Originally posted on April 28, 2011
by Hanna Wheeler
Image: Tom Stearns pictured on the cover of his company’s seed catalog. Photo courtesy of High Mowing Seeds
High Mowing Seeds founder and president Tom Stearns knew from a young age that he wanted to work with the earth for a living. “I always said I wanted to be a farmer or a geologist…not that I knew what either of them meant,” he said, laughing.
Stearns grew up in Connecticut and western Massachusetts where he inherited his love of gardening from his dad, who he describes as “quite a nature lover.”
As a high school student at Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachussets and later as a college student at Prescott College in Arizona, he concentrated on the social and political aspects of environmental studies. Meanwhile, he was still gardening. When he was 17 or 18, he learned about seed saving.
“Something clicked,” he said. “My attention started to shift from fighting what I didn’t believe in to fighting for what I did believe in.”
He put together a one-page seed list, printed 500 copies and started selling seeds at the age of 19.
In the first year he only sold $2,000 to $3,000 worth of seeds, but it gave him the chance to learn the subtleties of seed growing and teach himself how to select for hardy, consistent seeds. “It’s very different from growing vegetables,” he said.
It’s that dedication to farming that makes High Mowing Seeds unique. Surprisingly, most seed companies don’t actually grow their own seeds. “They are basically marketing and distribution companies,” said Stearns.
But High Mowing Seeds near Hardwick, VT is a farm-based company. That means employees have their hands in the soil, inspecting fields and pulling up plants that aren’t growing to specifications. It’s also one of the country’s few 100 percent organic seed companies. The company does its own field testing and has both a full lab and a seed-cleaning facility.
“We have our eyes on the ball the whole time,” said Stearns. “It gives us a chance to improve the quality at 10 different steps.”
Stearns officially launched High Mowing Seeds as his full-time business in 1999, just four years after his first seed list. A year later, he hired his first employee. “We hit the ground running and have been running ever since,” said Stearns.
In fact, the company began to outgrow itself. “In 2006, the growth of our company was bigger and faster than we expected. We were tripling in size every two years. We were growing so quickly that everything wasn’t working,” said Stearns. He refers to this stage of a company’s growth as the “gangly teenager stage.”
Rather than just playing keep-up, Stearns knew he needed to build the future company he envisioned and then grow into it. Good idea, but it meant cash.
Borrowing money usually comes in the form of getting a loan from a bank, but most banks don’t like to take on risky ventures like organic seed companies. Small business owners often borrow money from friends or family. But sometimes, as Stearns said, “…your friends and family aren’t that rich.” The other option is partnering with venture capitalists. But in that model, the investor would want Stearns to sell the company to a larger company as quickly as possible. “Then the investor would make out like a bandit, but the company wouldn’t be locally-owned anymore. The social mission would go out the window,” said Stearns. He sited nearby examples, including Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which is now owned by the London-based Unilever conglomerate, and Tom’s of Maine, which is owned by the Colgate-Palmolive company.
Instead, Stearns thought of another option: creative financing with a locavore spin. He sought out community members who shared the company’s social and environmental mission and valued the prospect of good paying jobs in the area. He pulled together a group of 17 people to invest in the company. Since then, the company has grown two and a half times and is paying back the initial investments with substantial interest, freeing those 17 people to re-invest in community initiatives.
Stearns says the community investment in High Mowing Seeds is an example of the Slow Money movement, which is about “putting together the investors who have the resources with the entrepreneurs who have the passion for a triple bottom line of people, planet and profits,” said Stearns.
It’s a model that’s springing up across the country. Stearns is in high demand across the U.S. and Canada to give talks and write articles about the High Mowing Seeds example. He hopes there will be more media attention to “the front lines of people rebuilding their food systems. Those stories need to be told,” he said.
In fact, the Hardwick area and local companies such as High Mowing Seeds have received a lot of media attention.
In 2008, The New York Times wrote an article about the Hardwick local food network called, “Uniting Around Food to Save an Ailing Town.” In 2009, Dan Rather Reports aired a twenty-minute feature on the Hardwick food system, including an interview with Stearns. Also in that year, author Ben Hewitt published his book The Town That Food Saved about the Hardwick area and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse showcased his visit to Hardwick on his television show Emeril Green.
All of that high profile attention didn’t stem from just High Mowing Seeds or just a single farmer or just one commercial composter. Instead, the buzz centered around the way Hardwick’s small food entrepreneurs are cooperating to create a local food economy. And behind all of those camera-ready scenes of cooperation and saliva-inducing organic food, there’s the Center for an Agricultural Economy. And who has the energy and vision to serve as president of the board? You guessed it: Tom Stearns.
“There was a group of us agriculture business owners in the area— some friends mostly. We started getting together to talk shop about our businesses and products and challenges. Those meetings grew to involve more people. A lot of us shared the same mission,” said Stearns. That team of agri-preneurs decided a non-profit could coordinate efforts that would support the budding agricultural economy and the new face of the Center for an Agricultural Economy was born.
Stearns became the president of the group in 2007. In just three years, the organization grew from zero to eight full-time staff. It also purchased a 16-acre property to serve as a demonstration farm. And it has built the Vermont Food Venture Center, a $4 million, 15,000 square-foot community kitchen incubator.
When Stearns describes the kitchen incubator, he uses words like “ginormous” and “wild ride” and somehow starts to talk even faster than his normal breakneck pace. The enthusiasm is contagious and completely justifiable. When the kitchen incubator opens later this spring, small scale farmers and gardeners can finally access all of the stainless steel food processing equipment, federal inspection, labeling, testing and nutrition analysis that’s required for commercial value-added food.
“How do you take the step from making 20 jars on your counter to selling it somewhere? It would basically cost you $100,000,” said Stearns. “Even if it’s the best recipe in the world, there’s no guarantee to get a hundred grand out of it to pay for your own facility.” It’s just another example of Hardwick-style cooperation making the agricultural economy turn.
The Center for an Agricultural Economy estimates that local food has created 200 new jobs in the area. “Here we are in this little corner of rural Vermont adding jobs. It’s unheard of,” said Stearns. It’s a success story that people from all over the world want to see. “People from 80 countries visited in the last year. They’re flying in just to see what’s going on— to see and feel and taste what a healthy food system is like,” he said.
Stearns calls Hardwick the Silicon Valley of sustainable agriculture because of the level of collaboration. Other places in the world are seeing similar economic revitalization through local agriculture, though unlike Hardwick, many examples are near urban centers. “In other rural places, the ambitious people leave. Here, they’re moving back,” Stearns said. Finally, Steans’ advice for ambitious, community-minded young people is: “Don’t wait. I encourage young people who have ideas to start them. Just get started.”