Monday, May 24, 2010

Territorial Seed Co. in bed with Monsanto?

G-man and I recently went to a screening of Fresh, which was followed by a panel of meat growers and farmers from the Tacoma area (each is linked from
  • Tacoma Food Coop
  • Lee from The Meat Shop
  • Cheryl the Pig Lady
  • Terry of Terry's Berries
  • Zestful Gardens
The movie was not a total downer in the format of Food, Inc., but rather an inspirational "you can do it!" movie that leaves you feeling hopeful that the small changes you make on a local level will affect the world on a larger scale.  The audience had questions about farmland conservation, large-scale organic farms replacing one type of mono-crop with another, CSAs, the mobile abattoir, and where to get safe seeds. 

There was an audible gasp when various panelists suggested that Monsanto had recently acquired Territorial Seed Company.  Several of the panelists said that Monsanto owned the rights to two types of tomato seeds most commonly grown here in the PNW: "Early Girl" and "Sun Gold".  The panelists, all people who are in-the-know, assured us that they no longer purchase nor recommend Territorial Seed.

Something didn't sit right with me about this.  The claim didn't pass the smell test.  It was too easy, too blithe, and had that same stench of "not true" that is shared by the god-forsaken forwards I get from my dad's cousin.  (I invariably respond with a snopes link and the comment "this isn't true".  I really should take her off of my "safe" email list: her conservative hate-mongering makes my blood boil.)

Territorial Seed Company is focused on the home-consumer market, which is considerally less profitable than the commercial agriculture business.  It's a financial drop in the ocean of big-ag money.  I've been slowly reading a book written by its founder, Steve Solomon.  To allow TSC to be purchased by a corporation like Monsanto seems utterly contrary to his philosophy and to the company's "Safe Seed Pledge":
Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately people and communities. Territorial only offers untreated seed.

I think that the belief that Monsanto has purchased Territorial arose when Monsanto purchased Seminis, as is described here.  Seminis is a seed producer and at one point Territorial was purchasing seeds from Seminis.  From what I understand, Territorial had at one point purchased seeds that were sourced from a company that purchased seeds from Seminis.  They do no longer.  Read the full thread in the website linked earlier in this paragraph for the full details.

Finally, I found this on the TSC "About Us" page:
Territorial Seed Company is a privately held company, wholly owned by Tom and Julie Johns. Purchased in 1985 from its founder Steve Solomon, Tom and Julie have grown the business substantially over the past 24 years but have never strayed far from the original course set by Steve.

A company that's "privately held" and "wholly owned" by the Johns cannot be and is not owned by Monsanto.

As for "Early Girl" and a couple of other tomato varieties, the patents are indeed held by Monsanto.  Of this Tom Johns, co-owner of Territorial Seed, said:
Today we do still purchase an ever decreasing amount of seed wholesale from the Home Garden Vegetable division [of Seminis]. These varieties are mostly old favorites from Petoseed such as Celebrity, Big Beef and [Super] San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano is still today our best selling tomato-home gardeners love the way they process and can. We trial hundreds of tomato varieties each year and we have not yet been able to find a true replacement and maybe never will. Upon request we provide a list of the few remaining Seminis varieties that we offer.
Mr. Johns went on to encourage people to stock up on the Super San Marzano seeds if they wanted them in the future, as he suspects that Seminis/Monsanto will eventually let the heritage seed lines dry up and blow away.

Now you know: Territorial Seed Company is not owned by, nor do their source their seeds from, Monsanto.

2 more follow-ups:
1. I sent this blog post to all 5 panelists.  2 of them have contacted me to say thanks. One said that she knew it wasn't true when another panelist said it but that she hadn't wanted to contradict him in a public venue (I disagree, but that's me).

2. I wrote to TSC with the suggestion that they post a rumor-quelling shut-down on their website. Here's the response I got:
I went to read what you wrote at this blog, and I have to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, and I know it goes for all here at Territorial Seed Company, we very sincerely appreciate people like yourself who take the time to research rumors such as this, and then to take this further and share it with others. You are wondeful!!!

As for what may be posted at our website on this subject, that is up to management and I will bring up the suggestion again. We have been struggling with this ugly rumor for several years now, and every once in a while it gets brought up in a group setting and we go through this whole process of trying to squelch it once again.

We do have some varieties that we still purchase from Seminis, and there is a current list for 2010 that I can send you should you want it, but just know that we have been reducing this list, year on year, as we find suitable replacements and/or grow out the varieties ourselves. This just takes time and is a very complicated process.

Lori T @ TSC


  1. As a follow-up to this post, you'll see that TSC is **not** listed among the Monsanto brands, not is it mentioned in their annual report:

  2. You nearly gave me a heart-attack with that headline. Territorial is much beloved to me and Steve's book is my veggie gardening bible. How could panelists get away with slandering TS like that? Was there an apology?

  3. Jenn:

    My wife Julie and I thank you for the time you have devoted to keeping the record straight on this matter. I can assure all the readers of your blog that Territorial is and will remain an independent seed company devoted to home gardeners. This rumor is so crazy, its hard for us to understand how anyone would believe it, let alone people that are "experts" on a panel. We do not want Monsanto and I'm sure they don't want us either. Would it be possible to obtain the panel members email or phone numbers as I would like to assure them directly as to prevent further misinformation spreading around. I feel like getting a message to all that attended the meeting as well. Thanks again.

    Tom Johns

  4. Jenn, awesome sauce of a job with your blog! Miss seeing you and G online 'elsewhere'. Funny thing about the recent thing that happened with G's account. To retrieve the items that were 'lost' due to outside influence, I was awarded the top rank (which Bregg once held...) This is because only the GM can receive 'lost' items, and ours have been /afk too long. lol

  5. Hi Jenn,

    As Product Development Director for Territorial Seed Company, I too want to thank you for keeping the record straight. I did want to make your readers aware that Sun Gold tomato is NOT a Monsanto/Seminis owned variety as the panelist said. Sun Gold is a wonderful variety and I would hate for folks not to grow it if they choose not to support Seminis/Monsanto.

    Best regards,

    Josh Kirschenbaum
    Territorial Seed Company

  6. Jenn: As a follow up to my post of May 24, 2010. We have now completed our extensive trials to find suitable replacements for the few remaining Seminis viarities. As of the 2012 catalog Territorial no longer sells any Seminis seed products. We think our customers will be happy with our newest offerings.


    Tom Johns
    Territorial Seed Company