This year’s unsolicited seed scare highlights the work of legitimate seed growers

Adrian Higgins

THE WASHINGTON POST – If you’ve ever wondered where those vegetable seeds you sow come from, the answer of late seems to be in mysterious little packages from somewhere in China.

You may have caught the recent headlines about thousands of Americans receiving what appear to be seeds of cucumbers, peppers and other popular plants of the home vegetable garden.

As of last week, the Agriculture Department had received 10,136 emails and 1,004 calls from residents in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico about the seeds. From them, it has collected almost 9,000 seed packages.

Some were mailed from China after the recipients ordered seed through online retailers. Other packages were unsolicited as part of what officials believe was a scheme to generate false online ratings. The problem? The senders circumvented the official channels for seed importation, leaving the department and other public agencies scrambling to figure out how the seeds got through and to block additional shipments.

Normally, imported seeds require a health certificate from the Agriculture Ministry in the originating country and often an import permit, too. As a rule, the packages are screened by plant inspectors in the United States (US) before delivery to the recipient.

The authorities have reason to be vigilant. A new pest or disease from overseas can cause havoc in specific crops, just as the novel coronavirus attacks humans with no inbuilt resistance to it.

Flower varieties are trialed for possible seed production at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine, the United States of America (USA). PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A botanist with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service examines the contents of an unsolicited package of seeds
Peppers are grown until the fruit is aged and the seed within ripe before extracting

Though it is thought to have arrived on a budwood cutting, not a seed, a disease from Asia named citrus greening threatens the country’s entire citrus industry, valued at USD3.35 billion annually. In just 15 years, the bacterium has spread through citrus orchards in Florida, reducing fruit yield by up to 75 per cent while more than doubling production costs, according to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

In the seed packages the agency has examined this summer, it has detected more than 300 species and varieties of ornamental, fruit and vegetable, herb, and weed seeds. As for pests, experts have identified a tiny wasp, two noxious weeds (water spinach and dodder) and a larval seed beetle.

For gardeners, there is something else about the shipments that is unsettling. We want certainty in our seeds; we want to know exactly what we are growing and how it will perform. This is why the legitimate seeds we get are so miraculous in their own way, and yet their origin is unknown to most of us; they are produced by an unseen network of seed companies and growers who get little or no recognition.

When a consumer buys a neat variety of broccoli at the farmers market, the appreciation flows to the farmer, but not to the grower who produced the seed – the farmer behind the farmer.

Because each crop has its own needs and preferred climate, the seed growers come from across the US and the world, with centres of seed production in Europe, Chile, Israel, East Africa, Japan and, yes, China.

“It’s a small but wonderful group of people who know how to produce seed, because it’s an art as well as a science,” said Quality Assurance Manager Bonita Nicolas at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. “It takes equipment and patience and a lot of expertise.”

The seed farmer must raise a pepper crop to perfection and then wait for the fruit to age and shrivel before he or she can harvest ripe seeds. Cucumber seed is removed from a field of gooey, overripe cucumbers. The lettuce is of no value to these farmers until it bolts, flowers and goes to seed. At that point, no amount of ranch dressing will make it palatable.

Johnny’s is known for selling superior strains of vegetables to home gardeners and to fresh-market farmers. Although it has fields for its stock plants and for testing varieties, the bulk of its seed production is contracted out to growers around the world. The company offers almost 1,000 varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and cover crops.

The diffusion of seed sources is the norm in the business. For example, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, has approximately 1,300 varieties in its catalogue and online, but it produces seed for 50 or so itself, said owner Jere Gettle. He gets the rest from about 200 suppliers, a quarter of them overseas. Its Kyoto red carrot seed, for example, comes from a small seed company near its namesake Japanese city.

Seeds fall into two basic types. The first are open-pollinated varieties, whose seed will essentially replicate the traits of the parent plant. It is from these that we get heirloom varieties, passed down from generation to generation, improved a bit by selecting for bigger leaves, larger fruit or better vigour. The others are F1 hybrids, produced by crossing two designated parent plants. The hybrid grows into a plant with desired traits, but its own seed is genetically variable, so to keep the strain going, the original cross must be repeated each season.

For plants such as tomatoes and peppers, that must be done by hand, a truly labourious task, especially if the flower has to have its pollen parts removed first to avoid self-fertilisation. This is one reason such seed is grown in global regions where labour costs are lower. Tim Butcher manages 1,000 acres of broccoli and onion seed production in Yuma, Arizona, for Priority Seed Production and is a contract grower for more than 35 seed companies from around the world, including Johnny’s. The seed company typically supplies the grower with stock seed. For hybrids, that means furnishing both parent lines. Butcher plants alternate rows of each parent and then lets honeybees do the pollination.

This is not as simple as it appears. If one parent blooms later, or earlier, than the other, then each must be planted at different times, so they flower simultaneously.

Another burden is that desired varieties are isolated so that they are not accidentally pollinated with an unwanted pollen parent. Honeybees can fly up to three miles from their hives and contaminate the genetic purity of a desired variety, which is why Gettle can only isolate five of his catalogue’s 20 squash varieties on his farm and contracts out the growing of the others.

In his operation – itself a network of contracted farms – Butcher has a detailed digital map designed to pinpoint the location of each crop to avoid planting similar varieties too close.

All of these measures come down to preserving the integrity and the identity of the seed.

There is one other skill the seed farmer must have: knowing when to harvest, which is after the seed ripens but before the mother plant scatters it to the four winds.

Some plants test that skill to its limit. For Butcher, one of the trickiest is the beautiful, fragrant sweet pea, with its garlands of flowers. Once the seeds are ripe, the pods are ready to split and eject their cargo. “You can hear these pods popping, and you know you’re losing the seed,” he said. “It’s a joy to grow but one of my hardest crops.”


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