environmental damage their farming practices do. Meanwhile, we’ll be meeting the planting needs of a market that seems to get bigger every year.”