SEEDS (ORGANIC), DEVON: Ronja runs an organic seed company with her business partner Fred in South Devon. She grows vegetable, herb and flower seeds on about one acre (0.4 hectare) of land, which includes both a polytunnel and some field space to grow seeds in the lowest impact and most ecological way possible. The company sells about 200 varieties, but the list is ever growing as they continually trial new cultivars.
Ronja comes from a non-farming background in Germany and studied agricultural science at university before working on a number of different farms and growing projects in Europe and the UK. Concerned by the lack of availability of UK-grown organic and open-pollinated seed, she and Fred set up Vital Seeds in 2018. The company was initially based on Dartmoor, then moved into a converted barn and started renting a field at Baddaford Farm in South Devon near Buckfastleigh in 2019. Today Vital Seeds is one of a grouping of small businesses that make up the 'Baddaford collective', run by Guy Singh Watson, founder of Riverford, an organic farm and veg box scheme, and his wife Geetie, ethical entrepreneur and owner of the organic pub The Bull in Totnes.
Plants are grown for their seed at Baddaford and by a handful of partner growers across the South West. All varieties are 'open-pollinated' which means they're bred using traditional methods, with each generation similar to the previous one (in contrast to F1 hybrids which you can't save good seed from). To prevent cross-pollination between crops, plants of the same variety need to be isolated from other plants of a different variety but of the same species. All seeds are certified organic and are grown without the use of chemical herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.
Harvesting and processing are a big part of the business as almost everything is done by hand. Once the seeds are cleaned, they are placed into small packets and sold via the website to home gardeners and small-scale growers, and to selected shops around the country. Seeds are germination tested once or twice a year to ensure they are top quality.
Best sellers include 'Gardener's Delight' cherry tomatoes, 'Marketmore' cucumbers, and 'Black Beauty' courgettes. Vegetable novelties include 'Fiolaro di Creazzo' broccoli (a leaf broccoli), 'Cime di rapa' (sprouting turnip), and 'Mango Lassi' cherry tomato that Ronja and Fred bred for its fine flavour. Novel floral offerings include Helichrysum 'Salmon Rose', Zinnia 'Zinderella Peach', and Calendula 'Triangle Flashback/Zeolights'.
In time Vital Seeds would like to produce all the seeds in their catalogue. At present it is around 40 per cent of them (in collaboration with their network of growers). The remainder are imported from certified organic and biodynamic seed suppliers. Ronja admits that self-sufficiency will take time to achieve due to the infrastructure, space and time that is needed to produce top quality seed in our rain-prone climate but is a priority in Vital Seeds' long term vision.
To help British gardeners and growers save their own seed, Vital Seeds offers an online seed saving course, plus occasional in-person workshops.
Ronja enjoys playing her flute with a local folk band, and practices martial arts.
Most seed used in horticulture is produced many thousands of miles away in countries with a drier climate and cheaper labour. And, partly due to Brexit, it’s getting increasingly hard to get hold of, especially in the case of tomato and pepper seed. Another problem with using imported seeds is that they will be unable to adapt to our specific climatic conditions over time, says Ronja. “It also means that we do not have control over this vital element of our food system, which I believe is very important. In the last 100 years we have lost 90% of the diversity in our food crops globally, mainly due to the industrialization of the food system and wide-spread use of proprietary F1 hybrid varieties. Our seeds are open-pollinated so you can save your own seed from them year after year. I’d like to see more seeds being grown sustainably on small-scale UK farms to build diversity, save on carbon-emitting transport, and make the industry more resilient. A silver lining to Brexit could be that it’s forced us to up our home-grown production. Seed sovereignty is vitally important.”
Member of the Land Workers Alliance and South West Seed Savers.
Regional TV, national radio, national and regional magazines, including House & Garden.