Selling seeds. A business that knows no borders

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Premium Crop broccoli has been one of Burpee Seed Company's best sellers ever since it was introduced and for good reason: It produces consistently good heads in US gardens from Maine to Mexico. But this year quite a few American gardeners went sour on this particular vegetable. The reason: Despite its Anglo-Saxon name, Premium Crop is largely a product of Japan.

This year a federal requirement to list the country of origin on all newly printed seed packets became law and it was obvious that Burpee's Premium Crop was not as thoroughly American as it had appeared. This fact didn't sit well with folks who felt that Japan was enjoying too good a trade balance with the United States as it is. They had believed that by buying from a US company they would be buying only American-grown seeds.

In point of fact, the garden seed industry is perhaps the most international of any in the world. US seed companies do sell many American-grown seeds simply because the US is a major seed-producing nation. But they will readily sell foreign-grown seed (sometime from farms they own and operate overseas) as well. As Rob Johnstone of Johnny's Selected Seeds, a medium-sized Maine-based company, puts it: ``Anyone who is anything in the seed industry will get the very best seeds for his customers from wher ever he has to get them.''

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Overseas seed companies adopt exactly the same policy. The English grow some of the most exquisite sweet peas you will find anywhere in the world. Their climate is ideal for flower production -- but not for top-quality seed production. California and Oregon growers have the climate that gives them the edge. So while some of the best sweet peas in the world flower where ``God Save the Queen'' is played, they were born, so to speak, to the tune of ``God Bless America.'' Burpee, in fact, is a major grower of sweet-pea seeds and the bulk of their crop is exported to Britain. The point to be made out of all this is that patriotism is misplaced when it comes to gardens and gardening.

While several companies dealing with the public grow some of their own seeds, no company grows all of the seeds it sells. A majority are largely seed brokers. But all companies worth their salt do run extensive trial grounds where they test varieties, selecting those that best meet the demands and needs of the markets they serve.

The Japanese, with a horticultural tradition that goes back thousands of years, are among the world's leading plant breeders. They developed Premium Crop broccoli, a variety so good that it is popular around the globe.

But while the Japanese are major breeders, they are not one of the world's bigger seed producers. Their land-short situation sees to that. So Japanese wholesalers have their select strains multiplied by major seed growers in other parts of the world, many of them in the US.

For example, much of the Japanese-supplied Premium Crop broccoli is grown to seed in California, shipped back to Japan where it is tested and graded, and then sent to seed companies around the world, Burpee seeds included.

So while the Burpee seed packet might indicate that their broccoli is a product of Japan, the seeds may well have been grown somewhere in California -- which indicates still further how misplaced national patriotism can be in the seed business.

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