The Seedy Partner Profile series profiles all of the seed companies that sell OSSI-pledged varieties – our seed company partners. To read the first two posts in this series, refer to the main blog page. Many of our OSSI-pledged varieties have been bred by independent breeders that sometimes don’t have direct access to means of large-scale seed production. Therefore, these seed company folks are a crucial part of the grassroots OSSI model – we can’t access and proliferate this seed without people to get it from in the first place.
These seeds are often unique, have a great story, and some are bred and adapted in organic systems and for specific regional climates. Sounds like a good place from which to start your own seed story, doesn’t it?
How did you decide to get into the seed business/growing seeds?
Everything started in our backyard garden
After finishing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in 2009, my wife, Amy Thompson, took a job offer at the University of South Florida and moved to Tampa. I followed her next year, after I was done with the majority of my studies as a groundwater hydrologist/modeler at the same university; however, I still needed to revise my dissertation remotely from Tampa and look for a full-time job in an economy that was suffering from the financial crisis of 2008-2009. I worked as a part-time consultant for engineering projects from my home-office for a short time until I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing anymore.
In addition, by the end of 2010, I found out that long years of hard work in a cubicle office environment, in front of a computer, actually didn’t do any good for my health. I gained weight over years, I wasn’t exercising at all, and most importantly, my non-stop computer chair posture finally left me with a herniated disc. Only after long sessions of physical therapy and starting to practice Tai Chi, I was able to recover from this injury.
It was one of the most stressful periods of my life, and I definitely needed an outlet at the time to clear my head when I wasn’t working. It didn’t take me long to find out that outlet was gardening in our small backyard.
Working outside significantly helped me improve my physical condition and replenish my soul. My mind was occupied with dipping my hands in compost and soil, planting seeds, taking care of plants, and harvesting vegetables all the time.
Browsing seed companies’ catalogs was one of the most joyful parts of my new hobby. As I dove into the realm of seeds, I became fascinated with seed stories and shortly after that, I decided only to grow plants from open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. It didn’t take me too long to find out about struggles of small farmers, multi-national biotech companies, and to understand the importance of saving/preserving seeds for protecting bio-diversity.
I kept working in engineering on and off as I was also gaining more experience in the garden. Two years passed by and when one day I was giving Amy one of our regular garden tours, she looked at me and said “Why don’t you turn this hobby into a part-time business and see what happens?”
Your spouse’s/partner’s support is absolutely necessary to make such a life-changing decision, and I felt gratified to have Amy’s support. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I decided to give it a try. Soon after, we talked about the details, found an accountant to help us with the paperwork, and Two Seeds in a Pod Heirloom Seed Co was born in January 2013.
Things moved fast
Our backyard wouldn’t be enough for a seed company’s purposes so I decided to contact a local farmers’ market to see if they could connect us with local farmers who would potentially share/lease part of their land to us for farming. When we visited the market, we were introduced to a local dairy goat farmer, and she let us farm on her unused land for our seed growing efforts. We stayed there between early 2013 and summer 2015.
Researching varietal histories, planting seeds, taking care of seedlings, growing plants, harvesting seeds, documentation/photography, administering/updating company’s webpage, and attending farmers’ markets were only some of the tasks I had to do. I was really enjoying what I was doing, yet I had to make a decision in terms of the allocation of my time and energy between my engineering job and farming. Farming won! I became a full-time farmer soon after we founded our company.
In the first three years, we gained a lot of experience in growing various seed crops and running a small seed company. The number of rare heirlooms we had to grow and evaluate was piling up, and we definitely needed more farming space. In September 2015, we leased 3.5 acres of farmland in Thonotosassa, FL, about 10 miles North of where we lived in Tampa. In this new field, while I continued growing open-pollinated seeds to test them in Florida’s growing conditions, I also started experimenting with developing new varieties.
Our big transition
After gardening, farming, and working in Florida for around 9 years, mainly due to the job offer Amy received from West Virginia University, and also because we needed a change in both our personal and professional lives, we decided to move to Morgantown, West Virginia, at the end of June, 2018. We recently found our company’s new home base in Reedsville, WV, to live on and to continue our seed production efforts on 6 acres of land. In 2019, our catalog will expand to include Appalachian heirloom seeds. For the first time in 2019, we will also work with fellow farmers to help us raise seed stock for some of our staple varieties.
How did you learn about seed growing and/or plant breeding? Who were inspirational figures/mentors in your learning? Any favorite books or other writings?
In the beginning, I was reading a lot of online sources and joining various forum discussions. As I expanded my backyard garden, I developed more interest in saving seeds than growing the plants for food. Then, I bought Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed book, which was a fascinating read as far as the abundance of seed saving knowledge goes. Later on, I added John Navazio’s The Organic Seed Grower to my library.
Getting to know about the agronomist and plant collector Jack Harlan as well as the legendary agronomist Nikolai Vavilov inspired me to better understand the philosophy of protecting biodiversity through heirloom seeds and the importance of breeding new seed varieties to leave more food sources for future generations.
Soon after we started our company, Carol Deppe’s Breed Your Own Vegetables became an important reference book for me as I think that a seed saver needs to know specifics about plant biology and breeding as well. Frank Morton’s approach to diversifying in colors and textures of greens and lettuce varieties without sacrificing flavors has also been a great inspiration. I mostly continue to be on the seed preservation side of the equation; however, I feel an urge to shift part of my focus to breeding-work in the coming years.
In addition, I love browsing seed catalogs from the late 19th and early 20th century. These documents are not only beautiful pieces of art but also are great reminders for the significance of seed preservation since many varieties offered in the catalogs back in time don’t exist today.
Why is open source seed important to you?
By 1980s, 95% of the heirloom seed varieties that had been offered by the U.S. seed market in early 1900s were lost. Today, multi-national biotech companies control more than 80% of the world’s seed market and 75% of the vegetable seed market. Seed equals food. Keeping seeds patent-free and in the hands of small farmers and gardeners is more vital than ever to preserve our food sources and humanity’s cultural heritage, a heritage that is full of wisdom, accumulated knowledge, flavor, nutritional values and adapted varieties for local and regional ecosystems.
What are your primary channels for selling seed?
We sell our seeds online at www.twoseedsinapod.com, and I am hoping to have our seed display in stores in Morgantown, WV, soon.
How do you think OSSI can better support the seed system you want to see?
Patenting open-pollinated seed varieties is a serious threat to the preservation of biodiversity. By advocating open-source plant breeding and by promoting plant breeders, OSSI accomplishes a major task to improve the access to and diversity of genetic plant material. I am hoping to bring back a few OSSI-pledged varieties we used to offer in our catalog and add more to the list in the coming years.
What’s your favorite variety that you grow/sell?
Some of my all-time favorite varieties include Balik (Erdinc Strain) pepper, Pul Biberlik Antep pepper, Kopek Hayasi tomato, Margaret Curtain tomato, Halep Karasi eggplant, Cengelkoy cucumber, Adapazari winter squash, Cekirdegi Oyali watermelon, Blacktail Mountain watermelon, Ispir dry bean, Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, and Bezirci parsley.
Some of my new favorite varieties are the lettuce varieties Aloha Gem, Barnwood Gem, La Brillante, Manoa Leopoard, Sierra and Joker, Wild Garden Lacinato kale and Ireniwaki Red-seeded watermelon.