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Behind the Scenes: Who's Growing How Much of Which Crops This Year...Whew!

Planning who will grow what each year for the Co-op is a big, unruly bubble of a task filled with thousands of tiny details. Over the years of running this business I would come to learn the term "real" business people use: inventory management. But that doesn't mean I had any idea how to do it well, and I still don't.

For each of the hundreds of varieties under our stewardship, we have to figure out how much seed we have in our "treasure chest," how much we're likely to sell or otherwise use in the coming season, how long the seeds will likely remain viable, whether the crop is an annual or biennial, which grower has dibs to grow the variety and what their capacity and interest is for the season, whether we need an additional grower or two for the crop, how much seed we want each grower to try to produce, how many plants or row feet of plants they'd likely need to plant to get the amount of seed we're requesting, and all while taking into account that as a business we're growing every year.

Those of you who know me know I'm long on big picture inspiration and woefully short on detail orientation. I usually tend toward talking about the beauty, culture, romance, and resilience of the seeds we work side by side with. But this year as I'm transitioning more of the parts of the business I suck at over to some brilliant employees with complimentary skillsets, I'm watching this crucial process become so much more efficient, elegant, and streamlined in their capable hands that I feel like that part of the story is worth highlighting as well.  

This year's planning process is a joy to watch from just a few steps outside the heart of it. Where I used to have anxiety attacks trying to keep it all straight while detail after detail slipped through the cracks, the dynamic duo of Reiley and Christina make it look relatively easy.

Reiley the Spreadsheet Queen has for two years been designing, tweaking and perfecting her beloved Master Spreadsheet, which tracks the amount of seed each grower puts into the Co-op for each seed lot, how much of it left the treasure chest in a year, an estimated 2-year supply of seeds, a ranking of whether we can offer it in bulk, and all sorts of other nifty things including how much the grower gets paid for the crop. Her spreadsheet is so lovely, in fact, that this week she's traveling to the Mountain West Seed Summit to present a workshop for other small seed companies on how they can design one for their projects. From that, she can provide a list of what varieties we need to grow this year to replenish our seed stock, in order of priority and with recommendations to add a second grower for the crop if we're running quite low.

As an aside, this is where our seed Co-op differs from larger seed companies. We are committed to working directly with Intermountain West farmers to build our regional seedshed. At a conference last year I listened to the owner of a prominent East coast seed company that supplies seeds to most of the country's market farmers brag about how he tries to keep only one year of inventory of a variety on hand so his customers can "get the freshest seed." This is great, if you can just call up an international network of suppliers and distributors and re-order whenever you're running low on something. Just because you just bought it doesn't mean it was just grown. It just means the distributor has been holding the seed so you don't have to, and you also don't have to pay for it until you can also sell it.

In contrast, we never buy seed from third party suppliers, and we never buy it from outside our bioregion. So we're acting a little like a bioregional seed bank even as we try to run a viable business based on the flow of seeds from farmers to gardeners. It is the best thing for our bioregion's seed security to always keep extra on hand, just in case.

But I digress. After Reiley and her magical spreadsheet have figured out which varieties need to be grown out this year, the list moves to Christina's capable hands, where she begins the cat herding of independent-streaked farmers into a cohesive plan of who's growing what. The grower who initially introduced the variety to the Co-op gets first dibs on growing it again, and if they turn it down, it goes on the up-for-grabs list alongside the other varieties we need additional growers for. After a back-and-forth that can be slick as rain on a goose or cumbersome as, well, dealing with a farmer who is disinclined to check their email, eventually we settle into a plan for the season.

Seed folk are generally fascinating, and several of our Co-op growers keep this thing from becoming too robotic and capitalist by all sorts of quirks that keep us laughing in the office, like refusing to tell us their real names, accepting payments only in silver dimes or not at all, like Joseph here, and eschewing all technology so communication is only by snail mail delivered letter. These folks add a depth of character to the project that will keep it lively and rooted in our increasingly homogeneous modern urban world.

Seeing the plan come together this year is such a pleasure for me. I'm watching slightly removed as women with perfect fit skillsets navigate the little project Carrie and I started into a bona fide community resource that suppots farmers, gardeners, and our bioregion's seed sovereignty. I couldn't be happier with where we're at. Thank you all--you're doing a fantastic job!