Shopping for Identity in Seed Catalogs

Shopping for Identity in Seed Catalogs

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At last year's Chicago Flower & Garden Show I watched as a customer at the D. Landreth Seed Company booth say "You're women owned, that's great!" before giving Barbara Melera, owner of the D. Landreth Seed Company, the thumbs up and walking away with her seed purchase. The exchange surprised me, but it really shouldn't have. In an age when it's de rigueur to buy everything locally from people you know and shop on Small Business Saturday, why can't you seed dollar go to support seed companies owned by people like you? 
Can the seeds for your daughter's school garden come from a seed company owned by a woman? Your tomatoes or corn from a Mexican-American seedman? Your radishes from an Asian-American seed company? The answer may surprise you. 
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In the early 1900s Mrs. Jessie Prior, Miss Emma V. White and Miss Carrie Lippincott attracted attention to their seed companies because they were women owned. Buying seeds from a seed company owned by a woman was more than a novelty. Miss Carrie Lippincott's marketing material, including her seed catalog, revolutionized how seeds were sold. She popularized a feminine style of design that featured images of women and children. Today-not much has changed-the seed business is still a male dominated industry, the majority of seed companies in America are owned by men even though women make up the majority of gardeners and customers.   
So, why aren't today's seedswomen borrowing a page from the past and aggressively marketing themselves as women-owned businesses? "Honestly it never occurred to me," says Barbara Melera of the D. Landreth Seed Company when we I posed the question to her recently by telephone. "It is woman owned and woman run. There's a woman doing everything here-all day, every day," She says of her seed company with laugh.
A call to the Home Garden Seed Association put me in contact with Patty Buskirk present treasurer of the Home Garden Seed Association who informs me that the association doesn't keep track of which seed companies are women or minority owned. 
Women looking to strike a blow at patriarchy through their seed purchases don't have many more options than they did in the early 1900s. Alongside Mrs. Melera's seed company there's Renee's Garden as an example of a woman-owned seed company. Beauty Beyond Belief, Botanical Interests and Baker Creek Seeds are co-owned by women with their husbands. 
Women, by comparison, have it better off than ethnic minorities & GLBT gardeners looking to buy seeds from a seed company that's owned by someone like them. 
Gijiu Kitazawa started the Kitazawa Seed Company in 1917 in a storefront in downtown San Jose, California. The Kitazawa family sold Asian vegetables seeds to Asian-American gardeners and wholesale to Japanese-American farmers. From 1942 to 1945 the Kitazawa Seed Company was abandoned as the family was forced into Relocation Camps constructed to hold Japanese-Americans who through no fault of their own were deemed to be security threat during WWII. After the war the Kitazawa Seed Company began shipping seeds across the country to Japanese-American who had relocated. Today it is owned by a Japanese-American whose family had gardened with Kitazawa since the 1920s. My research didn't turn up another single seed company owned by a minority in the U.S.  
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The Seed Library  formed out of Ken Greene's desire to do something about what he terms as the corporatist seed sources and the heavy hand of biotech in the seed industry and farming, and the loss of genetic diversity, seed stories, and seed saving skills. Today the farm and business are run by Ken Greene and his partner Douglas Muller, both in their 30s. They operate the only regional, farm-based Seed Library that focuses on "growing and creating participatory/democratic seed sources" for gardeners in four season climates. They also hold the distinction of being the only openly Gay owned seed company in America that LGBT gardeners can support.
 
"Many now shop, as a way not of integrating but rather of distinguishing themselves from the masses," writes Marilyn Halter in her book Shopping for Identity. Given the consumers desire to express their individuality through buying decisions, and gardeners' interest in promoting seed diversity, it's ironic that there isn't much diversity to be found in who we buy our seeds from. One thing is for certain: we can't afford to lose this handful of seed companies that reflect our country today and what it will look like tomorrow. 

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  • Really excellent article MBT! I only buy from small seed companies like the ones you mentioned, and save a lot of my own seeds. I avoid companies that buy from certain large corporations and their buyers whose names I won't mention, (i.e., Monsanto, Semenis, Burpee,) and this year even went local, ordering a few things from Nature's Crossroads in Indiana (as you know, they are supporting One Seed Chicago and their seeds are mostly organic.) This article gives even more food for thought regarding where we buy our seeds. Having a woman-owned company myself, I like to support women-and-minority-owned businesses, hadn't really thought of it in terms of seeds and garden supplies, so thanks for the consciousness-raising!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    SSGarden Girl, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I know what you mean about supporting certain seed companies. I have a post in the works on that, just trying to iron out some details.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I need to edit this post to include Territorial Seeds which is owned by Julie & John Johns, but the CMS is acting up. For now you can visit them at http://www.territorialseed.com/

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Dude, this post is amazing. I was writing about Hudson Valley, because I saw the artwork for their art packs in New York a few weeks ago and just got a membership. I had an inkling that the owners were gay, but now that I know, I'm even happier that I am supporting their efforts! I've also ordered seed from almost each of the companies you named, and I'm probably going to knock another one out soon--I *really* want to put an order in with Kitazawa! I've been browsing their catalog very thoroughly. My Korean coworkers call me an "honorary Asian" for the amount of Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese cooking I seem to do... So I'd like to grow cuisine-specific veggies. It makes sense, right?

  • In reply to kennethjamesmoore:

    Last year when you were blogging about your volunteer efforts during Pride I wanted to mention them to you, but I didn't because I wasn't sure myself. I'mm glad you like the post and that you're looking at Kitazawa closely. I noticed last year too that you talked a bit about Asian food, but forgot to mention them to you.

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