Rant: In the seed catalog, you point out that "The folks who had their assets in Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros., or Fannie Mae aren’t feeling too good right now," and recommend that everybody diversify. I can’t say it’s done much for my retirement
account, but that strategy always made sense to me in the
vegetable garden. That way, something always thrives, no matter what
nature throws at you.
CR Lawn: Maine can have some tough years, like this last wet
summer. Yet there are years when you get great melons. Even
professionals struggle sometimes. We have years when our eggplant
trialer can’t get any eggplants. Sometimes, your tomato plants get
purple leaves from too little phosphorous when there is enough
phosphorous in the soil. But because conditions are so wet, they can’t
take it up. In the long run, your work is rewarded if you pay
attention to details. In the short run, you never know. You can buffer
against the weather, but you’re not going to have 100% of your crops
look like the pictures in seed catalogs. After 30 years, I’m still
falling short of that.
Rant: You guys are really good writers.
CR Lawn: We have a lot of fun putting the catalog together,
and a number of us are would-be New Yorker writers, fussy about
language. Six weeks before the catalog goes out, I’ve read it over
so many times, I can’t bear to look at it again.
Rant: I read a speech of yours where you advocate seed-saving. Are you trying to put yourself out of business?
CR Lawn: I guess the parallel was when Marx talked about the
withering away of the state. It would be amazing, however, if there
were no seed companies. Until 200 years ago, there were none. The best
varieties were the products of generations of farmers.
If you save your own seeds from the best plants, you are actually
breeding plants that are better adapted to your own place than anything
you can buy. And this can happen very quickly, in as little as two or
There is starting to be a small group of farmers now that are getting
interested in saving seeds, and some of them are selecting to try to
improve the varieties. One market vegetable grower in Maryland wanted to make his
vegetables more cold-hardy, so he could sell them year-round. Now he
sells seed to us.
Rant: This year’s catalog says that Amplissimo
Viktoria is not available due to crop failure. I’m kind of bitter
about that. Can you explain?
CR Lawn: It’s harder to grow
seeds than to grow the crop. There’s an extra month or six weeks
before harvest, and sometimes there’s bad weather in fall. Sometimes deer eat the crop. With small-scale homegrown crops, there is probably
a 20% failure rate overall. Plus, we still need
more growers, too. Supply is not keeping up with demand.
Rant: Burpee reported a 40% rise in vegetable and herb seeds and plants last season. Did you experience rising sales too?
CR Lawn: We had a big year in 2008, with seed sales up around
25%. I think people were sensing that the economy was going bad.
People want to have more control. Maybe the silver lining here is that
there will be more self-reliance and less dependence on great big