The History of Territorial Seed Company

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 30 years but have never strayed far from the original course set by Steve.

The first Territorial Seed catalog was written in the fall of 1979. Running a regional seed company responsibly meant sifting through the thousands of varieties available from a worldwide market to find the highest-quality, best-adapted ones, so Steve grew a serious trial ground in both summer and winter, consisting basically of comparison plots. The garden had clay soil with less than a gallon of water per minute from the well.

The earliest seed-production crops were grown in isolation within neighbors' backyards; including an open-pollinated Brussels sprout, a heirloom cranberry bean, and Lorane fava bean cover crop seed. In wintertime, the mail-order seed business operated in a drafty warehouse, where customers waited their turn on the telephone party line and neighbors who seasonally helped in the warehouse, took turns chopping kindling to keep the woodstove stoked.

Territorial Seed Company grew fast, and within a few years 100,000 mail-order catalogs and several thousand copies of Steve Solomon's 1981 natural gardening book "Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades" were going out the door every year. Back in came several letters a day asking for answers to gardening problems, so Steve made time for horticultural study. He writes whimsically of being a ''capital-O Organic gardener with capital-O Opinions'' that hybridized over the five years in big-o organic wisdom. A fast-growing business started on a shoestring required the reinvestment of virtually every cent. After five years of hard work, Steve considered his choices for simple living or a big business.

Tom and Julie Johns remember the 1985 newspaper ad which simply read ''... mail order seed company in Lorane for sale.'' They were early Territorial Seed customers. It suited their self-sufficient lifestyle in Cottage Grove of organic gardening, home canning, and building their own home. Tom was part of the Cottage Grove Sentinel's advertising staff until 1984, calling on Main Street businesses for the booming 40-page weekly paper, when Main Street businesses sold everything needed for daily living. Through the recession of the early 1980s, Tom traced the decline of local business to those tied solely to the local economy. With this insight, Tom and Julie decided to add self-employment to their self-sufficiency. Cottage Grove had groomed a good team with Julie's accounting years at Cottage Grove Hospital and Tom's print and marketing skills. It would be exciting. They would have their Aunt Molly's Ice Cream Treats customers in the summer and package and ship tiny seed delights for Northwest gardeners in the winter. Sold!

Did you know that the average distance any supermarket-bound vegetable or fruit travels to the store is 800 miles? But a gardener's own fruits and vegetables move from the garden to the table within minutes, with every ounce of nutritional value intact. Tom and Julie's first Territorial Seed catalogs offered a fresh-from-the garden look and alternative, as Tom focused on expanding selections of customers' favorites; more tomatoes (from 15 varieties to 75), then sweet peas, garlic, year-round lettuces and sunflowers for the birds. After the regional catalog came a national catalog and a Canadian catalog. Their Winter Garden Catalog, first published in 1988, remains the only winter garden catalog in the United States.

In 1987, Tom and Julie invested in 44 acres for trial grounds at London Springs, south of Cottage Grove Lake. Each year Territorial's research garden staff grows and evaluates thousands of varieties for best taste, Northwest hardiness, and good germination. More recently they began reclaiming older, favorite vegetable varieties sometimes shelved by their seed suppliers. Harvesting their very tiny product has been their biggest challenge. In Lorane, they dried the bean pods on ground tarps and winnowed the seed from the pods by hand. Then they tried grinding tomatoes in a garden variety chipper-shredder and fluming the seeds out, similar to panning for gold. But seeds still keep their age-old secrets of survival, and Territorial's seed saving techniques range from natural fermentation to the newest processors. Today they grow almost 20% of the seed they offer, especially lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.

Currently they find themselves in good company ''capital-O Organics'', excited about taking leadership in advising the evolution of organic agriculture from a movement into a mainstream market. There are 20 full-time and 25 seasonal employees locally, strategic alliances with universities and European plant breeders, and a zillion worms making compost and plant teas. Plant the seed, they say...or buy, grow, harvest and clean, store, catalog, package, sprout and love each seed and take a capital-O Opportunity to grow your dreams with Territorial Seed Company, Cottage Grove, Oregon.