Sep 1, 2016

Organic seed: a growing market

Is demand for organic seed increasing in New Zealand? OANZ's Niki Morrell asked a seed grower/seller and a seed merchant for their views on the industry.

Category: General
Posted by: oanz

Increased demand for organic produce in the United States has produced a shortage of organic seed, according to a recent report released by the Organic Seed Alliance.

While smaller organic farms are using organic seed for 75% of their production, over 80% of organic crops produced by the largest farms are grown from non-organic seed. Overall, however, organic farmers are using more organic seed than they were three years ago and are happier with its quality. Most also believe that organic seed is vital to the integrity of organic food.

I spoke with Dave Treadwell of ecoseeds and Gerard Martin of Kings Seeds about the level of the demand for organic seeds in New Zealand and the supply challenges involved. 

The Grower/Supplier 
Back in the early '90s, Dave Treadwell was studying organic farming systems at Massey University and supplying lettuce seedlings to a local organic grower to supplement his student income. He wrote to his seed supplier, Evergreen Seeds in Napier, saying he was interested in being a seed grower; Evergreen's owner wrote back saying he was interested in selling his business. Out of that mutually beneficial conversation came ecoseeds.ecoseeds logo

Around 10-15% of ecoseeds' range is certified organic through Organic Farm NZ. Most of this is grown by Dave himself andsupplemented by growers around the country. It's a small-scale operation -- the seed garden is only quarter of an acre ofraised beds -- but very intensive, thanks to the fertile soils he has built up over the last 20 years.

Unlike a market garden, which relies on successional sowing, a seed garden has only one major sowing in spring and is then left over the summer to do its thing.

"We do a little bit of weeding to get the plants established and they get water over the summer but that's about it. It's a very harsh environment for a seed plant," says Dave. "There's no mollycoddling along to ensure you get a good crop because that's setting up false parameters."

He says the attrition rate is high.

"With some varieties, if we get 30%-35% of what we've sowed to seed cropping, then we're happy with that. The other 65%-70% is dismissed for slow growth or going to seed too early."

The biggest challenge he faces in supplying organic seed commercially relates to economy of scale.

"At the moment we're okay because we do everything by hand, including packing our seeds," he says. "But if I was to build a seed-cleaning plant, you're talking about a fairly heavy investment for the machinery and the plant -- equipment for simple things like de-husking the seed or taking the seed off corn cobs, and sorting the seed for grade."

Consumer demand waxes and wanes, and while there's definitely a domestic demand for bulk organic seed, Dave says anyone currently growing it in large quantities is doing it for export because "that's where the proper money is". He does receive inquiries about bulk seed but, given its perishable nature, he prefers to grow it on contract rather than risk over-growing without a guaranteed buyer. He also encourages commercial growers to try growing their own seed.

"Quite often it's worth their while to segment off part of their property and have a go," he says.

He's keen to speak with anyone interested in becoming an organic seed grower for ecoseeds, even at a backyard level.

"But they'd have to be willing to start off a seed garden at the beginning rather than have it as a by-product of what they're doing already."

The Importer/Seed Merchant
Next to Ceres Organics, Kings Seeds is New Zealand's biggest importer of certified organic inputs. Most of the seed is sourced from companies in Italy, Germany and the USA. Starting with just 14 varieties in 2000, Kings' organic range has grown to over 120 varieties of vegetable and herb seeds.Kings Seeds logo

Although the product has always been certified to IFOAM standards, in 2013 Kings recognised the need to be certified in New Zealand as an organic seed handler. The company now has BioGro accreditation.

Gerard Martin co-owns Kings Seeds with wife Barb and does the company's seed purchasing. He does source some of his organic seed from within New Zealand, including organic buckwheat from the South Island, and he is looking to secure organic wheat and oats from a Canterbury grower later this year.

However, in order for Kings to buy more organic seed from New Zealand suppliers, Gerard says growers would have to produce the varieties he requests in the quantities he needs, to a commercial standard at an economical price. He agrees that economy of scale is a huge factor.

"The majority of our organic seed sales are vegetable seeds to home gardeners," he says. "If we wanted a capsicum variety grown here for seed, we would only need approximately 3kg of seed every year. To get that seed reliably produced, cleaned and lab tested [domestically] would cost many times more than importing it from an overseas supplier who could be harvesting a seed crop of possibly thousands of kilos."

Other barriers include the cost of labour and climate limitations.

"Exclude provinces with a humid summer, high rainfall, summer droughts if no irrigation is available, or areas that have early or late frosts," he says.

However, the news isn't all bad. Consumer demand for organic seed is steady and showing a gradual increase. There's also an increase in demand for bulk organic seeds in some quarters.

"The wine industry in particular is looking for cover crops and beneficial insect-attracting plant species," Gerard says.

Organic seed, produce and certification
Is certified organic produce being grown from non-organic seed in New Zealand? The answer is yes but certifying agencies have clear parameters governing this.Seedlings

"In most organic endeavours, you always have defaults," says Dave Treadwell. "Organic Farm NZ follows BioGro's standards, so in the first instance you should source New Zealand-grown, certified organic seed.

"Your second choice should be imported, certified organic seed. Your third choice should be New Zealand-grown, non-certified, open pollinate, andwith no chemical treatments.

"The fourth starts to get into hybrids with no chemical treatments, and so on down the list until finally you can't go any further and be certified organic."

GE seed is definitely out.

Demeter, the standard for biodynamic production, prefers Demeter-certified seeds but if these are unavailable, certified organic seeds are acceptable. All seeds should be locally adapted where possible. If certified organic seeds aren't available, the list steps down to non-organic, untreated product. Licencees must provide evidence to show that particular seeds are unavailable and this must be approved by Demeter.

Dave Treadwell sees these measures as a realistic means to an end.

"We want to get to the point where we're growing all of our seed within New Zealand and it's all certified within New Zealand. That's the objective to reach."

He believes there's opportunity to increase New Zealand's seed production and that this is already happening.

"There are some fresh faces in the seed growing world and I haven't noticed any reduction in business due to the increased competition," he says. "I think there's plenty of room in New Zealand for a few more commercial organic seed producers because I know I'll never be able to supply all of the market.

"I'd like to think we can source all our own seed within New Zealand but I don't think that's going to be the case for quite a long time."