Seed company specializing in heirloom and organic varieties digs new roots in Chico
Ever since founding the Sustainable Seed Co. in Mendocino County, John Fendley has had his eye on Chico. His venture, which has been growing (in all senses of the word) since 2008, has done business with Butte County growers from the very start, and Fendley grew to appreciate the area’s greener aspects.
So, early this year, the Sustainable Seed Co. relocated to Chico.
The move isn’t complete. While the company opened its 13,000-square-foot warehouse and office complex on East 20th Street in February, Fendley still is searching for a plot—or plots—of land to transplant all the plants.
“We’re farmless!” he quipped.
However, that’s just a temporary situation. Maintaining a two-county operation represents a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
In speaking with the CN&R, Fendley listed a number of benefits in changing locations: proximity to the local growers who’ve provided or purchased seed; a larger employment base of “skilled people already in the agricultural business”; opportunities for increased collaboration with Chico State’s College of Agriculture; and weather conditions.
“The amount of seed that’s grown here is pretty tremendous, because Chico has a Mediterranean-like climate,” Fendley said. “So it’s just the place we need to be.”
That being the case, why didn’t he start here in the first place?
Fendley explained that he launched the company on the farm in Covelo because “Mendocino County was the first county in the United States to outlaw genetically engineered seed, and that made a really big difference for us moving there.”
Sustainable Seed Co. does not sell genetically engineered seeds. Its varieties—heirloom, organic, organic heirloom—are bred naturally and grown at a farm that’s certified organic.
This is why Fendley is particular about property. He juggles two concerns: protecting his crops from accidental exposure to other growers’ genetically modified crops while preserving his company’s commitment to sustainability.
He said he’s seen a number of properties between 20 and 80 acres. Those that are nearby sit too closely to neighbors; those that are isolated sit away from Chico.
“We’ve had some tempting offers for farmland, but realistically it’s too far out and it’s a big thing for us to keep our carbon footprint really small,” Fendley said. Meanwhile, “we’re very aware that [companies selling nonorganic seeds] are in the area and also growing seed crops, and we also want to make sure our seed crops are far away from theirs ….
So, the “farmless” farmer continues his search while working on other aspects of the move, such as modifying the 20th Street structure to meet the company’s sustainability goals. Plans include replacing landscaping with edible plants and flowers—“food, not lawns”—and installing solar panels (on the roof, if structurally possible; otherwise at ground level.)
“I’m climbing the walls now,” Fendley said, lamenting his lack of farmwork. “Not hav- ing my hands in the dirt is driving me nuts.”
That the name “Sustainable Seed Co.” combines environmentalism and agriculture is no mere whim.
Fendley worked for around a decade as an environmental planner for the state of Texas, where he was born. He became cognizant that “petroleum and big business … would take precedence over the environment sometimes. As a young man, that was pretty disturbing to me, and within the state, I was supposed to protect the environment—that was my job.”
Along with his passion for environmental issues, Fendley has a zeal for history. His job included protecting buildings and neighborhoods as well as plant and animal species.
“I guess, looking back, that gave me some of my real zest for old or heirloom seeds,” he said. “Part of the reason why I started the company was because I bought an old book in which a seed-saver had listed every open-pollinated variety … and it really stunned me the loss of diversity, and I knew from working in the environmental field that if somebody didn’t do something about it, more of those [seed varieties] would be lost.
“There were a few organizations doing that; I just didn’t see it on a significant level.”
So, in his 30s, Fendley switched careers and became a farmer/business owner.
Among his early hires was Theo Bill, a graphic artist and Web designer who’s now the company’s vice president. Like Fendley, Bill didn’t grow up steeped in agriculture. Bill was born and raised in Cincinnati, attended college in Florida, moved to New York City to pursue acting, then moved to the Bay Area—where, as a freelance designer, he connected with Fendley.
“I had an environmental background, a little bit of activism, trying to protect the earth seeing how badly we’ve been treating it,” Bill said by phone, en route from Covelo to Chico. “I never realized how much agriculture has a role in that, and how important changing the way people garden and the way people grow vegetables has an impact on carbon in the atmosphere, soil quality, water quality ….”
Sustainable Seed Co. has gone from offering 700 seed varieties in 2009 to nearly 2,000 now. Asked about his reaction to that growth, Bill replied: “Am I shocked? No. Challenged? Yes.” He added: “If we had more manpower, we could expand more.”
That’s where the Chico synergy comes in. Fendley said he’s “hiring like crazy” with an eye toward 20 employees—maybe 30 to 50 during the operation’s peak season. He’s also looking for partnerships with local schools, businesses and organizations, sharing the company’s green sensibility.
“We’re eager to bring that into this environment; we just have to figure out how to do it,” Fendley said.