Profile: View from the UK home of seed growing

Matthew Appleby talks to Kings Seeds, one of the country's last wholesale seed-producing merchants.

Kings Seeds says it is one of the big five seed companies - along with Mr Fothergills, Thompson & Morgan (T&M), Unwins and Suttons. But Essex-based Kings is probably the least well-known, according to new commercial development manager Ian Riggs.

He says many people don't know much about the company, other than it is long-established and supplies gardening groups. In fact, since 1977 Kings has been sole supplier to the National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners.

Kings sees little growth in existing allotment sales because they are mostly full, so the firm is actively targeting private allotment companies. It suggests that building private allotments could be a better deal than growing set-aside or grant-maintained crops for farmers to sell.

Kings values the database of allotment clients because it shows what gardeners want to grow on them by crop and variety. Riggs says it shows that "new people are more adventurous, growing pak choi and baby salads". He adds: "No one sees the complete picture like Kings."

The company supplies more than 1,000 retail outlets and also sells to commercial growers. It foresees some shortages this year. Marketing manager Tony Ward says: "It takes a year to contract grow seed. After last year, some people have been bringing crops forward - robbing from 2010 for 2009. Some companies have been spot buying."

Mint is "a nightmare at the moment" but broad bean seeds have recovered after running short a couple of years ago. He points out that it only takes promotion of a vegetable by TV chef Jamie Oliver to create a rush.

For 2010, Kings predicts runs on baby leaf salad because it is easy to grow and patio crops that grow to a maximum height of 50cm in the retail market. It expects further increases in oriental vegetable seed sales "because of the different types of people getting allotments".

Slower sellers are broccoli and other brassicas because they take longer to grow and the newer gardener is unwilling to wait. The biggest seller in vegetable seeds is carrot, but sales in 2007-09 also shot up for winter squash (62%), parsnips (26%), melon (12%), marrow (29%), tomatoes (17%), peppers (16%), kohl rabi (27%) and fennel (31%), often because of coverage by TV cooks. Celery fell most (39%), "because it's so difficult to grow".

Ward adds: "You publicise the exotics and force the market but a lot of gardeners don't want orange cauliflower. Traditional varieties sell best for Kings, for instance, tomatoes such as Gardener's Delight and Moneymaker as well as Little Gem lettuce. We will only bring in new if it tastes significantly better or is disease resistant."

Most of the firm's business is mass market bulk varieties with little emphasis on the novelties launched annually by its rivals. Riggs says: "Most new varieties don't last in the catalogues but they keep your name in the limelight."

The company, which dates back to 1888, still lists 120 lines from then in its catalogue. It employs 35 permanent staff. On the retail side, Kings representatives and agents cover the British Isles to merchandise and top up displays.

Riggs says Kings is one of the last surviving wholesale horticultural seed producing merchants in the country. Based in the dry south east, along with Moles and T&M, old names such as Cullens, Cramphorns and Hursts have had their grounds sold for building.

Once there were 20 seed producers in Essex, including Dobbies and Bypass Nurseries, producing seed for the world before the trade moved to California.

Pioneer EW King died in 1930, but the firm is still run by 17, mainly family, shareholders. EW King set up eight memorial homes in nearby Coggeshall and the company is also doing its bit with the Help for Heroes charity sweet pea.

Kings now claims to be one of the largest organic seed suppliers in the world, with 300 lines certified by the Soil Association. But Ward says a lot of seed is uneconomic to produce organically, adding 50-60% more to production costs in a "cut-throat market". He asks: "Are people going to pay that for it?"

The company claims the largest sweet pea range in commercial quantities in the world, including dozens of single colours as well as bulk mixes, and the UK's largest selection of herbs — sold through Suffolk Herbs, which Kings bought in 1991.

Kings produces its own rhubarb and sweet pea seed on its land and imports seed from around the world, including Malta, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India and Italy. Ward says: "We are different to everyone else because we grow, harvest, seed, pack and dispatch."

Managing director Les Day insists that Kings's uniformity of variety is a strength. "Proper gardeners know what the plants should look like," he says. "Originals can get contaminated. You have to look after your seed stock or you get rogues."

In response to seed trials by magazines, he notes: "People say seed is not as good as it used to be. That's rubbish. The 1920 Seeds Act had carrots as 50% minimum germination standards. Now it's 65 per cent and we have our own standards way above that.

"There have been huge improvements in seed from 1920, which shows that trials saying seed is not as good as it used to be are rubbish. Seed germination has been regulated better over the years to favour the end user."

Ward says the conversion rate for sales from catalogues for some in the industry are as low as four per cent. Kings claims a 40 per cent conversion of catalogues sent out to orders. Day adds that 30% of mail order sales are now through the web "but people still want a catalogue and often request on the net".

Sensing reason to be optimistic about the future, Riggs says: "If people are growing their own for economic reasons, then that is in place for five more years."

 

MARKET STATISTICS

UK annual seed sales estimated at 50-65 million packets, including 12 million magazine covermounts.

HTA data for year ending September 2008 shows that garden centres had a 27% share of edible plant seeds and 43% of ornamental plant seeds (31% overall share).

Total seed market is worth £76m a year, according to the HTA.


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