CLINTON, Maine — The 1954 book, “Living the Good Life,” was written by Scott and Helen Nearing, who moved from Vermont to Maine, aspiring to live a simple life. They inspired several generations of “back-to-the-land” pilgrims to leave the modern, urban lifestyle, and move to Maine to reconnect with the land.
In 1974, four years before C.R. Lawn founded Fedco Seeds, there were fewer than 6,500 working farms in Maine. Lawn, who was part of the back-to-the-land movement, founded the Clinton-based seed-packing cooperative as a way to respond to the food problems of the 1970s.
“When it started, it was a very small company,” said Gene Frey, who does Fedco’s catalog production and warehouse management, and began working with Fedco in 1979. “It was basically trying to provide a resource for food co-ops in the state. In fact, only food co-ops were allowed to order from the catalog. This project was started as part of that (historic) background.”
In its first year, the one-page mail-order catalog brought in about $10,000 in customer orders, said Frey, who plans to retire within the next few years. The next year, the company realized about $27,000 from customer orders. Each year, the unadorned, black-and-white printed catalog offered more seeds for sale.
John Bunker, often referred to as Maine’s “apple whisperer,” became interested in heritage apple varieties, and began working with Fedco Seeds in the early 1980s. Bunker had already started his own heritage apple tree catalog and approached Fedco, asking the company to take over the tree catalog business.
So, in 1983, the Fedco Trees division was established. Fall bulbs were added in 1984. In 1985, Fedco picked up potatoes from Tom Roberts and, in 1988, Fedco took over the operation of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Organic Grower Supply order business.
From a total of 98 customer orders in its first year, Fedco now has customers from all 50 U.S. states and Canada, as well as a small number from Europe, according to Alice Coyle, who manages Fedco’s communications and marketing. After 41 years, its annual earnings from more than 34,000 orders is estimated at around $4 million.
“The very first list had 81 items — mostly vegetables, about nine or 10 herbs, and gallons of liquid seaweed, but no flowers,” Frey said. “The first list wasn’t even really a catalog. All it was, was a price book. It was published in an in-house, food co-ops’ newspaper, called Cultivator.”
Frey said the company’s strategy was “to capitalize on the price differential between what you could buy the seeds and bulbs for, versus what you could sell packaged, and offer a significant discount to what people could buy through other seed catalogs.”
In the beginning, the majority of the customers were home gardeners.
“Within a couple years, we got involved with MOFGA,” Frey said. “After that, we brought in a bunch of MOFGA chapters and some of their farmers started ordering from us. At the time, we were intentionally self-limiting the size of the company — we were just looking to meet a need. None of us, at that point, was even interested in looking for full-time work.”
Coyle said that the majority of Fedco’s business is focused in the northeastern U.S., with the bulk of business following the northern Appalachian tier, because the products are geared to the climate. She said that the company is small enough that it isn’t in direct competition with big, corporate companies.
“Our model is based on repacking, mostly,” she said. “We’re capitalizing on marketing items that are only available in large quantities, by making them available to people who only need small quantities.”
Fedco has between 100 and 150 certified organic seed suppliers, Coyle said. The majority of Fedco employees are farmers. Some, including Frey, grow and harvest seed that they sell to the company. The trees, bulbs and organic materials come from other suppliers, most located in Maine.
“It’s a mixed bag of suppliers,” Frey said. “I think John (Bunker) specifically set out to build a network of growers. Most of our seed potatoes are coming from Maine, Colorado, a little bit from New York, and sometimes from West Virginia. For the organic material suppliers warehouse, we’re buying directly from manufacturers, and other items we’re buying through larger-scale distributors.”
Coyle said new products are chosen from customer trends. Through trade literature, online research articles and following items in the popular press about interest in imported species or from hybrids, new products are added to the catalog’s offerings.
“Ginger became a big thing for us a few years ago as people started experimenting with growing that up here,” Coyle said. “We are also part of the grain renaissance in Maine”
“And, honestly, in this warehouse, the big boom is in cannabis-growing supplies,” Coyle added. “It wasn’t a big deal for us before it got legalized, because we weren’t selling anything. We don’t sell plants, we don’t sell cannabis seeds. But, we will probably be getting into it soon (after legislators have adopted regulations for commercial sales of recreational marijuana). We’re just selling fertilizer, because a lot of cannabis has to be grown organically.”
Fedco is a signatory of the “Safe Seed Pledge,” Coyle said. “That means that we don’t knowingly traffic in genetically modified seed. We actually go so far as to avoid some suppliers who are engaged in genetic modification. But, we do buy from some of them — but not from the bad players like Monsanto.”
Of the 1,050 seed products sold by Fedco, about 350 are certified organic, Frey said. About two-thirds of all the grain and cover crop seeds are organic.
Lawn founded the company to be worker/consumer-owned, Frey said. That means worker members own 40 percent of the cooperative and the consumers own 60 percent. For consumers, this relationship translates into small discounts on all orders, and a say in the operational bylaws of the company. The company focuses on equity, which prevents wage extremes between high and low pay.
For more information on Fedco Seeds, visit www.fedcoseeds.com.