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It is catalog time! In the midst of the January dismals, nothing should be as simple and restorative as wrapping one’s mind in the colorful pages of a seed and plant catalog.

There are mountains of catalogs, and it is wise to understand just how much has changed. Over the years many of the small, family-owned seed companies have been bought up by larger ones. In other areas, especially where seed production is combined with agrochemicals, most of the business has moved to giant overseas (Germany and China) chemical companies.

Add to this the possibly confusing conversation and opinions about genetically modified seeds, hybrids and heirlooms. But, to borrow a famous phrase penned by the composer George Gershwin, what we may think we know “…it ain’t necessarily so…”

Close to home, Gurney’s (Yankton) was family owned until 1999, when it was sold to the holding company Foster and Gallagher. Upon the bankruptcy of that company, Gurney’s was sold in 2001 to Gardens Alive, which at this point is still privately owned.

For more information on seed ownership --

Internationally, the control of seed companies rests in the hands of few. In June 2017, state-owned ChemChina finalized its purchase of the Swiss pesticides and seeds giant, Syngenta. It was China's biggest foreign takeover of all time. Also in 2017, Monsanto (American agrochemical and biotech) was acquired by the German drugs and crop chemical company Bayer. Soon after, BASF (German third-largest maker of crop chemicals) then agreed to buy the U.S. seeds group Monsanto from Bayer.

A predictable response to the growing concern of many about genetically modified seeds resulted in the development and promotion of the Safe Seed Pledge. Developed by High Mowing seeds, Wolcott, Vermont, and nine others in 1999, a growing number of seed houses now promote their participation in the pledge. Read the history of the safe seed pledge at (

According to a number of horticultural professionals ( the Safe Seed Pledge is meaningless, because in the last few years no GMO seeds were available to home gardeners. The genetic literacy project,, has some good background information published in 2016.

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So where does that leave us? Monsanto has disappeared into the maw of international agrochemical companies; the Safe Seed Pledge is an earnest commitment to non-GMO seeds – except for the fact that currently GMO seeds are only marketed to commercial ag and not offered to home gardeners.

I look at the seed selection in our locally owned greenhouses and the small, family-owned mail-order seed sources because I want to support them and their commitment to plant diversity and the continuing production of heirloom plants. Some of my favorites mail-order sites are Renee’s Garden Seeds, Seeds and Such, Johnny’s Seeds, Pinetree Seeds, Terroir Seeds, Seed Savers, Harvesting-History, and Grow True Seed.

Terroir Seeds,, also has hard to find and unusual seeds.

Harvesting History., is a source for unusual and heirloom seeds.

Territorial Seed Company,, is another family-owned business.

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Cathie Draine is a South Dakota Cooperative Extension Master Gardener and a member of the Garden Writers Association. She lives and gardens in Whispering Pines. Contact her at

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