The Landreth Seed Company is about as old as dirt, or at least as old as America. Even George Washington ordered from Landeth’s seed catalogue. But the company’s deep roots may not be enough to save them from deep financial problems. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Landreth Seed’s CEO Barbara Melera.
GELLERMAN: And we have a listener to thank for alerting us to this story: in 1784, Congress ratified the treaty ending the American Revolution. That same year, Benjamin Franklin invented his bifocal spectacles and in 1784, David Landreth founded his seed company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today, D. Landreth Seed is the fifth oldest U. S. company in continuous operation.
This piece called Aunt Chloe was commissioned by the photogropher Rudolph Eikemeyer. It was part of a photo documentary about African Americans living on plantations after the Civil War. (Landreth Seeds)
The company's seeds have literally provided the roots of America’s agricultural history for the past 227 years. Every US president from Washington to FDR has purchased seeds from Landreth’s catalogues. But today, the firm is in a deep financial hole, and it may have to close at the end of the month. Barbara Melera is CEO of the D. Landreth Seed Company, now located in New Freedom, Pennsylvania.
MELERA: When I purchased the company with my husband in 2003, we put our savings into the company as equity, but that was not going to be enough money to turn the company around. It had basically been in hibernation for about 75 years. It had been selling seeds continuously during that time, but had not updated for 75 years.
So, the company, when we took over, was still doing accounting on index cards. The equipment was, in many cases, over 100 years old. So the company needed to be completely reinvented. And, so, I wound up borrowing the money. When those debts came due, I did not have the capital to pay off those debts, and so, we were dead in the water. And I am a fighter and I still believe as much as I did eight years ago, that this is an important historical asset.
GELLERMAN: Barb, why did you buy this old seed company?
MELERA: I bought this old seed company because in the early part of 2003 I was introduced to the company and I went to visit it. And the man who then owned the company set me down in a dirty old office with a box of absolutely dirty old books.
Those books happened to be bound copies of catalogues which told the story of how American agriculture and horticulture had been developed. I was completely blown away by what was in that box. And I felt that we couldn’t afford to lose that.
I’ve later been told by some people from the Smithsonian, it’s the only collection of its kind in the world - they think. But what it is, is it’s the writings from one seed house that go back to 1839 and tell the story of America’s journey in history in agriculture and horticulture.
GELLERMAN: I guess Landreth Seed Company introduced many a plant into the United States.
MELERA: It did. It was the leading seed house throughout much of the 1800s, when that industry basically developed in this country. In 1798, it introduced America to the zinnia - one of its most beloved flowers. 1811, the white fleshed potato. 1820, it was the first time that tomato seeds were sold commercially in this country. In 1826, they introduced a product called "Bloomsdale spinach," which is the spinach that we eat today, in most cases. It is the most successful selling spinach variety that any of us know of.
GELLERMAN: Your company played a pivotal role in Afro-American history in the United States - a lot of the seeds went south.
MELERA: Our company has preserved many of the seed varieties that were important to African Americans during the time that they were enslaved in this country.
GELLERMAN: I’m looking at the sweet potato pumpkin - it was brought from Jamaica to the Chesapeake in the 1700s.
GELLERMAN: And you’ve got the long handled dipper - it’s a gourd that was actually used.
MELERA: Yes, it was used as a cooking implement - as a ladle.
GELLERMAN: And then you’ve got the California Black Eyed Peas, which you say has mystical properties. It says, "good luck" and "attracting money."
MELERA: (Laughs) Yeah, well, we’ve got enough Black Eyed Peas back here. We should be millionaires!
GELLERMAN: Well, you could raise California Black Eyed Peas and hope for the best... How are you hoping to raise the money so you don’t have to close up the seed house at the end of September?
MELERA: Well, we have a very special seed catalog. We have decided that we need to charge for that catalog because we get it printed here in the Untied States. And that is a significantly higher expense then if we were to have it printed overseas.
But the catalog is really more than just a seed catalog; it contains data from this library of catalogs that we inherited from the Landreths. And lots and lots and lots - and that’s not an overstatement - of historic information about the flowers, herbs and vegetables that you eat.
And so you could purchase the catalog, even if you’re not a gardener, and use it as an educational resource. If we can sell - and this is a huge number - if we can sell a million catalogs, we can get out from under all of the debt obligations that we have. If we sell less than a million catalogs, we will be able - I hope - to pay off the immediate debt obligations, and then as the spring comes, and people order from those catalogs, perhaps we will be able to get out from under all of the debt.
GELLERMAN: Barb, you have a historic catalog, and, as I understand it, a very special cat.
MELERA: (Laughs) Yes, yes. His name is Desi, and in keeping with titles - which we all use today - he is our "R.R.E." - our rodent removal engineer. And he does an exceptional job of that, and he is sound asleep behind me right now, so he must have had a heavy night of activity.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Well, Barb, thank you so very much and good luck!
MELERA: Well Bruce, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to tell our story.
GELLERMAN: Barbara Melera is the CEO of the D. Landreth Seed Company - the oldest seed house in the United States. For more information, go to our website LOE.ORG.
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