Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sowing the Seeds of Change

Recently there was a post on GardenRant by one of the ranters, Michelle Owens, about the cost of seeds for vegetables going up. It got me thinking. I have just nearly completed a book called The Future of Capitalism by Lester C. Thurow. It was written in the middle nineties, but has been to me still pertinent. The long to short of it is simple, the times they are a changin'. And we're not prepared.

I wonder how long will it be before low skill industries like seed production move away from high wage areas like North America. In our age, isn't it likely we should be getting our seeds from Asia, not North America? It appears less likely that nursery plants would ship around the world profitably because of their health during shipping. But seeds, in their dry state with their low weight and all the handy work necessary for their production and packaging?

Let us not make too little of our desire for cheap seeds. An American low skilled worker costs a lot more than a comparably low skilled worker in other parts of the world. We could keep seeds at eighty five cents a package if we submit to this capitalistic reality. How does a seed company like Johnnies compete with an international conglomerate that produces seeds in far away lands for less than pennies? Johnnies got it somewhat right- in America they produce seeds in an area that is relatively wealth poor and has an abundance of low skilled workers. But in this age, that exact description fits a hell of a lot more places than Maine and those come much cheaper than Maine.

We see two markets developing. Not unlike the organic foods markets. Educated, highly skilled, maybe wealthy individuals will be marketed to with locally (meaning U.S.) grown seeds of ever expanding varieties and heirlooms and so on. This attracts the set who believe they are playing a part in saving the world and eating healthy. And you know, they are right. At least partially.

The other market is what I can only call the Walmart market. This is a much larger group of customers who really cannot afford $5 seed packets. They will be attracted to campaigns emphasizing low cost, reliability, and accessibility. Huge suppliers from around the world will produce Roma and Early Girl tomato seeds for this market, sold at big box stores for low prices. At least for a while.

The people in between these two markets will probably split the difference, sometimes Walmart, sometimes Johnnies.

The truth of our American lives is that real wages have been falling for years. We are more productive than the rest of the world, yet we do not grow in personal wealth, if anything we are in debt. There are all sorts of reasons for this. But as those seed packets go up in price to accommodate for oil's influence, we must also consider that these seed packets are supporting our local neighbors. Without help or further price jumps, I can only see a hard road ahead for the local seed producer. Inevitably, the market that buys expensive seeds is much smaller than the market that buys at Walmart.

The economic divide has most people on the wealth poor side, but there will always be room for a few local producers who charge accordingly for their seeds. But the motivation of capitalism is to find the cheapest resources and seeds will, if they haven't already, be produced far away for very little money. This will keep seeds at low prices as long as customers accept their seeds coming from distant lands.

This is not xenophobia. This is strictly a discussion about economics, the price of seeds, and our quality of life. We know our choices have far reaching effects, but so many of us are hamstrung by our falling real wages when it comes time to make these choices. We find ourselves in quite a pickle.

Just a quick internet glance for medium size tomato seeds:

Johnnies: packet of 50 seeds is $8.20
Burpee: packet of 30 seeds is $2.65
Park: packet of 30 seeds is $1.95

Big difference, but it probably could be a greater difference.


  1. I think this is an interesting point. I have never made too much of an effort to save seeds. I am wondering if a dramatic price shift will encourage gardeners like me to delve into the mysteries of seed saving. I have grown up in a time when it was pretty easy to acquire seed (and meat, eggs, and dairy)from a supplier. Your thoughts are reminding me, yet again, that such a circumstance was not always the case in America and is not the case in many parts of the world today. All those immigrants on all those ships brought their cherished seed with them to their new home. Perhaps this price increase will create more than the two situations you postulate. Perhaps a third scenario of increased seed-saving and exchanging will also develop.

  2. Good Point Fishtown! That fourth scenario (I count the third as the "splitter") where we REMEMBER how to save seeds. This requires knowing the difference between hybrids and open-pollinators and the methods for successfully saving and storing seeds. Seed companies have taken over for the individual who "discovers" new forms through extensive breeding programs. But the natural heritage is everyone's, really. Now I am thinking of patenting, and here I get complicated feelings. Either way, save your seeds, grow heirlooms.