Do you ever wonder how all those tiny seeds get into all those colorful garden seed packets?
It depends on what kind of seed company you buy your seeds from; the main distinction is a matter of scale: big companies likely don’t grow their own seed but buy it, and machines are used to fill packets and pull orders. (for more details on the way bigger seed companies, check out this previous post).
Well, our small human-scale company’s seeds live a very different life than most commercial seed companies.
Here’s a little photo journey through the Life of a Snake River Seed…
Of course, a seed starts with a seed…sometimes into a flat to sprout in a greenhouse, and sometimes directly into the ground…
When they sprout, we transplant them outside!
Since much of Idaho has dry summers, watering is a must, whether by drip tapes, hand lines, or even, in a pinch, with your thumb on the end of a good old fashioned hose.
We hoe and hoe, and walk our fields to select only the best plants to go to seed, and we rogue (pull out) the rest!
Growing Plants for Seeds
The best part of growing seeds is the opportunity to see the plants go through their whole life cycle. On a vegetable farm, we would pull radish bulbs to eat…But as seed savers, we get to watch our radishes go through the rest of their crazy-wonderful life cycle!
First, the radish roots get REALLY, REALLY big, like the size of your forearm sometimes, and then they grow taller and taller until they start to flower! The pollinators LOVE their flowers……
After the pollinators pollinate their flowers, they grow these CRAZY seed pods which turn a rainbow of colors before drying out completely so we can harvest them…
Once they’re dry, we harvest the seed stalks to dry further out of the field. For bigger lots, we might harvest them onto tarps or for smaller ones, into pillow cases…
Dry Seed Process
Then we put them somewhere out of the elements to finish drying…
Once they’re dry, we start cleaning them. Bigger growers have mechanized equipment to do a lot of this, but at Snake River Seed Co-op, our small family farmers use small, hand-scale equipment. It might not be as quick as machines, but it works very well and makes seed production accessible to smaller scale growers since they don’t need to buy expensive equipment.
First we THRESH our seeds, usually by dancing on them in a bucket. This results in lots of seed mixed up with broken up stem & pods.
Then we WINNOW them using fans and screens. The fans are surprisingly effective: when you pour seeds in front of them, the good seeds are heavy and they fall into the first tub, while the immature ones and the chaff are lighter and they fly into the second one or beyond. Voila’!
Then we further separate the seed from the chaff by pouring the mixture onto a screen, shaking it and the seeds stay on the screen and the chaff falls through.
Wet Seed Processing
Seeds that grow inside a wet fruit take a slightly different route to get clean: we break up the fruit by slicing, blending, scooping or grating it…
Some things, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons, go through a fermentation stage as well to break down the gelatinous sack surrounding the seed….
After they’ve fermented, we decant them by adding lots of water to the seeds and pulp mixture. Again, the good seeds are heavy and they sink, while the immature ones and the pulp are lighter and they float. We pour off the immature seeds and pulp and repeat until we get down to just pure, clean seeds at the bottom of the jar.
Then we pour the clean seeds onto plates to dry in the shade.
Once each grower has processed his/her seed crop into clean, dry seeds on their farms by following similar procedures, they bag them up and deliver them to Snake River Seed Co-op so they can be prepped for the upcoming seed season.
In the fall and into the winter, we intake seeds from all of our 17 farmers by weighing them, doing additional cleaning if needed, and backstocking them.
Then we start the process of germination testing to ensure the seed’s viability. We do this by arranging 50 seeds of each lot onto damp paper towels and then load them into 3-ring binders. We put the binders in the conditions right for each crop: hot crop binders go on a heat mat while cold crop binders stay in our seed room. After 2 weeks (or so) we count the seeds that have sprouted to determine their germination percentages.
After we’re sure the seeds are viable and germinate well, they are packed into glass jars, labeled, and put into our seed storage vault while they wait for the season’s first orders to start trickling in.
Once an order has been received, we individually pack the seeds into packets on-demand, to ensure you receive the highest quality, fresh and viable seeds every single time.
(Of course, designing and getting the packets printed is a whole process in and of itself, but that’s for another day…)
All of our seed packing is done by hand in old fashioned “packing parties” – no machines, conveyor belts or robots here! We stamp each packet with a lot number and pack date. Then we fill them with a specific teaspoon or tablespoon amount – depending upon the size of the seed and quantity per packet.
By the time a Snake River Seed Co-op seed packet has gotten into your hands, it has passed through a minimum of 12 times by doting seed stewards and seed packers.