This company’s business is growing
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Tom Stearns started growing organic seeds for sale as a hobby before he left college. Today, High Mowing Organic Seeds is a $1.6 million business with 30 employees, operating out of a 13,000-square-foot facility in Wolcott.
Anyone who knew Tom Stearns as a boy would probably not be surprised to find him up to his chin in ideas he’s busy putting into practice. A self-confessed Type A personality, who surrounds himself with Type A personalities, Stearns is the founder and president of High Mowing Organic Seeds, a Wolcott grower and marketer of organic and heirloom vegetable, flower, and herb seeds sold to growers and through catalogs and garden centers across the country.
Stearns is also the president of the Center for Agricultural Economy — a Hardwick nonprofit he helped start. It was recently featured in Gourmet magazine and The New York Times and, he says, is a subject of a PBS documentary in the works. In addition, he’s the coordinator of Slow Money Vermont — also an organization he had a hand in founding — focused on socially responsible, alternative investing, on which he has been giving talks across the country.
A native of rural western Connecticut, Stearns says he always wanted to be a farmer or a geologist, because “these are intimately connected with the earth and its rhythms.” In high school at Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts, he focused the majority of his studies on environmental issues.
After graduation, he looked for a school “that wouldn’t tell me what to do. I already knew that; all I needed was a piece of paper.” He chose Prescott College in Arizona, he says, because it had a heavy emphasis on environmental studies and agriculture and lots of independent study. After three and a half years — “all the time knowing I would return to New England; that was never a question for me” — he graduated with a double major in sustainable agriculture and in community development and education.
Even before graduation, he had started his seed company, saving, drying, and selling them. “It paid for all of my rent and books and things like that,” he says.
High Mowing offers nearly 400 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid seeds. Plants are started in greenhouses. At harvest, the seeds are cleaned and dried on large screens and packaged. Jeremy Weiss does quality control and seed testing.
In 1996, at age 20, he moved to Vermont. “I knew I wanted to be in New England, and wanted to be in a place where there was a lot of support for organic farming and where land was affordable.” He landed in Calais, where he rented a space to grow and sell his seeds.
When the place in Calais was about to be sold, he found another place in Holland, near Derby Line. By now, he was putting out a little catalog. “These were my ‘hobby years,’ from ’96 to ’99,” he says. “I was making just enough money from selling seeds that I didn’t have to have another full-time job.”
Stearns began visiting other seed companies to find a model for the future of High Mowing Seeds — “where the potential was; what the opportunity was; what kind of personal philosophy and company I wanted to have,” he says. He began looking around for land to buy near Hardwick, a haven for back-to-the-landers for decades.
He bought 50 acres in the fall of 1999 — mostly all woods, he says, so he rented fields from neighbors for growing seeds. That same year, he married Heather Berthold, a teacher he had met two years before at the Waldorf School in Wolcott, where he was taking an adult education class.
Growing his own seeds had become a priority, born out of his travels to other seed companies. To his surprise, he had learned that none of the large seed companies grew their own.
He learned there are two kinds of seed company. “All the companies that send catalogs this time of year and have racks in garden centers are just like hardware stores: they just sell product. They get their seeds from wholesale companies, which are involved in the breeding and development of proprietary varieties. Those are big, multinational companies for the most part, and many of them specialize — one might just do broccoli and cabbage.”
Through these visits and attending organic farming conferences, he learned that organic seeds were not easily available. “Even as small as I was, I was already being asked to consult with other seed companies and train people in how to grow seeds.”
“The year 2000 marked the point where the company went from being a hobby to being a real business,” says Stearns. “I realized that I was the only one doing this, and that I had a totally unique model.” His sales that year were $35,000, up from $2,000 in 1996.
Bringing on Meredith Davis (left) in 2005 gave Stearns the flexibility to continue to grow the Center for Agricultural Economy, a nonprofit he started in Hardwick, and act as the coordinator for Slow Money Vermont, a group of socially responsible investors whose national arm he helped found. Davis is general manager; Dave Howard is a packet-filling specialist; and Heather Jerrett is trials coordinator.
He hired his first employee in 2001 — a part-timer. Sales were $85,000 in 2002. “Now we’re talking some real money to invest in other equipment and hire other people.” He needed financing.
“I walked into Union Bank with a big jar of tomato seeds and set it on the banker’s desk and started a conversation,” he says. “The banker said, ‘We’re going to have to talk about collateral in a different way, sir.’” Stearns knows he was fortunate to have a banker willing to talk with him about a business he didn’t know anything about. As a thank-you for that first loan, a couple of years later Stearns dropped off a jar of tomato seeds for the banker’s shelf.
The years 2000 to 2005 saw rapid growth. Sales reached $450,000. “We’re still growing at about the same rate,” says Stearns, “basically 60 to 80 percent a year, but it means a lot more now.” By 2005, the company had spread beyond his wife’s pottery studio to four or five buildings and seven employees.
Growth presented its own set of challenges. “I realized that, while I was decent at managing the business up to its current size, I was not going to be good at moving it forward,” says Stearns. He had a number of friends also facing these issues, so he formed an advisory board “of very, very experienced people — seven of them,” he says. They met periodically and provided guidance in running the company.
“I decided to hire a full-time person to oversee the finances and other administrative things — not an office manager, but someone who had a lot of experience. I’m focused on production, sales, and marketing, but not on profit, internal systems and human resources. In 2005, I hired Meredith Martin Davis.”
A Dartmouth grad, Davis had been executive director of the Women Business Owners Network in Burlington and had worked at Champlain College. She had moved to Wolcott and was doing small-business consulting.
“We were right at the cusp of making a whole bunch of big decisions,” Stearns says. “Hiring her was one; moving the business to a different location was another; and getting some major loans was another.”
In August of that year, the company moved to a 13,000-square-foot warehouse in Wolcott. “Before, I had a total of 3,000 square feet in five buildings: five heating systems; some had phones, some didn’t; people were driving back and forth. Boy, was it great to have everything under one roof! We continue to be there today and will be for the foreseeable future.”
For a couple of years, Stearns and his friend Pete Johnson, the owner of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, had been getting together over beer to talk about business issues — “Do you have health insurance for folks? What’s your current conflict? Talking shop in that way,” says Stearns. By 2006, they realized there were others in the area with agriculture-based businesses who might like to join them.
“It grew into this group of 25 of us who have been meeting every month at a different person’s business. We have a potluck dinner, a tour of the place, and a focused discussion on a particular topic, all in the area of sustainable agriculture,” says Stearns. “It was where we brought our biggest challenges; our biggest successes.” They began lending money to each other — a $300,000 line of credit. They shared employees, shared facilities, developed co-branding and co-marketing programs.
Two big things have come from this group, Stearns says: the creating of a new nonprofit, the Center for an Agricultural Economy, and the beginning stages of an agricultural eco-industrial park. The Center has two full-time staffers and owns 15 acres in downtown Hardwick toward that end.
In 2006, Davis was promoted to general manager with part ownership in the company, and Stearns began seeking additional funding without having to go the typical route of bringing on venture partners. By the end of 2007, he and Davis had created a convertible debt offering, basically for angel investors, he says, and raised $800,000, “even though the economy was tanking. That’s what got me connected with Slow Money Vermont.”
Woody Tasch, the chairman of Investors Circle, a nonprofit network of socially responsible investors and foundations, heard about High Mowing’s convertible debt offering and invited Stearns to join him and 15 others to found Slow Money.
High Mowing now has 30 employees. In the current fiscal year, which ends May 31, the company expects to reach $1.6 million in sales.
Stearns laughs when asked about hobbies. “These are my hobbies!” he exclaims, then adds, “I have two beautiful girls, a beautiful wife, and we do lots of fun stuff together: grow a lot of our own food, have chickens, but have had goats and a milk cow. But for me, I really derive a lot of joy from being involved in community development and the organizational structure associated with getting these things off the ground.”
Having Davis at the helm has allowed Stearns to travel around the country sharing what he’s learned. “Agriculture is the biggest user of energy, the biggest user of water, the biggest user of land, and the biggest polluter on the planet,” he says. “It’s also the biggest contributor to our health, or, depending on what we eat, the biggest contributor to our ill health. We’ve spent the last 200 years on this planet going in a pretty dangerous direction. We have an opportunity in a limited amount of time to steer in a new direction. I feel that through the food system is the best way to do it.” •