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Petra Page-Mann (Matt Kelly)

Selling the seeds of change

A UU-founded company is on a mission to reclaim our seed heritage.
By Nicole Sweeney Etter
Fall 2014 8.15.14

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Growing up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Petra Page-Mann helped tend her father’s garden, with its abundant array of greens, beans, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, basil, and more. She remembers tipping over the family’s wine barrel of potatoes at the end of summer, watching the season’s bounty spill out, and splitting open bean pods to stash away seeds for the next year’s garden.

“I first got interested in seeds without even realizing it,” she says. “Seed saving wasn’t a focal point in my father’s garden, but it was something we did every year. It became a rhythm and cycle that I took for granted.”

But Page-Mann rediscovered the joys of seed saving in her 20s, and it has since become her life’s work. She and her partner, Matthew Goldfarb, founded Fruition Seeds, a company that provides certified organic, open-pollinated seed that is especially adapted to thrive in the Northeast. Since launching in 2012, Fruition Seeds has grown to include 150-plus seed crops on eight acres in the Finger Lakes region, and the company collaborates with nine certified organic farmers in the area.

Revitalizing regional seed networks is one of Page-Mann’s passions. While Fruition Seeds receives orders from across the country, roughly 80 percent of its customers come from the Northeast. “By focusing more regionally we are a model for other seed companies and food systems to cultivate resilience at the genetic level,” she says.

Page-Mann, 30, is a lifelong UU. Her parents were founding members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua in New York, the same church Page-Mann and Goldfarb attend today. There’s no doubt that her UU upbringing influenced her professional path, Page-Mann says.

“The permission to explore my life and my faith with the freedom that Unitarian Universalism offers gave me a deep, strong network as well as a place to bring my dreams to fruition,” she says.

The diversity embraced by UUs also reminds her of the diversity of the plant world.

“The correlation between seeds and faith is so rich in my imagination,” she says. “I love how Unitarian Universalism celebrates the wisdom of different faith traditions, and wisdom from the world’s seed traditions offers all we eat today. Cilantro from the Mediterranean and tomatoes from Mesoamerica, they’re in our salsa and in our garden, and I just love how food and faith celebrate these stories—it sends shivers down my spine. And Unitarian Universalism beautifully melds all of these world flavors as well to nourish our minds, bodies, and spirits.”

Now Page-Mann is on a mission to reclaim what she calls “our seed heritage.” “Human beings have been saving seeds for 12,000 years and then some,” she says, “so each seed is the embodiment of this epic journey between people and plants. The fact that we started saving seeds is why we have civilization. The world is a profoundly different place because of it. And each seed is this self-replicating universe. You can get thousands of seeds from one seed. That infinite replication paired with immense history and cultural heritage—it’s a legacy more rich and expansive than anything else I can think of.”

But around 150 years ago, things began to change. Seeds became a commodity, something that could be bought, sold, and mass-produced. Farmers used to use open-pollinated seeds, which could be saved from year to year. But then F1 hybrids became popular. F1 seeds ensure uniformity for the first generation, which is appealing to farmers, but the second-generation plants don’t resemble the parents at all. Heirloom plants come from open-pollinated seeds, which is what Fruition Seeds sells.

“It turned seed from this incredibly replicating phenomenon to this total commodity, one-size-fits-all input that farmers had to buy every single year,” Page-Mann says. “And once you stop saving seeds, it’s really hard to start again, and in the course of a single generation, so much wisdom is lost.” In fact, the world has lost about 75 percent of its plant diversity since the 1900s, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Today, just a few multinational companies sell more than 60 percent of the seeds on the market, Page-Mann says. Then, of course, there are the controversies around genetically modified organisms and the movement to protect seeds as intellectual property.

But Page-Mann is undeterred. She likes to quote Buckminster Fuller, one of her favorite UUs: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Page-Mann’s entrée into farming was almost accidental. After high school, she joined AmeriCorps and began a series of adventures that took her to a new place every ten weeks, including to a farm in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. She later spent six months in Central America, where she volunteered on farms and in national parks. By the time she was 20, she was working on farms full time. She then transitioned to seed companies, working first for a tiny company in Oregon and then for one of the world’s largest seed companies near her hometown in upstate New York, where she worked in the trial gardens.

“I loved having insights into that world,” says Page-Mann, who is working on her bachelor’s degree in ecological agriculture. “It gave me a greater appreciation and a greater vocabulary for understanding the spectrum of seed, and my former coworkers and supervisors are really important people and mentors in my life.”

One night she met Goldfarb while out dancing, and the two had barely introduced themselves before they were chatting about seeds. “I have been farming since 1994 and always been inspired by work that simultaneously met my basic needs, nourished my spirit, and contributed to the common good,” says Goldfarb, 38, who has conducted small-farms research at Cornell University, consulted with farms and farm-education organizations, and taught high school biology and agriculture.

Eventually the couple decided to start their own seed business. “It felt like a natural extension of my agricultural arch with a sense of urgency to be part of solutions to the seed crisis,” Goldfarb says.

In 2013, they launched a Kickstarter campaign that quickly exceeded its $25,000 goal, allowing them to purchase needed equipment and complete their seed warehouse.

“It was tremendous affirmation that what we’re doing in the world is really important and that we as a community, as a nation, and as a world, are ready to come back into our own, recognizing that food starts as seed, and that seed is a sacred thing,” Page-Mann says.

All the work of harvesting, packaging, selling, and marketing millions of seeds is handled by just Page-Mann, Goldfarb, one employee, and two interns. Local organic farmers also play a pivotal role in what Page-Mann calls “Custom Collaboration,” a new model of seed production developed by Fruition Seeds. Partner farmers identify crops to produce in collaboration with Fruition Seeds, customizing the seed to their operation’s soils, equipment, and market. The farmers plant and cultivate the crops before Fruition Seeds selects, harvests, cleans, and tests the seeds from the farmers’ fields. Selection is an important part of the process: out of 10,000 watermelon radish roots, Fruition Seeds might save the 400 best. The farmers receive a portion of seeds hyper-adapted to their fields, while the remainder is sold to Fruition Seed’s customers.

“Custom Collaboration increases access to high-quality organic seed, it increases diversity of organic, regionally adapted seeds, and it plays to everyone’s strengths,” Page-Mann says.

Nathaniel Thompson of Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, New York, says he’s appreciated the partnership. He had long been interested in seed production but could never find the time to incorporate it into his work until Fruition Seeds stepped in to help. “As a biodynamic farmer I am trying to develop a farm system that is self-contained and self-supporting,” he says. “I consider seed production to be an essential piece in that development.”

There have been other benefits, too. Fruition Seeds grew 7,000 pounds of organic winter squash last year and partnered with a local food bank in Rochester, so that the food bank could use the squash while Fruition Seeds retained the seeds.

Page-Mann is most proud of the community that has grown out of their fledgling company. “I’m so proud that there are so many people that are coming together to sow seed, to eat well and to live well, being the change we want to see in the world.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of UU World (page 6). Photograph (above): Petra Page-Mann, co-founder of Fruition Seeds, wants to change the way people think about and use seeds (© Matt Kelly). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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