Wayne and Natasha Shields are certified organic market gardeners on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, producing up to 30 different heirloom and heritage vegetables on 30 acres of land.
After years of sourcing their desired seed from a company in the US at a reasonable price, an embargo by a European-owned company established in Australia meant these sales could no longer take place.
“The seed was 45 per cent cheaper and higher germination than Australian stock. We tried sourcing seed from our local supplier but more than 50 per cent of the crop wouldn’t germinate,” says Wayne.
“We now have to buy majority of our seed varieties from within Australia in a market that lacks competition and is dominated by big players. We’ve specifically chosen these seed varieties because they grow consistently.
“The price we now have to pay for our seed is outrageous. From paying $400 to now $900 per million seeds; even up to three times as much. It would be cheaper to fly overseas and bring it back with us.
“I’ve asked the companies how they can justify charging us such lucrative prices, and all I get is a mumble and grumble in return.”
Wayne says he has had to find another $8,000 a year to accommodate these higher prices.
“I used to grow my own seedlings, because I followed guidelines stringently and stuck to solely organics. I’ve since learnt that certified bodies have been allowing growers to use small amounts of untreated seed, so that’s what we’ve had to start doing. To buy organic means adding another 25 per cent on the already inflated price,” he says.
“Growing my own seed wasn’t preferable as the bulk of the seed I grow is a hybrid, which means it doesn’t produce a seed for next planting. I choose to use hybrid varieties as they have been cross-bred to produce a more marketable product which is the way the organic market is heading. It has become a premium-product industry.
“I couldn’t go back to open-pollinated varieties, as I’d be producing produce that I wouldn’t be able to sell because there’s not a consistent supply of seed.
“Another option, and there’s been plenty of talk amongst us growers, is to put our money together and buy a big heap and get the benefits. For every $10,000 spent on certain seed lines, a saving of $4,500 is possible so even a few growers could make substantial savings.”
Wayne says Peninsula Organics’ viability in the industry depends largely on whether or not the certified bodies decide to eliminate the use of untreated hybrid varieties.
“Cerifying bodies set our guide lines so we would have to follow these. If they banned hybrid it would be a disaster for growers and consumers of certain fresh vegetables.”
“There are some producers growing their own organic seed, but I’ve found it hard to rely on quality or correct variety supplied.”
However industry representatives believe a shortage in organic seeds and seedlings has come about because certified bodies are allowing organic producers to plant conventional product if they have completed a mandatory application form identifying and providing proof that they have made an attempt to find specific organic product without any success.
Along with a decline in demand, there has also been consolidation within the seed industry in recent years, meaning fewer choices for growers when it comes to organic seed. The affect has meant a dramatic increase in prices with limited availability to source seed.
According to Greg Paynter, a private organic consultant, the best option for organic producers is to grow the seed themselves.
Vanessa and Greg James used to produce 100,000 organic seedlings per week in a commercial nursery based in the Myocum hinterland near Byron Bay in NSW. Two years ago they downsized their operation to 20,000 seedlings per week and moved the operation to an 800-metre square block in the Muwillumbah CBD.
The owners of Farmers Choice Organics made the move when they realised they would have to mechanise their operation to support any further growth of the business.
“We have always done everything by hand. It was also hard to compete with non-organic products based on price and volumes. Now we’ve entered a niche market that competition has gone. We sell 100 per cent of what we grow,” Greg says.
“We also found some farmers refused to pay what good sun-hardened organic seedlings were really worth, asking for seedlings at one third the price.”
Since the seedling supplier has reduced the size of its operation by 80 per cent, it now supports organic backyard food production for approximately 900 growers including restaurants and cafes all within a 50-kilometre radius.
“Yes there is a seed shortage in the market place, because there is a lot of work involved in growing high quality reliable seedlings and in saving open-pollinated seed. We do both on site,” he says.
“The greatest dilemma of our future and that of our children is the availability of clean food”.
Capital Press, a weekly agricultural newspaper in the US, recently reported that workshops are being held in the country to teach organic farmers the basic skills of growing their own seed.
Meanwhile non-profit group, Organic Seed Alliance, is part of a national working group in the US that has created an online organic seed database — organicseedfinder.org — where seed companies can register varieties they have available and farmers can report what they’re looking for.
Australia is set to follow suit, with Australian Certified Organic launching a seed database soon that will help farmers locate organic seed, seedlings or root stock.
General manager of ACO, Kellie Lewis, says workshops in Australia to teach organic farmers how to grow their own seed also has merit.
“Absolutely. Any information that growers can access is most welcome, whether we look at setting up workshops in the paddock or 20 minute webinars that growers can watch at the end of the day,” says Kellie.