A company rooted in American history refuses to wither away
September 19th, 2011
09:30 AM ET
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Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell are the owners of Beekman 1802. Take a peek at life on their farm at beekman1802.com

When we first bought Beekman 1802 Farm, the only heirloom vegetables we’d ever heard of were heirloom tomatoes. But a welcome-wagon meeting with one of our neighbors changed all of that. Half-a-mile down the road from us lived the owners of Landreth Seed Company, and we soon learned that every kind of vegetable seed carries with it a little bit of history.

Before long our vegetable garden was sprouting with over 100 different varieties of heirloom seeds – peas, beans, lettuce, carrots, cabbages, and nearly any other kind of vegetable you’ve ever tried. Or haven’t tried.

There’s no set definition of what makes a seed “heirloom.” Some claim it’s the age of origin. Others insist that that the seeds must have been passed down through generations of a family. But nearly all gardeners agree that to even be considered for heirloom status, seeds must be open-pollinated – not commercial hybrids or genetically modified variants.

Heirloom seeds carry the story of America with them. Many were brought to this country by immigrants who could not bring many belongings along on their cramped ocean crossings. Tiny seeds could be tucked in pockets, and carried the most potent memories of their homeland: the cuisine.

When our neighbor’s company, Landreth Seeds, was founded, all seeds were “heirloom.” It is the oldest seed house in America, and the fourth oldest corporation of any kind in the USA. Founded in 1784, Landreth has provided seeds for every U.S. President from George Washington to FDR (yes, Presidents used to grow things themselves). And as our country grew, so did Landreth. By the mid-19th century, Landreth was distributing a seed catalog to every single household in America.

When Barbara and Peter Melera purchased Landreth eight years ago, it was barely recognizable as the powerhouse it had once been. With hard work and dedication, they trekked around the country to garden shows and fairs. They rescued valuable dwindling seed stocks from the dusty corners of the neglected warehouse.

But like many companies, the recession has hit Landreth hard. Recently, we logged into our e-mail to find a disturbing message from our neighbors stating that if Landreth didn’t raise enough operating capital within 30 days, 2011 would be their last growing season. After 227 years of continuous operation, Landreth Seed Company would see its remaining assets harvested by lawyers and bankers.

“For 8 years, Landreth has tried, unsuccessfully, to raise equity capital from financial institutions, wealthy individuals, cashed-out entrepreneurs, foundations and agricultural corporations,” Barbara Melera says. In this age of factory farms and genetically modified produce, they haven’t had any luck.

While chefs and food enthusiasts have made the surprising and diverse flavors of heirloom vegetables popular, there still is not the wide-scale demand necessary for large farms to switch from cultivating cheaper, commercially hybridized varieties. Which is why it’s still virtually impossible to find a tomato that tastes like a tomato in your local supermarket.

However, like the great American company that Landreth is, it isn’t going to fade away without a fight.

“Its become obvious that the only way Landreth will get out of this dilemma is the old fashioned way,” Barbara Melera says. “We have to sell our way out. There are 84 million gardening households in this country. We need 1/84th or less than two percent of all the gardeners in America to purchase a catalog from us to make this goal.”

That’s one million catalogs. If they can sell that amount before September 30th, they’ll raise enough funds to stay in business.

The rush has started. Garden bloggers across the internet have been called to arms. The initial response has been heartening. Seed-lovers can’t bear to watch the oldest piece of American gardening history fade away. The first weekend after the Meleras' personal e-mail plea, Landreth’s website was swamped. They’ve since increased the bandwidth to handle the volume.

But a million catalogs is a lot of sell. “There is no question that meeting this goal will be a great challenge,” Barbara says. “There is also no question that only in America would it be possible to achieve.”

Editor's note: Our Managing Editor is a friend and neighbor of Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell and has appeared several time on their TV show "The Fabulous Beekman Boys."

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. matt

    i bought a catalog simply because it's an American company...its nice to get something that is made in / produced in America. Hopefully after baby is a little older my wife and I can get our garden going!!

    September 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Sun

      If the weather is nice, take that baby out in the garden with you! Teaching your child how to grow food is one of the best things you will ever do for them.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  2. John McDowell

    Bought a catalog and posted the article. Good luck to you. I hope to be able to buy some of your heirloom seeds for the spring.

    September 19, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  3. Appleseed Farm

    This is wonderful we will be purchasing a catalog!!! We are 4 generations of women making our family farm pay for itself by the love of gardening and our famous pie filling Pour A Pie!!!! Us small business's need to stick together as well in these trying times!! Good luck at makeing your goal and hope your here for my children to buy from ya all!!!

    September 19, 2011 at 5:30 pm |

    Good Luck !!! Heirlooms are Really Cool :-)

    September 19, 2011 at 5:10 am |
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