Seed cooperative grows in a regional-by-design niche

Snake River Seed Cooperative is bigger than its compact spread in a northwest Boise neighborhood might indicate.

Founder and self-proclaimed “seed freak” Casey O’Leary likes it that way. But she describes the organization’s recent growth enthusiastically.

“A lot of people are becoming interested in where their seeds come from,” she said. A growing contingent wants to learn about saving seeds, the subject of an instructional booklet Snake River sells.

Snake River Seed Cooperative, now in its fifth year, is adding to its grower base while increasing the number of seed varieties it has available. The volume of sales to end-user customers also is rising.

As the world’s seed industry consolidates, “more people are waking up to the idea that it is scary to have your food security in the hands of a handful of corporations,” O’Leary said. “So the demand for ‘seeds with a face’ — produced in your area by someone you trust — is increasing.”

More people are gardening, including a rising percentage in the millennial generation, which bodes well for continued solid demand, she said.

Operations Manager Reiley Ney said Snake River offers around 320 varieties.

“It seems like we add about 30 every year,” she said.

O’Leary said 36 family farmers produced seed for Snake River this year, up from 29 a year earlier.

The cooperative’s farmer-suppliers produce a wide variety of seeds in and for the Intermountain West — from sugar snap peas and zucchini to carrots, Zinnia flowers and various heirloom seeds. They use organic practices to grow seeds for mostly home gardeners and small-scale farmers in the region.

Cooperative-member suppliers range from home gardeners to larger farms, O’Leary said. Some are commercial growers of pea and bean seed. All must use organic practices under the cooperative’s rules.

End-user customers, including those selling at farmers’ markets, range from home gardeners to growers who occupy several acres. They use low-input approaches and want locally adapted, non-genetically-modified seeds that produce a good crop and good seed for replanting, she said.

“When you save a seed in a certain place, it becomes more adapted, year after year, to that place,” O’Leary said.

Because Snake River’s seeds were started in the region, they tend to grow better and with less care in its arid environment compared to seeds that originated elsewhere, she said.

The benefits of growing with local seeds, and saving them, extend beyond suitability to local conditions, O’Leary said.

“This is our local economy,” she said. “Most all of the seeds you buy on a nursery shelf have been brought in from somewhere else. By buying locally grown seeds, you are supporting your local farmers and your local economy.”

The cooperative this winter is starting a seed saver’s club designed to help bridge experience gaps between longtime and newer producers while providing educational and collaborative opportunities for all, O’Leary said. Participants pay $100 annually and receive new online content every month.

“It also offers them the opportunity to support the work the co-op is doing,” she said.

Snake River sells at some 35 retail stores in the Intermountain West. O’Leary, who earned a horticulture degree at Boise State University, previously was growing seeds on her own small farm — now one of the cooperative’s suppliers.

“We want there to be a greater diversity of locally grown seeds here, so we can have more interesting diets and more productive gardens,” she said.