About 10 years ago, when we started in the nursery business, at a little place on Montezuma Avenue in Cortez, Colo., we learned about seeds. We sold seeds there as seeds had been sold there for years, in package and in “bulk.”
For us, bulk seed was five crookneck- squash seeds sold for 20 cents. It did not take long for us to realize that we were losing money selling these seeds at such low quantities. There was, after all, the cost of the seeds, the seed envelope, rent, labor, the nursery license, the scale license (both payable to the State of Colorado, Department of Agriculture, Division of Plant Industry), and shrinkage – some seeds fall to the floor, or go unsold.
For every way there is to make money through imagination and labor there is another way to take this wealth away. Here is the stench that now pollutes us.
Some time back we received a letter from a Mr. Brian Allen, Colorado Department of Agriculture, Division of Plant Industry, addressed to someone other than us, informing us that we had to pay a $50 fee in order to sell “bulk” seeds, or quantities of seed greater than one pound, in Colorado. According to this Mr. Allen, this fee was at the request of the Colorado seed “community.” As we already had a Colorado Nursery License, and a Colorado Scale License, both of which were required for us to sell seeds, and as the letter, being addressed to someone other than us, contained all of the ineptness of a bureaucratic money grab, we ignored it.
Then, this last spring, we received yet another letter from Mr. Allen informing us that he had called our nursery and confirmed that we were in fact selling seed in bulk, and that if we did not pay the fee we would be further fined.
Addie, my wife, remembered a call by someone asking if we sold bulk seeds. That person made no effort to identify himself. Apparently Mr. Allen believed that he should act in some stealthy Sherlock Homes fashion in his official role as an employee of the State of Colorado, without need to explain or justify why we should pay the taxes which fund his employment.
Naturally, we became full of justifiable rage. At a time when most businesses are struggling to stay afloat, for government to ask anything more of business should require a civil request with comprehensible reasoning. As this was not done, we took our anger and transformed it into what we believed would be a simple remedy. I e-mailed Agricultural Commissioner John Salazar, Division of Plant Industry head Mitchell Yergert, and State House Rep. J.P. Brown.
Unfortunately, but predictably, nothing happened. I doubt that the message ever made it past Mr. Salazar’s handlers. Mr. Yergert referred it to an underling who emailed us back with the section and article of the Colorado seed act, but did not address the fact that this amounted to a triple taxation on a single product. Mr. Brown emailed us that we seemed to have a point, that he would see what he could do about it, and then nothing.
There are two factors in this situation that must be addressed, the first being the role of government in regulating at this level, the second being the competency of government. For each of the last 10 years that we have been in business, our nursery has been inspected by the state nursery inspector, David Gordon. We have never felt apprehensive or intimidated by Mr. Gordon. We have never objected to his inspections. While no business is perfect, we have always felt that that the health of our plants and the quality of our seeds speak for themselves.
Mr. Gordon’s job is to ensure that pests or diseases are not brought into nurseries and then released out into the communal landscape. We have always believed that being inspected is a small but worthwhile government intrusion. We have never questioned the nursery registration fee which is part of this. A disreputable nursery or box store bringing in the lowest-quality stock attainable, whether it is pest- or disease-free or not, could produce devastating results. Imagine your landscape without trees. Ips beetles, emerald ash borers, Dutch elm disease have devastated or are still changing entire ecosystems.
A small bit of government that seeks to educate, eradicate, and enforce is a reasonable price to pay for the benefit of the plant industry and the quality of life of citizens.
Our objection to this triple tax on seeds – the nursery license, the scale license, and now the seed license – is justified. The state’s reasoning for this seed law was to prevent people from being sold poor-quality seed, or seed contaminated with weeds. Fair enough on paper. But the state does not independently verify seed-germination results. A business could put new germination dates on its seed stock without ever actually testing the seed for germination quality or the presence of weeds, and the state would never know. Consumers would notice poor germination or the presence of weeds and would naturally shop elsewhere.
Consumers can regulate this themselves. Have there been riots on the streets of Greeley or Meeker, public outrage in the streets, over the issue of low-germinating seeds? Of course not. This is government developing regulations for a problem that does not exist.
The state is without consistent enforcement on seed-sellers. Is every mail-order, Internet, feed-supply, hardware, and healthfood business that is selling seed paying the same fee and maintaining consistent germination standards? After 10 years in business, the only reason we came to the notice of the state bureaucracy was that Mr. Gordon saw that we had failed to germination-test our grass seed about two years ago (an oversight on our part) and noted it on his form that went back to the state. Mr. Gordon requested that we get an updated lot test card from our supplier, Southwest Seed, which Walt Jr. promptly brought over.
Since then we have not let that ball drop again. But if this is such a problem why are they not actively searching all web sites, cataloging all catalogs, raiding all farm-supply and hardware stores in search of bulk seed? Instead they use it as an excuse to further tax those that are already being bled.
Another absurdity of this is the scale to which they are purporting a need to enforce: loose bulk seed or packages of seed greater than one pound. A government trying to regulate the selling of 70 cents’ worth of pea seeds or four pounds of blue gramma grass seed is a government trying to justify an existence that it should not have. A bluegrasstype “soccer mix” is seeded at a rate of five to eight pounds per 1,000 square feet, native blue gramma/buffalo grass at two to three pounds per 1,000 square feet. Is the purpose of government to regulate how much grass that you can buy at a time for your yard? How can the state justify interference in the private sector over such piddly crap? Why are we are funding this behavior at a time when we cannot fund schools in Colorado?
Another issue is the size of the fee. The state charges $10 for a cigarette distributor’s license but $50 for a seed license. That $50 is about 7 percent of our total sales in garden seed. When you add on the nursery license and the scale license, you the consumer are being charged about 25 cents out of every dollar by the state for the privilege of buying bulk seed, plus sales tax.
We are not alone in this. Greenfields Seed, our garden-seed supplier from Grand Junction, says most of their wholesale customers are like us, small independents selling loose seed as a convenience to their customers. And in talking to both Greenfields Seed and Southwest Seed, our seed community, neither one of them requested that the State of Colorado impose another fee upon us or them.
The second issue is the competency of those in government. If your salary and benefits are funded through tax revenues, remember that you work for us: We the people who create the wealth through our labor and risk-taking. When you demonstrate such arrogance and incompetency, our reason for funding you ceases to exist.
Finally, the issue for us is not just about a bungling bureaucracy, or a fee to pay, it is about the seeds themselves. What we are talking about with these bulk seeds are a few old hybrids, and mostly, open-pollinated seeds. Seeds that can be passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. Seeds that can provide food security to a population.
If a government denies these seeds to its people through corruption or stupidity that forces seed-sellers to no longer carry these seeds, then what is the purpose of this government? When can we say that enough is enough?
We sell these seeds not because they are a major source of revenue; they are not. We sell them because they are culturally important, a piece of our continent, a part of our main. Wando and Green Arrow, Champion and King Banquet – for us the question remains, what do we do with these seeds? Do we pull them down from the shelf, and surrender to the greater bad, or do we pay the fee and become an accessory to the stupidity and corruption that our government has become?
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Nursery and Garden Café in Cortez, Colo.