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The proof is in the trials: A look at Osborne Seed Co.

Mar 10th, 2013 | Category: Community, Features, Growing

by Jessamyn Tuttle

When Chris and Wayne Osborne moved to the Skagit Valley in 1982, they intended from the start to work with seeds. “We both came from the seed business,” said Chris Osborne.  Wayne’s employer, an iceberg lettuce seed company, wasn’t interested in expanding their business in this region, so they decided to start their own. Osborne Seed Company was born. Originally located near Little Mountain, the company later moved to its current location on old Highway 99 in south Mount Vernon, which includes their offices, the seed warehouse, a small display garden and some trial fields.PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

After Wayne’s death in 1994, Chris Osborne carried on the business. “There were no women in the industry,” she said, which made it challenging to connect with customers, but her knowledge and persistence paid off. Osborne now employs 15-17 staff and offers a wide selection of seed selected to do well in the Pacific Northwest.

“Wayne’s background was in a variety of vegetables,” says Osborne. With its focus on large commercial crops of broccoli and cauliflower and little else at that time, Skagit Valley agriculture proved to be hard to break into. “It was hard to get the growers to send orders our way.” As they built business elsewhere in the northwest, they kept trying. “Eventually we had some breakthroughs,” she said. She began to test seeds for viability in the local climate, and growers began to listen to her. “Trials were the proof.”

Growing trials are the thing that really defines Osborne Seed. While they don’t develop or produce seed themselves, they do perform exhaustive trialing to test the characteristics of the varieties they sell. They perform most of their own trials on an acre on Fir Island. With each type of produce, the staff evaluates its performance, taste and storage qualities. But equally important are the trials that farmers do themselves, to see how seed performs on their land, in their particular microclimate. Ideally, Osborne Seed gets data back from farmers’ trials to add to their own information, so they choose their growers carefully. Sometimes the only feedback comes in the form of an order.

“I go out to growers and set up trials with them,” said Ada Crowl, who does sales and marketing for Osborne Seed. “I’ll talk to somebody for an hour…it will spark either a buy or a trial.” Her job involves a lot of working with growers on their own property. “It’s good to step onto their ground, learn new concepts.”

PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

“We try to find varieties that are adaptable,” says Osborne, looking for plants that grow as well in Oregon as on Vancouver Island. There’s a huge variety of growing conditions throughout the Northwest, but by tracking cold and disease tolerance, days to maturity, and other attributes, they can get a good idea of how a variety performs overall. Once they have identified promising varieties, they can trial them themselves, or approach the growers.

“We have a very unique growing area here in the northwest,” said Crowl, “we get seed from all over the world,” including vendors as close as Alf Christianson in Mount Vernon and as far away as Israel and Japan. With some of their vendors they are able to work very closely, in some cases being able to work directly with the plant breeders to develop new varieties. “Supplier relations are very, very important,” said Osborne. “Having access to breeders, it’s like the cream on the cake. We get to have input on the final product.”

The company doesn’t just sell to large-scale farmers. “We’re geared to commercial growers,” says Osborne, but after an initial reluctance to selling retail they eventually made their catalog available to the general public. Home gardeners may find the quantities of seed that Osborne sells daunting, but many customers will go in on a bag of seed together, or store a bag for repeated planting. Osborne’s seed is particularly high quality with a high germination rate for their commercial clients. For their own seed stock, they test germination regularly, and often find that it remains viable for several years.

There isn’t a retail store (although the office staff pride themselves on personal, informed service – “We’re all team players,” said Crowl.) The company puts out a glossy catalog and price list, and all seed is packaged to order in waterproof, resealable bags. The seed is handled as little as possible, and tracked carefully so that problems can be traced to specific lots. If seed bought by a grower fails to germinate at the promised rate, Osborne tracks the problem and replaces the seed immediately.

The growing interest of younger people returning to farming has benefited Osborne, as smaller growers are often looking for specialty vegetables to grow organically. “A lot of companies are either conventional or organic. We offer conventional treated and untreated, certified organic handled, no GMO,” said Crowl. They are careful to allow no cross-contamination, so organic growers can trust their product.

What sets Osborne apart is their connection with and dedication to farmers. “We’re offering varieties that are going to make them successful,” said Crowl. “We’re ensuring that what we’re offering is a good line of varieties.” A grower’s invite is held once a year during harvest, and has been a huge success. Farmers can come meet the Osborne staff as well as other growers, taste new varieties, and give feedback on what they’ve been growing. The event provides a sense of connection between farmers and vendors.

“It’s great to rub shoulders” said Crowl. “The sense of community and communication are really valuable to our growers.”

For more information about Osborne Seed Co., visit www.osborneseed.com/.

Published in the March 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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