Great produce come from great seeds. Today we’ll talk about sourcing the best seeds from reliable and reputable suppliers.
Longtime microgreens grower Chris Thoreau joins us to talk about how to do just that—what to look for, what to avoid, and how important pathogen testing really is.
As a microgreen farmer, choosing good seed is one of your main inputs outside of soil. Why did you feel that it’s important to talk seed again? (2:00)
If you don’t have good seed, you can’t grow good microgreens—and that’s basic. Choosing seed doesn’t just mean variety and how fast they grow. With microgreens, we also consider seeds’ hygienic quality to avoid human pathogens in our production system.
In Canada, microgreens and sprouts are lumped together, while in the US, microgreens are considered a covered produce, meaning they’re grown in a greenhouse. But one thing they have in common is that we’re growing a high density of seeds in optimum conditions for pathogen growth. The perfect conditions for microgreens’ growth are the same conditions where pathogen thrive.
Finding a supplier that has good quantities, price, and varieties is also important, but if their seeds aren’t of good quality and not pathogen-free, you don’t want to use them in a commercial system.
Is there a big difference between a high-quality seed from a great supplier and an average seed you can get anywhere? (5:00)
Yes. There’s a spectrum here from the best seed to the worst seed. The best seed is sourced well, grows well, germinates well, grows uniformly, and is pathogen-tested. The worst seed, the most obvious example for me, is sunflower seed that is birdseed. You can look at seed as a continuum of quality. Bad seed will produce bad seed, while good seed will produce good seed. Over time, you’ll learn which companies carry good seed, and those companies would care about consistently producing good seed because they’re mindful of liability, quality assurance, and reputation.
What has been your experience with reaching out to companies to learn about seeds and source them? (9:20)
My experience with Mumm’s started out the same as other people’s—growing sprouts in jars 25 years ago. After getting into commercial production, I had to call in with Mumm’s to buy seeds of that volume. We had a set number of crops we worked with at the time, and since we knew what their growth looked, we knew what questions to ask—how do you feel about this new lot of seed? What does the germination rate look like? How do you think it compares to the other ones you have?
I remember having these conversations with Lisa Mumm’s mother, and I never thought they were a burden on her mom’s part because it was part of their job of being a good seed supplier to make sure that we had all the information we need to make a good purchase.
Choosing seeds is of course important, but a lot of first-time jar-growers won’t take that into account. At what stage from home growing to commercial growing do you really have to take choosing seeds seriously? (13:30)
At any commercial scale, you really have to think about this. As soon as you’re selling it to the public, accountability and responsibility fall on you especially when it comes to the quality of the product and potential pathogens.
As far as building a relationship with your suppliers, it can start as early as when you buy seeds online. Say you’ve been buying from a supplier for a while, and a batch of seeds aren’t growing as well as you expected them to. You can send them an e-mail and talk about that. If you have a supplier that you’re confident in, you’re not looking to take them down or give them a bad review. You’re just making sure that the money you’re spending is being used well.
Were you ever in a situation where you don’t find the information you need? Or is the industry so good now that if you buy seed from any reputable supplier, you’re sure to get good seed? (16:30)
When we talk about seed suppliers, they vary from company to company. Some companies like Mumm’s buy seeds from the open market, contract farmers to grow specific things, and even grow their own seeds. Other companies just sell other people’s seed as brokers. They still rely on suppliers. There are many different layers to this, but I generally find the information I need from the companies.
If, for example, I call a seed company more than twice and I still get evasive or substandard answers, chances are, I’m going to stop buying from them.
Are there some basic things that you want to see when you’re buying quality seeds, like a checklist of how you define quality seed? (21:20)
Yes. One is seed germination rate. If I have something that has 70% germination rate, 30% of the seeds I sowed are just sitting there on the soil that could be a medium for growing plant pathogens or could impede the microgreens’ growth, and I wouldn’t want that.
Second is seed uniformity. What I’ve seen is that big seed grows fast while small seed grow slow. When I harvest the big seed and the small seed aren’t mature yet, it isn’t too great for production.
Another one is reasonably rapid growth, so the seeds have to grow within an expected timeline. And last, of course, is price. I don’t want to be paying ridiculous amounts of seed that isn’t of good quality.
Did you ever notice a difference in production between organic seed and conventional seed? (24:20)
Here’s an interesting story: in my first year of production, I didn’t buy from my usual supplier, and found this one store from North or South Dakota called Seeds 2000. They told me they had these hybrid seeds from a canceled order that they could give me at a good price. What’s interesting is that the seed was herbicide-resistant, and I asked if it was genetically modified. They said there wasn’t any genetically modified sunflower in the market as far as they knew.
This is a case where a farmer found a sunflower in a field of soy that was sprayed multiple times with Roundup. So, they saved the seed and bred that herbicide tolerance in. That was my first black oil hybrid, and I have never seen a seed grow that well in my life—8 days of growth, no strays. I got 2kg of sunflower per tray, and the yield was off the charts.
The certified organic market is relatively small, so it’s tougher to find stuff, meaning you’ll likely find better-performing seeds in the conventional market. However, because they’re not made for human consumption, there’s a higher risk of some crops to have pesticide residue unless they’re under contract specifically for microgreens.
Have you grown crops in the past that just have inherently low germination rates? (32:20)
I haven’t had that experience yet. I’ve grown 20-25 different crops, and managing 50 different cops on a small scale doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
There are always people in the forums asking if they can turn this or that into a microgreen because hey, if there’s a big market out there and you’re the only one producing this, then it would be a great opportunity. Some of these varieties will have low germination rates and that’s something you have to learn to work around through trial and error such as finding out your optimum seeding rate, soaking time, etc. You’re going to learn how to deal with it and make changes accordingly. Based on the posts I see on forums about seeds that aren’t germinating well, it’s usually a grower error—too long or too short soaking time, too humid, too moist soil, etc.
Are there certain problems that would automatically make you go, “I think this is a seed issue?” (34:35)
This is the sort of inquiry I get over the years, and the first question I ask the grower is, “what have you changed?” Because it’s really hard to grow a seed if you’ve never grown it before. Say for the first time, your seed doesn’t germinate well, maybe because of the growing conditions, soil humidity, etc. That’s still you getting to know the seed and its optimal conditions for growth.
But if you’ve been growing something for many years, and then you get a new lot of seed that suddenly isn’t germinating well in the conditions that have always worked, then that would point to the seed. So it’s really looking for a change in something that you know is fairly consistent.
It’s tricky with seed because you need to find out if there’s been a change that might take you a lot of trials to understand that the seed might just be sensitive, which may be a natural characteristic of it.
How likely can seeds get contaminated with pathogens? Is there enough risk of contamination that would discourage you from buying that seed if it didn’t have that testing? (36:45)
As a commercial grower, I would be reluctant. Once you start doing something from a high standard, going anywhere lower than that would be very, very difficult. Like, once you start eating good chocolate, it’s hard to eat a KitKat.
We need to remember that pathogens don’t just float from a random place and land on the seed. We use a lot of animal manure to fertilize. Some systems even use sewage waste, so naturally, the chances of human pathogen being present in human waste is a lot higher than being in animal waste. Some pathogens like E. coli are transferred from animals to humans having this, there’s a chance of that pathogen ending up on that seed during the process. When I talk about good agricultural practices, you’ll see farmers thinking of ways to handle their seed so it won’t get contamination.
As growers, is independently pathogen-testing your seed stock necessary? If so, how do you do that? (40:30)
The first line of defense is the farmers’ good agricultural practices. The second is the pathogen-testing done by seed companies.
After that, the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the supply chain falls on me—hauling the seed I bought on the back of a pick-up truck I disinfected versus hauling it in the same pick-up truck I use to transport manure. Then I’ll store it in a place that is rodent-free so I could prevent potentially introducing pathogen to my seed stock, and when the time comes that we use the seed, we’re still going to sanitize it because that’s just the kind of world we’re living in. It’s a level of responsibility you have when you sell food to the public.
Big companies regularly test their products while we on the farm do it once a month. We take a cutting of our product, seal it, and send it to the lab, and they get back to us with the results within 5-7 days.
I know of a seed company that tests their products mid-growth and they get a 24-hr return on that, and the seeds don’t leave the facility unless it tests out negative. So basically different companies have different protocols.
What are your thoughts about living through CoVid as somebody who’s intimately involved in the microgreen and the seed community? (46:15)
This is super intriguing from a seed perspective. This is something seed companies experienced in 2008 when the market was crashing, and seed sales went through the roof. They had record sales that year, but sales went back to normal the following year after the paranoia subsided.
I honestly don’t know how this’ll play out, but there’s a couple of things to consider. One is that companies can’t buy seeds because seeds are selling out. I’ll go ahead and say something irresponsible and say that 30-40% of that seed won’t be used because people like to stock up on things ‘just in case.’ Because of this, seed sales might go down next year because people got their seeds last year.
Two, seed markets continue to be stretched because of CoVid. There are a lot of disruptions in the supply chain, labor shortage being one of them. So, it’s hard to say how things will fare out because we might see another wave of CoVid as we’re coming into the cooler season, or another wave still after the people get a bit laxer.
As a grower thinking CoVid might hit again in the winter, would you stock up on seeds knowing you’re risking overbuying? (53:30)
There’s the perspective of buying more seed because everybody else is buying more seed. I’m not doing commercial production right now, but I did buy a bit more seed for my home production, just a little more than I usually do just in case. I’m also kind of hoping that my long-standing relationship with some seed companies might get me through the queue a little quicker.
As a microgreens company, you don’t wait until you’re at your last seed stock before you buy more. You should always have a 6-month supply on-hand because without seed, you can’t have a business.
As for me, I try to think about how I can serve my business first while keeping in mind that I’m part of a bigger system of growers. If I’m hoarding all this seed, I’m basically screwing everyone up. So if I did overbuy that there’s nothing left for other seed growers, I’ll probably find a way to get my seed over to them.
There was the whole dairy situation here in America where the grocers limited people to buying just two cartons of milk, while dairy farms just emptied out their milk tanks into the grass.
It turned out that it wasn’t a supply problem, but the that the middlemen had a hard time keeping up with order processing. Do you think the same could be happening with the seeds? (01:06:00)
That was definitely the case with a lot of companies—they just couldn’t keep up with the orders. They’re too busy packing seeds and shipping them to keep up with ordering more seed. I think that’s a good insight you have. We always have more seeds than we need because that’s the only way the system works.
Got you interested in starting your own microgreens business? Check our Chris’ online course, The Complete Guide to Growing Your Profitable Microgreens Business–from sanitization to growing media to lighting to harvesting, the course covers everything you need for your microgreen business start-up!
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