Growing your own with locally sourced Mountain Valley Seeds
If, like me, you enjoy eating fresh, local, organic produce, you probably know that most of what you are eating is grown from seed. One tiny seed can grow into a plump, delicious, garden tomato that tastes like the essence of summer. Remember the first time, as a kid, that you planted a seed and harvested a tomato or green bean that you plucked right off the vine in the heat of summer? There’s nothing like the sense of accomplishment of growing your own food—even if it’s just in a little patio container filled with small lettuces. Well, did you know there is a local seed grower and distributor right here in Salt Lake City?
One morning, as I was rushing into my local Harmons to “make groceries,” as I grew up saying, my little boy was checking out the seed-packet display. He asked me if we could buy some. I replied, “Certainly! Let’s find something yummy to grow and eat. Your choice.” He’s a big fan of green beans, so he selected a packet labeled, “Heirloom Bean: Jade Stringless Bush.” Glancing at the bottom of the packet to check out the source, I read, “Mountain Valley Seed Co., SLC, UT.” I thought, “Seriously … these seeds are from Utah?” There’s nothing I like better than checking out local food sources, so I took a field trip to investigate Mountain Valley Seed Co. for myself.
Wedged in an industrial/warehouse section of West Temple, in an unassuming beige brick building, is Mountain Valley Seed Co. Inside, it looks like a typical warehouse with an atypical “green” reception area. Filling the entrance are displays of seed packets, growing supplies, soil mixes, a small growroom and an office space crafted out of old train cars. MVS sells to local growers, so this space is a showroom for clients.
Upon entering the room, a large black-and-white photo greets visitors. It’s an image of a man driving a tractor through a field with the Wasatch Range behind him. The plate below it reads, “Demetrios Agathangelides,” aka “Dimo,” referring to the founder who studied agriculture and botany at Utah State University in the ’60s. Dimo sold seeds out of a little garden store named Greek Gardens in Logan. He started his business because he began getting questions from growers and customers such as: “What seeds grow well here?” “What plants will hold up in the heat?” and “What’s the best time to sow tomato, cucumber and melon seeds?” The crops he grew withstood the Utah climate—surviving cold winters and thriving in hot summers. Before they knew it, Dimo and his wife Diane were packing seeds at their kitchen table. This was 1974. The business continued to grow, and they created Mountain Valley Seed Co.
Fast forward to the new millennium. In 2010, Robb Baumann and his partner, Lance Heaton, convinced Demetrios to sell Mountain Valley Seed Co. to the pair. Baumann and Heaton met studying economics at the University of Utah as undergrads, worked in the corporate world (one in aerospace engineering, the other in economics) and took a year off to ski after grad school. They call themselves “closet gardeners” and “adrenaline ski junkies.” They knew they wanted to combine forces and get out of the “rat race” but still be able to take care of their families and live a more balanced lifestyle. Since 2010, the seed business has become more than a passion, and the company has grown and merged with a sprouting company, Living Whole Foods. Specializing in heirloom and non-GMO seed, Mountain Valley Seed Co. works to keep the seed business sustainable, focusing on integrity and time-honored principles of respecting the land. Baumann and Heaton are energetic, delightful conversationalists, passionate about their business and teaching anyone who will listen about growing seeds (though I found it humorous to learn that most of their ski pals don’t know they garden like crazy every summer). In fact, Heaton was just coming back from tending his home garden when I arrived to interview him.
“Nothing tastes like food you grow yourself,” they simultaneously proclaim. “You don’t have to be a homesteader or master gardener to grow your own food. But what you do need is good quality seed,” says Baumann. “When you get a fall-harvested carrot, it’s unbelievably sweet, delicious … the essence of carrot. And it’s incredible to watch our partner growers walking the fields, seeing what goes into production …meeting the growers personally, learning about their land and tasting the crops.”
When I asked him to recommend a few seeds that grow best in northern Utah, he suggested melons—”Athena” watermelon, especially. Hillbilly tomatoes and the exclusive-to-MVS Hamson tomato—developed here by Dimo at Utah State University—fare very well in Utah. “The Super-100s also always do well. Lincoln peas and our mesclun mix can’t be beat. Those are no-brainers. And any of our turnips and radishes. For sprouting, herbs like basil, dill, cilantro and radish, mustard and amaranth are great,” said Baumann.
When asked why grow your own—aside from superior flavor—Heaton states, “In reality, you’re taking back control of what you’re putting in your body.”
They both caution that, like most businesses, the seed business is not easy. “The big guys are always close on our tails.” But Baumann and Heaton work hard to nurture great relationships and contacts with growers around the world.
And, the good news is that Utahns are getting on board with growing their own food. Victory gardens are sprouting in yards, and community produce gardens are popping up in empty lots here. Tofu, soy and almond milk-making kits, distributed by MVS, are becoming increasingly popular. Growing your own food is empowering and nutrient-dense.
MVS gives back to the community by working with educational garden programs, such as the school garden at Bonneville Elementary, where kids come back in late summer/early fall and harvest what they sowed in the spring. They learn early that growing their own food is fun and not terribly complicated. And, they get to eat what they grow.
Mountain Valley Seeds can be found at IFA Country Stores, Harmons, Wasatch Community Gardens and many local garden stores.
Don’t know heirloom from GMO? According to the seed pros at Mountain Valley Seed Co., here’s how to understand the lingo on your seed packets.
O.P.: Open Pollination. MVS is known for O.P. seeds. Open pollination means that the plant will produce seed that will breed mostly “true.” Breeding true means that the seed from the original plant can be re-planted the next year and you will get the same plant year after year. MVS carries nearly 400 varieties of O.P. seed.
Heirloom: In the seed industry, the word “heirloom” is much-hyped. In order for a seed to be labeled heirloom, it must have been around at least 40 to 60 years (although there is no date-of-origin standardization at this time). Heirloom seeds are always O.P. Growers know that some heirlooms can be 100 years old, or older. You can collect heirloom seeds and plant them over and over, virtually never having to purchase another plant as long as you collect and save the seeds. Many, but not all, heirloom seeds are organic.
GMO: This is a hybrid seed that is a genetically modified organism, altered at the gene level to be resistant to pests, diseases, environmental conditions and herbicides. Cross-breeding between a plant and something other than a plant (such as a fish, animal, tissue from a mammal or something else), created in a lab, is GMO. GMO is not O.P. and GMO is something MVS wants no part of. “We have a right to know what’s in our food, which doesn’t mean that we are anti-science,” Baumann says.
Organic: Certified Organic means that the seed, crop and fields are absent of pesticides and herbicides. It takes a minimum of three years to attain official recognition by USDA as organic. Many organic seeds are heirloom seeds.
Hybrid: A cross, but not GMO. A seed that will not grow year-after-year, but is from two pure “parents”, pollinated in an isolation zone. Disease-resistance can occur naturally this way, which is a good thing. Many modern tomatoes are hybrids because they have been created over generations to produce a sturdy, hearty fruit or plant that will withstand its environment. In fact, many hybrids are sturdier than heirlooms for their ability to withstand pests and diseases in harsh climates and provide increased yields. Think about your Packman Hybrid Broccoli and Sweet 100s Cherry Tomato seeds. The seeds are inexpensive, and you grow them annually. “Hybrids can out-produce heirlooms 10-to-1,” according to Baumann. ?
Mountain Valley Seed Co.
175 W. 2700 South, SLC