Seeds are much more than simply a means of production or a commodity.  Cultivated plants and their varieties are an invaluable part of our cultural heritage.  We have received a gift of a rich and diverse heritage of varieties from our forebears and we want to pass this on to future generations.

The Seed Co-operative is underpinning the ability of both current and future generations to deliver the benefits of truly sustainable farming. Without suitable seeds & new varieties this will become more and more difficult.

Across the globe from Columbia to Canada, India to Ethiopia, and across continental Europe, similar national projects are establishing themselves in response to the threats posed to resilient food production by the industrial processes established over the last 90 years.

The demand from organic farmers and growers for open pollinated seed of local provenance is demonstrable and growing.  This is also being driven by home gardeners growing their own food, and an increasing awareness amongst all growers, professional and amateur, of the issues related to food integrity, resilience and biodiversity. The commercial UK organic seed market is dominated by a few multi national companies.  They mainly supply large-scale farmers and growers and produce or supply relatively little open pollinated seed.  Within that market 12-15 smaller seed companies supply the retail and wholesale sector with open pollinated seed, but only a few of them grow any open pollinated seed in the UK.  Although the Seed Co-operative is competing for retail market share we also collaborate with, and wholesale to, these other firms, ensuring a wider availability of UK grown seed.

Top quality open pollinated seed, grown in the UK, and certified to biodynamic or organic standards, is needed to meet the growing demand from commercial growers and gardeners alike.  We produce seed ourselves and are building a network of certified growers.  We undertake the seed processing and sell the final product.

With 80% of the open pollinated seed sold in the UK currently being imported there is a clear need to increase the volume of production of high quality UK seed. The demand for such seed is reported to be growing by all open pollinated seed producers. We will do this through developing our own production site and through building a network of seed producers across the UK, producing seed for local climatic conditions.

Discussions with existing producers of open pollinated seed, and the results of our own survey of other small seed companies, give us great confidence that our plan is both achievable, and environmentally and economically sustainable. The Seed Co-operative will be the hub of a network and an exemplar for best practice in open pollinated seed production.

After 5 years seed production will be generating profits that can help boost the funding of the breeding work However, breeding new plant varieties is a long term and costly exercise and will require additional funding for the foreseeable future. In France a new Future Food Law will encourage the creation of groups of farmers to develop agro-ecological approaches that will benefit from state funding. It is possible that in future there may be public funding available again in the UK to support our plant breeding work.

A number of similar initiatives are already very successful in continental Europe. Stormy Hall Seeds has well established working relationships with Sativa Rheina and Bingenheimer Saatgut AG that both act in a similar way to that proposed for the Seed Co-operative. Reinsaat Seed Company and De Bolster are also producing open pollinated seed and supply Stormy Hall Seeds when UK grown seed is not available.  This Bingenheim-cat-excerpts.pdf (2 downloads) excerpt of the UK catalogue of Bingenheimer Saatgut AG helpfully shows what a fully fledged seed co-op looks like when it is up and running!

Until sufficient UK open pollinated seed is being produced to meet UK demand, the Seed Co-operative will import seed from organic open pollinated seed producer co-ops in Europe. These co-ops are providing advice and support for us in our endeavours.

If you are interested in growing seed for the Seed Co-operative please see the following information which we hope will answer your first thoughts.  Please contact us for further details.

Do I need biodynamic or organic certification to grow seed for the Seed Co-operative?

Yes, we only buy and sell biodynamic or organic certified seed.  However if you are not certified but grow using organic methods do get in touch and we can discuss how you might be able to start growing seed.

Do I have to be a member to be a seed grower for the Seed Co-operative?

Yes, although we are happy for the purchase of the 100 £1 shares needed for membership to come out of your first payment for seed so that there is no upfront cost.  See membership page for details.

How is a cropping list arrived at?

We have a list of required varieties and amounts of seed needed for each year which can be used as the basis for an agreed cropping list.  We welcome off list suggestions if you have particular varieties that you feel do well on your farm.

What sort of cropping area do I need?

Obviously this depends a bit on the crop and the number of different seed crops you are growing.  We are happy for people to grow only 1 or 2 seed crops.  We can advise on the area of land need to grow the required amount of seed for each crop.

Are all crops spring sown?

It will vary depending on the crop and your location (depending on length of growing season and capability to dry seeds at harvest time) although most of the annual crops will be.  Many vegetables are biennial for which it takes two growing seasons before you can harvest seed.

How are isolation distances assessed?

Many crops needs to be isolated from other plants of the same species. This can be done by having sufficient distance or by the use of nets for some species. Also cross pollination can occur with wild plants and neighbouring crops that bolt, like sugar beet. In general, insect pollinated species need to be 800m to 1000m apart, wind pollinating species 1400m to 1600m.   Depending on the seed crops, for most small-scale seed growers knowledge of neighbours’ cropping plans are needed to be able to plan for seed growing.

Is seed for the seed crop supplied?

Yes.  In the first season we will provide seed and a cost price deduction is made from the final crop payment to cover the cost of seed supplied.  In subsequent seasons of growing the same variety we’d encourage growers to use the seed they’ve produced, after we’ve cleaned and tested it.

How much help and support will I get from the Seed Co-operative?

In 2016 we plan to organise seed growers meetings and a workshop about seed growing and plant breeding, possibly combined with our AGM.
We will encourage local / regional support groups so that members can provide support to each other.
We will also be able to answer queries and provide technical support by phone and email.
Realistically, individual on-farm support over and above inspection visits will vary depending on the scale and number of seed crops that you are growing and your location in relation to other growers, as these are the factors that will govern how easy it is to practically get to your farm in the time available.

Is there a policy regarding sales of surplus fresh produce?

Any sales income derived from surplus produce is to the benefit of the grower.  An example of where this could happen is growing perhaps 300 lettuces from which the 70 best are selected to save seed from.  The remaining 230 could be sold as fresh lettuce by the grower.

Does the grower bear the cost of a failed crop?

Yes, except for the cost of the seed supplied by the Seed Co-operative.

How much seed cleaning / processing is the grower required to do?

Depending on the crop we normally expect the grower to undertake the first threshing (could be manual or mechanical depending on the crop) if you have the capability to do so.  For fruits we’d expect growers to extract and dry the seed.  We can be flexible depending on the location and whether you can bring material to us or whether it is possible to share or arrange for a mobile thresher to come to you.

Is seed collected or does the grower deliver?

Delivery to us is preferable, which could be by courier.  It is the growers responsibility to organise this at their own cost.

Is there any form filling to be done?

Of course!  Once the crop is planted the crop entry form is filled in and sent back to us. On this form is recorded the species, variety, location, of the crop and the previous cropping of the growing area.   During the growing season you record varies things on the crop record form, like seed/planting rate, crop appearance, pest and plant diseases, Once the crop is harvested and send for processing this form had to be send as well.

Are there any inspections?

After we have received the crop entry form from you we will arrange a crop inspection. This gets recorded on a crop inspection form.

How is seed quality determined and at what point is it accepted or rejected?

The seed needs to meet minimum germination rates. These vary from crop to crop but are generally 85-95%.

If the seed contains too many weed seeds that are difficult to remove, it might get rejected, or we might have to deduct from the price for the extra cleaning.
We test seed for seed-borne pathogens and again it needs to meet certain standards.
If the crop is rejected we would not be able to pay anything, but the seed will stay your property and if you want it can be returned to you.

How is payment calculated?

The basic principle is that the grower gets 50% of the whole sale price, based on a price/kg for seed we buy in from other seed companies.  For example; beetroot seed we buy from Holland costs us £50/kg for seed that is ready for sale. If you grow beetroot seed for us we will pay you £25/kg.

When will the grower be paid?

Growers are paid after all processing and testing is satisfactorily completed, and all necessary forms have been adequately completed and returned.

Should the grower retain seed for the next season?

We would normally expect growers to send us all of the seed produced for processing and testing.  If the grower is producing the same crop in future seasons we will try and ensure that we return seed grown on their farm.  In this way the quality of the seed should be maintained due to the testing and storage facilities that we have available.

What sort of seed storage is required and is this inspected?

In most seasons we would expect seed to be able to be harvested dry enough to be delivered to us without requiring storage.  Depending on the climate and season on your farm we may need to discuss how you deliver seed to us in a satisfactory condition, and if and how you would store / dry your seed crops.

Are the requirements relating to crop rotations and seed crops?

A specific cropping interval between related/similar crops should be adhered to. This will prevent a build-up of soil-borne diseases etc. and seed volunteers.

How do I register my interest?

Please contact us by email to express an interest or find out more.

Maintaining heritage seed varieties is vital.  To ensure that growers can continue to use open pollinated seed we also need new varieties.  With a changing climate and production techniques new varieties are required for commercial growers to use and be able to compete

Over recent decades the investment available for the breeding of open pollinated seed has been negligible, in comparison to biotechnology.  Our own survey of organic seed companies suggests that about 80% of the open pollinated seed sold in the UK has been imported, mainly from Europe.  As open pollinated seeds adapt to, and are therefore best suited to. the locality of the place in which they are grown, UK produced seed will produce much better results than imported.

To ensure true sustainability it is imperative that research and development is undertaken to ensure farming methods adapt to changing climate whilst remaining viable.  Having a strong and resilient bio-diverse seed bank is crucial to this endeavour; we need to breed new open pollinated varieties, and produce sufficient open pollinated seed, for growers to profitably farm using these agro-ecological methods.

In continental Europe biodynamic and organic growers have been undertaking a plant breeding programme for the last 20 years.  In that time 50 new varieties have been developed.  Plant breeding is a long term business, taking 8-14 years  to develop a new variety, requiring long term investment of resources.  Working with counterparts in Europe, particularly Sativa Rheinau, in Switzerland, we will breed new varieties of open pollinated seed, suited to UK conditions and organic growing techniques.

Sativa Rheinau’s web site is only available in German and French, but the pictures are fantastic!

In the past seeds were regarded much like air or water; essentially free!  Saving and sharing seed was a cultural necessity.  The knowledge and skills associated with producing seed have been largely lost and we want to rebuild this capacity in our growing communities.

Members of our seed production network will be able to supply harvested seed to the Seed Co-operative for processing and testing, to be sold through the Seed Co-operative, avoiding the need for small seed producers to have to jump regulatory hoops.
Regulations governing seed trading requires the Seed Co-operative to be registered as a seed company with DEFRA.  Organic certification will be certified by the Biodynamic Association under Demeter standards and regulations.  EU seed regulations also stipulate minimum standards for germination and purity of all seeds that are sold whether produced by the seller or imported;  we have set our internal standards significantly higher.  All batches of seed will be tested to ensure our standards are met.  Stormy Hall Seeds have 20 years experience of working with the regulations which will be of great benefit to all involved.

We will provide education and training for professional growers, home gardeners and the wider public about the importance of open pollinated seed and sustainable farming through the following activities:

  • Providing opportunities for student placements, volunteers and biodynamic apprentices
  • Hosting group visits and open days
  • Providing talks and workshops to groups across the country
  • Take a stall to events and conferences  where we can provide information and sell seeds
  • Building a network of groups and individuals through social media and email newsletters to contribute to the dialogue on issues related to seed, food sovereignty and sustainable farming
  • Producing articles for national publications and journals
  • Providing information on our web site, including a series of YouTube videos

We plan to secure funding for all of the educational work through a combination of charging for our services or direct grants on a project by project basis.

Details of Peter Brinch’s Open Pollinated Seed events can be found here.