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Landreth, America's oldest seed house, faces closure

September 29, 2011 | 12:29 pm

D. Landreth Seed Co.
D. Landreth Seed Co., a Pennsylvania operation that dates to 1784 and bills itself as the oldest seed company in America, faces an uncertain future as a Friday fundraising deadline approaches and the threat of closure looms. 

Owner Barbara Melera said D. Landreth Seed Co. is deeply in debt and has until Friday to pay back a $250,000 note to one investor that was due in 2009. As of Thursday morning, the company had raised about $120,000, largely through a frenetic Facebook campaign to sell $5 catalogs.

"Our accounts have been garnished because I haven't been able to pay back legitimate debt," Melera said. "If we don't figure out how to pay these notes back soon, we have no access to operating capital and we will have to close."

D. Landreth Seed Co. The desperation has been evident on Landreth's Facebook page, where the company announced that it was trying to sell 1 million catalogs to pay off the $250,000 note and other debt. Melera's plan was to take orders and then, based on customer interest, print an appropriate number of catalogs to minimize waste. She said 1 million catalogs would cost about $3.5 million to print and produce a profit of $1.5 million -- enough to cover what the company owes various parties.

The catalog is filled with hand-drawn illustrations (shown above), color photographs and articles from the 1800s. "It is filled with stuff that you will never see anyplace else," Melera said. "Articles written in the 1800s about creating a family kitchen garden or how to build a forcing frame because most Americans couldn't afford a greenhouse at that time."

When Melera took over Landreth in 2003, the former investment banker thought she could turn the company around in three to five years. She said it actually took seven years to make an annual profit.

One key factor Melera hadn't anticipated: the cost in modernizing the company's equipment.

"There were no computers, no website or copy machines," Melera said. "They printed labels by typing them individually on a Smith Corona typewriter. They did their accounting on index cards."

She has been optimistically waiting for some organization -- a foundation, perhaps -- to step forward and "buy 10,000 catalogs and distribute them to their friends and fans."

Meanwhile, the Facebook campaign and resulting messages spreading through social networks have played out as a separate drama, eliciting not only suggestions on how Landreth could raise money, but also attacks on the investor behind the $250,000 garnishment and even some criticism of Melera's management of the company and the fundraising campaign.

Attempts to reach the investor, Liz King, were unsuccessful, and her attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

Melera, an inveterate gardener, said she was drawn to the Pennsylvania company because of its historical significance. According to company history, it introduced the first zinnia seed for sale in the United States in 1798 as well as the first white potato (1811), first Bloomsdale spinach (1826) and first tomato seeds in America (1820).

The company sells more than 900 heirloom, non-genetically modified seeds at a time when seed sales are booming and seed libraries and seed saver collectives are growing in popularity.  

Melera said she doesn't know how the saga will end. Perhaps she and creditors can negotiate further. Perhaps the company's name, seeds and other assets will be sold off. She was quick to say that those seeking repayment have done nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, seed savers lamented the potential loss of Landreth.

"It would be a great loss to our community of organizations that try to maintain seed varieties," said John Torgrimson, executive director of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, who has done business with Landreth.

Although sales of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties of seeds have grown since the recession, Torgrimson said 36 seed companies have gone out of business since 2004. He said he saw the possible demise of Landreth as a symbolic loss, given the role that it has played in the diversity of the country's seed supplies.

"If you think back to agriculture in America as it was developing in the early 1900s, every town had a seed company," he said. "We've lost so many of them over time. And with that, we lose varieties." 

RELATED:

Seed Library of Los Angeles, sharing free plants and protecting personal food supplies

A year in community gardens: The Times series

The Dry Garden: Weekly column on sustainable landscaping

-- Lisa Boone

Photo credit: D. Landreth Seed Co.

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