In the early days small lots of seed were kept for sale at grocery stores. As the population increased, and farming and gardening became more important, seed supply houses were organized. The first houses were established in this country about 1820, and the first catalogs printed soon afterward. Numerous houses have been started in all of the large cities and some of them have become mammoth establishments.
The seed business is highly specialized, requiring the service of experts who understand the principles of plant breeding. Much greater care and skill are exercised by some firms than by others; the most reliable maintain extensive trial grounds, where the seeds are tested before being sold. It is a means of protecting both the dealer and the buyer.
Two methods are pursued by dealers in securing the seed required for their trade. Most large firms own land on which certain seeds are grown under their direct management. It is usual to charge higher prices for such seed than for that grown by contract, the method under which the bulk of garden seeds is grown. In the contract method, when a house needs a certain quantity of seed, say Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a contract is made with a grower who produces seed of this variety, and who may also furnish seed to many other houses. As this grower probably owns very little land, it is impossible for him to grow all of his seed, and, therefore, he must contract with a large number of other gardeners or farmers to grow the supply for him.
In the management of seed growing by contract, various methods are employed. In many instances stock seed is furnished to the grower by the seed house or by the man with whom the grower has contracted. This stock seed is supposed to be carefully bred and grown under the direct management of experts. In the production of high-grade seed, one of the most important factors is furnishing the best stock seed to the grower. The stock seed is sometimes furnished free to the grower, but the usual practice is to make a charge, which may be paid when the seed is obtained before planting, or it may be deducted from the value of the seeds grown.
Many intelligent and reliable growers do not depend upon a middle dealer or a grower, or upon a seed house, for their stock seed. They have established a reputation for well-bred seeds, and can often demand higher prices than growers who are furnished stock seed.
The greater part of the seeds sold in the United States is grown in this country, although there are many exceptions. The chapter on the culture of the various classes of vegetables gives additional information upon this subject.
Seeds are grown on an extensive scale where natural conditions are most favorable; soil, climate and the cost of labor are all important factors. Many crops, as the cauliflower, cabbage and pea, thrive best in a cool climate and, therefore, these seeds are grown to the best advantage in the North. On the other hand, as watermelons must have plenty of heat and sunshine, we find that Georgia conditions are ideal for this crop and the growing of good seed; pepper and eggplant seeds may be grown in the cold parts of the North with success, but for large yields of plump seeds the warm, sandy soils of New Jersey furnish ideal conditions; lima beans are grown in California because soil and climatic conditions are favorable to the best crops; the Puget Sound district furnishes splendid conditions for growing cauliflower seed. Many other examples might be given. Some seeds are grown almost entirely in foreign countries because of cheaper labor.
One of the most important operations in growing high-grade seeds is "roguing." A "rogue" is a plant that is off type, and should not be allowed to produce seed. The discarding of such plants is called "roguing," and the quality of the seed from the standpoint of uniformity in the ultimate crop depends mainly upon the thoroughness of this operation. It is absolutely necessary for some one who knows the true or most desirable type to inspect every plant before it is allowed to produce seed. This is the step in the production of seeds for the large commercial houses which needs the most improvement. Roguing is generally practiced, but in too many cases it is not sufficiently severe. The right soil and climate cannot do everything. Scientifically conducted breeding plats and rigid roguing are the two greatest needs of American seed farms.