3:32pm

Thu March 8, 2012
The Salt

A Seed Company That Helped Presidents And Immigrants Garden Falters

Originally published on Thu March 8, 2012 5:11 pm

While members of the Constitutional Convention were in Philadelphia back in 1787, many stopped by the D. Landreth Seed Co. store to buy radishes, broccoli and parsley, among other things. Landreth counted American presidents from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt as customers.

But despite its historic significance, one of the country's oldest seed companies has been struggling to survive.

Not long ago, D. Landreth Seed Co. President Barbara Melera was busy setting up her booth at the Philadelphia Flower Show. She says many of the seeds she sells, like fish pepper or cow horn okra, are extremely hard to find elsewhere.

The former venture capitalist says she knew Landreth was on its last legs, but its role in the country's history motivated her to try to save it.

"This family and this little company taught a nation of immigrants — over the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s — how to garden and how to live off and with the land," says Melera. "I don't think it gets any more significant than that."

Melera says when she bought Landreth in 2003, little effort had been invested in marketing its seeds and in staying current: The company was still doing accounting using index cards, and its reputation had deteriorated over the decades.

So Melera and her husband poured about half a million dollars of their money into Landreth and borrowed about a million more. The company is being sued by its creditors.

If Landreth goes under, it won't be the first.

John Torgrimson is the executive director of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange. He says dozens of seed companies have closed in recent years.

"When seed companies closed, a lot of the seeds that they carried was lost with them, especially some years ago," says Torgrimson. "Seeds that might not even be marketable now, 100 years from now might be the ace in the hole we need to figure out some kind of climatic conditions we can't even perceive right now."

Torgrimson says more people are interested in gardening than ever before, but it's easier and often cheaper to buy seeds at big-box stores. He says Landreth faces those challenges in addition to its debt.

Back at the Landreth flower show booth, Kate Venner, of Blacksburg, Va., says she's finding many seeds she has never seen before, like white tomatoes, purple potatoes and persimmon tomatoes.

Melera says that a good seed company will always have the important historic herb Americans called borage. But you're not likely to see it at Home Depot.

She gives her company just a 50/50 chance of surviving. Chinese investors are interested, but she believes Landreth should remain an American asset.

A judge could decide this spring whether to liquidate the company, or give Melera more time to pay back the debt.

Elizabeth Fiedler is a reporter for NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Back in the 1780s, while members of the Constitutional Convention were meeting in Philadelphia, many of them took the time to stop at a certain seed store, D. Landreth Seed Company. Landreth has counted American presidents from Washington to FDR as customers. Despite its historic significance, the country's oldest seed company has been struggling to survive.

From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler explains.

ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: Landreth Seed Company president Barbara Melera is busy setting up her booth at the Philadelphia Flower Show. She pauses to admire her well-loved seeds.

BARBARA MELERA: The fish pepper would be extremely hard to find. The cow horn okra - I only know of two sources.

FIEDLER: The former venture capitalist says she knew Landreth was on its last legs, but its role in the country's history motivated her to try to save it.

MELERA: And this little company taught a nation of immigrants over the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s how to garden and how to live off and with the land. I don't think it gets any more significant than that.

FIEDLER: Melera says, when she bought Landreth in 2003, little effort had been invested in marketing its seeds and in staying current. The company was still doing accounting using index cards and its reputation had deteriorated over the decades.

So Melera and her husband poured about half a million dollars of their money into Landreth and borrowed about a million more. The company is being sued by its creditors.

If Landreth goes under, it won't be the first. John Torgrimson is the executive director of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange. He says dozens of seed companies have closed in recent years.

JOHN TORGRIMSON: When seed companies closed, a lot of the seeds that they carried was lost with them, especially so in years ago. Seeds that might not even be marketable now, 100 years from now might be the ace in the hole we need to figure out some kind of climatic conditions we can't foresee right now.

FIEDLER: Torgrimson says more people are interested in gardening than ever before, but it's easier and often cheaper to buy seeds at big box stores. He says Landreth faces those challenges, in addition to its debt.

Back at the Landreth Flower Show booth, Kate Venner of Blacksburg, Virginia, is intrigued.

KATE VENNER: They have a bunch of seeds I've never seen before.

FIEDLER: For example?

VENNER: Tomatoes, like white ones. They got purple potatoes and persimmon tomatoes. I don't even want to try to say that. White tomato and green sausage tomatoes.

FIEDLER: Barbara Melera says business here is good.

MELERA: My favorite's a very, very Italian gentleman who walks in the booth, usually on Thursday, takes all the borage and walks up and goes, you remembered my borage.

FIEDLER: Melera says a good seed company will always have the important historic herb Americans call borage, but you're not likely to see it at Home Depot.

She gives her company just a 50/50 chance. Melera says Chinese investors are interested, but she believes Landreth should remain an American asset. A judge could decide this spring whether to liquidate the company or give Melera more time to pay back the debt.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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