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Local company produces homegrown seeds

Tucked away in a hillside community — an extension of City Heights perched over the 94 freeway — is one of San Diego’s more unusual businesses: a seed company. On a sprawling acre, replete with a couple of large metal storage sheds, a garage filled with seed processing machinery and a chicken coop with seven busy hens, Brijette Peña is in seed production, currently growing her winter crop: rows of cilantro, peas, lettuce and a special round red tomato variety for CSA (community-supported agriculture) and small-scale growers.

She’s also processing the remains of her summer eggplant and Swiss chard crops. The eggplants are impressively heavy and huge and have turned a yellowy orange. They’ll be cut open to extract the seeds from the core of the fruit. The chard flowers have browned and, yes, gone to seed. Peña pulls the seeds off the stems and runs them through a screen as part of the initial processing.

San Diego Seed Company sustainably produces local heirloom seeds (non-hybrid and non-GMO) based on what she grows and what her contract growers produce. She teams with them to grow plants that don’t work well in her microclimate — Vidalia onions, for example, and even carrots — and then she does the seed production. The seeds — vegetables, herbs and companion flowers, but no fruit — are sold to farmers, but home gardeners can purchase them online or at nurseries, including Grangetto’s, Walter Andersen, Mission Hills and City Farmers (a full list of retailers is on her website, www.sandiegoseedcompany.com). Peña also donates seeds to schools and Olivewood Gardens, as well as to Alzheimer’s San Diego for bereavement packages. And she’s collaborating with Duck Foot Brewing Company. Her cilantro seeds are being incorporated into a beer.

“I’m trying to make this a regionally specific seed company,” Peña explained. To that end, she has been collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance and local farmers. Large wholesale growers may offer seeds for plants we know and grow in Southern California, but the varieties may not be right for our climate.

And, Peña said, they don’t test the seeds the way she does. It can take her two years to produce an envelope filled with seeds for a new product. First, she starts and grows them — what she calls trialing — to evaluate their phenotypes, or characteristics. She monitors them for vigor, storage, flavor and pest resistance. Once they have passed her testing, she grows them for seeds. The “dry” plants — like the chard, lettuces and cilantro — are left to flower or, if they are “wet” — like tomatoes or eggplant — the resulting fruit is left to over ripen. Then the seeds are collected, processed and dried, their germination is tested, and then comes the process of preparing them for packaging.

In an ancient wood clipper she found in Kansas and a smaller one that’s considerably newer, Peña runs seeds through to clean them and separate them from debris. A fractionating aspirator that she built from online plans, and is powered by a shop vac, separates the good seeds from those without embryos that won’t produce, and, in a second pass, grades them by size.

Have you ever bought and planted seeds only to have little success? Nonproductive seeds may be the culprit. Not to mention seeds that simply weren’t meant to grow in our climate. San Diego Seed Company seeds are pricier than the seed packets you’ll find at box stores, but Peña says her process and attention to detail will offer a better yield for Southern California gardens.

The quarter acre she grows on has recently attained organic certification. It’s at the heart of her lifelong interest in agriculture — a gimme, given that she’s originally from Kansas, having moved to San Diego several years ago when she married her San Diego-native husband, Roger.

“I’ve always been into farming,” she said, pointing to an old hoe propped up in the garden that had belonged to her mother and grandfather. “In Kansas, agriculture is king. San Diego is a great environment for growing, but I found there were no resources for local seeds, particularly varieties for small spaces. So I decided to start this business. Gardening with seeds means you can get varieties you can’t always find in nurseries. And it’s more economical than buying plants.”

Understanding that seed starting can be daunting for novices, Peña has resources on her website as well as YouTube videos.

But she also gave me some tips to pass along.

1. Use good seed starting soil. It may also be called propagation mix and can be found at nurseries. The benefits, said Peña, are that the soil is sterile and is light, so it holds moisture well.

2. Keep the soil moist so the seeds can germinate.

3. The depth you plant your seed is important. It should be three times the width of the seed. San Diego Seed Company packets will also list the depth so you don’t have to figure it out. Peña uses six-pack containers commonly found in nurseries to plant seeds unless they are to be directly sowed (such as root vegetables).

4. Light is very important as well. How much will depend on the seeds, but, said Peña, the general rule of thumb is full sun.

5. Fertilizing comes when your little seedlings get their first set of true leaves. Peña recommends fish emulsion because the stinky liquid really gets into the soil. Once the seedlings get bigger, then it’s time to transplant. To get them out of their little containers try a gentle tug.

Finally, Peña encourages home gardeners to save their seeds and store them — not in a garage that can get very hot or very cold — but in a dry, dark, cool environment. A sock drawer, she said, is great. So is a pantry. Put the seed packets in a large jar with a layer of rice or kitty litter on the bottom to draw out any moisture. And pay attention to the expiration dates. Seed shelf life will decline over time. The viability depends on the type of seed. Onion and lettuce seeds don’t last long, but, surprisingly, tomato seeds, if stored in good conditions, can last 25 years, Peña said.

“We produce heirloom seeds because we want people to save seeds and be part of the food supply,” she says. “It’s only going to get hotter and dryer in San Diego so we need to have seeds that can adapt.”

Golden is a San Diego freelance writer.

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Local company specializes in what grows in our fertile stamping grounds

182-Organic Urban Seed Farming, with San Diego Seed Company

When you plant vegetable and flower seeds in your garden, do you ever think about where exactly those seeds came from? Could you even imagine certified-organic seeds being collected from a one-acre farm in the middle of the second-largest city in California? That’s exactly where my guest this week, seed grower and farmer Brijette Peña, trials, breeds and produces the Certified Organic seeds for her business, San Diego Seed Company.

In 2010, Brijette set out to supply Southern California and the Southwest at large with seeds that are adapted to grow best in the region’s unique climate. Not only does her San Diego Seed Company produce seeds, they also do all of their own cleaning, packaging and quality control before distributing directly to retailers.

Brijette Peña set out 10 years ago to supply seed adapted to the Southwest and founded San Diego Seed Company. (photo: Courtesy of San Diego Seed Company)

Brijette’s passion is growing food, and vegetable seeds make up the bulk of San Diego Seed Company’s inventory. She also loves to get others excited about seed saving and the prospect of creating something new, so she has made education and sharing best practices a major part of San Diego Seed Company’s mission.

She is originally from Kansas, where she says there was agriculture in every direction she looked. However, she had no connection to agriculture then. That changed when she moved to Southern California and became interested in food deserts and food security. She studied urban farming at San Diego City College and later earned a certificate in seed business from UC Davis.

The Surprise Benefits of Urban Seed Farming

San Diego Seed Company’s urban location — just four exits from downtown San Diego — enables Brijette to breed seeds with no worry of unwanted cross-pollination from nearby farms.

The location also made the arduous process of receiving California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) designation a bit easier. Her farm never had a commercial use before she bought the land, and there is no risk of drift from conventional farms that spray chemicals.

Becoming certified organic was really expensive for a start-up company with no financial backing and no loans, but Brijette says she can’t imagine skipping that step. Now, she proudly hangs a CCOF sign in the farm’s driveway.

San Diego is also a great place for producing seed because there are no late-season thunderstorms. Staying dry means mold doesn’t grow in the processed seed lots.

When San Diego Seed Company was just getting started, no one else was producing seed in the area. But now, she uses local contract growers to produce seed for the varieties she has bred. In an area where both land and water are expensive, growing seed allows farmers to diversify their business, she says.

Another side benefit is that — because her farm’s only in the business of seed production — Brijette, her husband, Roger, and her staff get to eat any extra produce left over from seed trials.

San Diego Seed Company’s urban location enables Brijette to breed seeds with no worry of unwanted cross-pollination from nearby farms or herbicide drift. (photo: Criselda Yee Photography)

Breeding Seeds And Selecting Desirable Traits

Fall is a peak time for seed trials on the farm. They have 15 varieties of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower growing right now to see which ones will perform best in Southern California. Choosing the most prolific varieties, just like our great-great-grandfathers did before us, breeds a crop to be acclimated to our local conditions, Brijette says. In the case of the Southwest, the conditions are hot with very dry winters.

For example: San Diego Seed Company has produced a black beauty eggplant that, through years of breeding, is now suited to the Southwest environment and takes advantage of the region’s long growing season. By contrast, Northeast black beauty eggplant seeds are adapted for a short season between the last frost date and a first frost date.

You don’t need to have a master’s degree in genetics to become a breeder, Brijette advises. You just need to be very observant. “Listen” to the plant and find out what it’s telling you, she says. Brijette takes copious notes and has files and files of information on seed varieties.

A seed company focused more on marketing to farmers is looking for traits like uniformity, productivity and durable skin. What Brijette seeks are plants that do well in a really small space, are resistant to common Southwest plant diseases and have great flavor.

Brijette seeks plants that do well in a really small space, are resistant to common Southwest plant diseases and have great flavor. (photo: Courtesy of San Diego Seed Company)

That’s one of the reasons heirloom tomatoes have taken off in popularity, she points out. Home gardeners care more about flavor and beautiful colors than durability and getting many tomatoes in a short window.

For each of her company’s breeding projects, a goal is set beforehand to avoid being pulled in different directions. In the last four seasons, they dedicated time and energy into breeding plants with resistance to powdery mildew , considering what a problem this fungal disease is for gardeners in their region trying to grow tomatoes and cucurbits.

After taking input from Southwest farmers on what they have success growing, San Diego Seed Company is now trialing Kajari melon, a striped green and cream Indian melon that is naturally very resistant to powdery mildew and outperforms many other melons. They are in the multi-year process of growing out the melon for seed and, if the melon adapts into something unique for the region, the result could be bestowed with a new name to set it apart.

When selecting a plant to save seeds from for a desired trait, a seed saver must consider the whole plant, not just one fruit. Take, for example, selecting for size. Brijette explains that if a tomato plant has one big tomato growing on it and one small one, that big tomato does not have the “super genetics” that you need.

The seeds in both the large tomato and the small tomato on the same plant are identical. Instead of looking for the one largest tomato, look for the tomato plant with an abundance of large tomatoes.

To trial for taste, San Diego Seed Company measures the sugar content (Brix), the sweetness, the acidity and the balance, and notes if the texture is squishy or slimy.

Sometimes one plant might outperform another because of environmental conditions rather than genetics. If seed selectors fail to recognize subtle environmental differences — like soil quality and hours of direct sunlight — they may get the wrong message from the plants.

To trial tomatoes for taste, San Diego Seed Company measures the sugar content (Brix), the sweetness, the acidity and the balance, and notes if the texture is squishy or slimy. (photo: Courtesy of San Diego Seed Company)

The Seed Boom and Shopping Small

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, seeds and other gardening supplies became hard to come by. For regional seed companies, that meant an unprecedented boom in business. San Diego Seed Company has scaled up from just Brijette and her husband to a team of eight.

She runs the company out of her home, which has seeds everywhere in every room, she says. A quarter of their seeds are packaged using a ballard, which is a seed packing machine that is fun to watch at work. The rest are measured out using scales and spoons. That’s why San Diego Seed Company doesn’t put a seed count on its packages: someone might get one extra or one less bean in their seed pack.

A pack of certified organic seed from a small company may cost $4 — as opposed to $2 for seeds off a rack at a big box store — but that $4 is the best investment you can make for your garden. That’s because it gets you more than just seed. Small seed companies like Brijette’s offer growing advice that is specific to your area on their websites and even answer emails and take phone calls. It’s the kind of service that the biggest companies just don’t offer.

San Diego Seed Company even offers a calendar annually with the local schedule for seed starting, initial planting and succession planting.

In the spirit of a small business, Brijette and Roger sort, measure, package and ship seeds out of their home. (photo: Criselda Yee Photography)

Regional Seed Companies For Every Region

It used to be the norm to have regional seed companies all around the United States. But then in the 1950s and ’60s, big seed companies bought them all up and reduced the offerings.

Instead of having 30 varieties of corn that do really well in a certain region, it made more economic sense for big companies to offer just five varieties that can grow across the United States. This led to a loss of diversity in what gardeners and farmers could grow.

Now, Brijette says, we are seeing the reverse happening. Great new seed companies have arisen that are a powerful part of the industry. She also shares that small seed growers are some of the nicest, most generous people, who are happy to share their secrets to success rather than keeping their proprietary information close to the vest.

Brijette names a few of the regional seed companies those growers outside of the Southwest should check out:

  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a cooperatively owned seed company that specializes in heirloom seeds and other open-pollinated seeds with an emphasis on vegetables, flowers, and herbs that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic region.
  • Fruition Seeds in Upstate New York is a Northeast seed company with 400-plus varieties adapted for a cold, short season.
  • Redwood Seeds provides organic heirloom and open-pollinated varieties for the Northwest. Their catalog has 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and grains, all produced in California.

For a more comprehensive view, Brijette recommends checking out Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s list of “tiny seed companies .”

Brijette says the most rewarding thing about having a seed company is seeing the light in the eyes of someone who grew her seeds with the help of her classes and educational resources. She is also celebrating that, as more people spend time in their gardens of late, they are becoming more connected with their food.

Brijette says the most rewarding thing about having a seed company is seeing the light in the eyes of someone who grew her seeds with the help of her classes and educational resources. (photo: Courtesy of San Diego Seed Company)

If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Brijette Peña yet, you can do so by scrolling up the page and hitting the play button in the green bar.

Do you buy seeds from regional seed companies? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™ : Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting : Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.

San Diego Seed Company owner, Brijette Peña trials, breeds and produces regionally adapted certified organic seeds on a one-acre urban farm.