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Cultivating the seeds of change

Rochester Business Journal
April 25, 2014

One hundred years ago, to farm was to save seeds for planting—a practice as natural for farmers as eating the fruits and vegetables those seeds came from.

Today virtually no U.S. farmers save seeds. To do so has become a lost art as the general population has moved away from the farm into grocery stores for food.

Naples-based Fruition Seeds LLC customizes seeds to thrive in the Northeast. It is one of just a handful of seed companies in the nation that grow the seeds they sell.

“We’re a very new company but with a lot of roots,” says co-owner Petra Page-Mann. “Most seed companies are just distributors; they’re not growing seed. That’s a common misconception among lay people, gardeners, even farmers—that seed companies are more involved in the growing of their seeds, and they’re not at all.”

Fruition Seeds sells 120 varieties and expects to expand to roughly 160 to 170 by the end of 2014, doubling sales.

Page-Mann, 30, and co-owner Matthew Goldfarb, 37, started the business in 2012 with 30 years of agricultural experience between them.

“Just being fully part of seed life cycles is absolutely and endlessly fascinating,” Goldfarb says. “This business has renewed my spirit and excitement for farming and food production and my curiosity about life and botany and biology and everything. (My) excitement to learn has kind of increased tenfold in just the last couple of years.”

Another way the company differentiates itself is by working in partnerships with other farms.

In custom collaborations, Fruition Seeds helps farmers grow genetically diverse crops. The farmer cultivates the crop while Fruition Seeds makes on-farm selections, customizing the seed crop produced to the farmer’s particular soil, harvest and market needs.  Custom collaboration offers farmers a unique product—seed more resilient than any they could buy. The seed is made available through Fruition Seeds, allowing public access to the varieties. The firm also works with chefs who are looking for produce that has specific culinary traits.

Page-Mann and Goldfarb are the full-time employees; a half-time employee and two interns round out the staff. Roughly 80 percent of orders are from New York, 15 percent are from other areas of the Northeast, and around 5 percent are national with a few orders from Canada.

They sell their products in retail locations such as the Rochester Public Market, Lori’s Natural Foods Market, Abundance Cooperative Market, Wayside Garden Center and locations from Buffalo to Albany. Their seeds are also available online and at events. The company comes to farmers markets in Brighton and at the University of Rochester and will be at Rochester Flower Days at the public market in May.

In the last 100 years, over 75 percent of the world’s genetic diversity has been lost. Seed production has become the purview of a few large corporations that mass produce a few commercial varieties. With every lost seed variety, another food crop becomes extinct.

Heirloom seed companies, many of them small operations like Fruition Seeds, are working to preserve genetic diversity. They provide the seeds of unique fruits and vegetables that the large operations don’t offer.

Perhaps more importantly, Fruition Seeds’ owners say, their seeds are specifically adapted to New York. For example, the company’s red Russian kale seed is grown to thrive in this climate, whereas other seeds by the same name come from arid regions that are conducive to commercial seed production.

Page-Mann began collecting seeds as a young girl with her father. The love of seed and its capabilities was planted in her from the beginning.

“You can take one seed, and from that single seed you will get hundreds of seeds,” Page-Mann says. “You’ll more likely get thousands of seeds; you may even get tens of thousands of seeds from that one single seed.

“Even though we’ve lost so much genetic diversity, every time we save even one seed, it multiplies exponentially the potential for our world to be changed in (a) powerful proactive way.”

Goldfarb attended Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and earned an MBA at Babson College in Boston. He began farming in 1994.

Naples is Page-Mann’s hometown, and the community’s response to the business has been strong and sustaining.

“Whether it’s a neighbor carpenter making seed racks for us or another neighbor spending three days a week helping us pack seed as a volunteer, or another friend who decided it was her dream to design seed pack artwork—there’s untold amounts of generosity and support that we receive,” Goldfarb says.

Together they wanted to create a business aligned with their values. Sales are not the driving force behind their work; instead it’s about staying grounded.

“We could sell right now 30 or 40 percent more seed and make better margins if we did what every other seed company did and just buy seed, repackage it and sell it,” Goldfarb says, “but it would be lowering our values and our standards of the type of company we’re trying to build.”

Each person affects the world’s seed distribution process, Page-Mann says.

“Seeds are being bred and grown and produced and distributed by people all over the country and all over the world,” she says. “(It is about) being sure that the core values you have align with where those seeds are being grown. Even if you don’t even plant seeds, you have an impact on how seeds are being bred around the world.”

Seeds still need saving, and Fruition Seeds’ owners hope to nudge customers to think about seeds in a fresh way.

“I want people to realize that they have a local organic seed company (and) to make people curious about where their seed comes from,” Page-Mann says. “If we want to be proactive and effect change in our world, everything starts with a seed. Whether it’s the paper that we write on, the clothes we wear every day, every single thing that we eat, it all starts with seeds.”

4/25/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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