As seed company grows, gardeners grow
Operation specializes in organic and heirloom vegetables
By RENE FEATHERSTONé
For the Capital Press
ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Fear of supermarket food is rising.
That's how Greg and Sue Lutovsky read garden seed market trends from their vantage point as owners of producer-handler-marketer Irish Eyes seed company.
"Up until the last two years, our average customers were females in their mid-50s," Greg Lutovsky said. "Lately we've noticed a real influx of new gardeners. We can tell by the questions they ask that they're young and inexperienced."
In conversations with those new gardeners, genetically modified food almost always comes up, he said. "Overall, fear of GMOs has been a big driving force for our business."
Irish Eyes specializes in organic and heirloom varieties of tubers, bulbs and early season vegetables. Much of their seed potato and garlic production they raise on their own 175 acres west of town.
It's a windy place, and that's a potato advantage, Lutovsky said.
"The wind keeps the plants dry as soon as the irrigation goes off, and the wind also carries aphids past our place, so disease is no problem," he said.
A dozen times a year they get inspected by the state agriculture department, several for organic certification, the others by "the state's potato people," who check the plants for signs of disease, Lutovsky said.
The potato production is diverse: 10 pages of their catalog list heirlooms such as Austrian Crescent, Bintje, Anoka and Caribe.
On the garlic side they raise cultivars of the porcelain group as well as purple stripe and artichoke types.
"We grew 90,000 pounds of garlic last year," Lutovsky said. "We harvested into 1,000 cherry bins. They each hold between 90 pounds and 120 pounds of garlic."
In addition they produce vegetable seed, although some of that production they contract with 11 family farms throughout the Northwest.
In marketing, Irish Eyes reaches several tiers besides catalog sales. For six weeks in spring they sell plant starts in flats at the Ellensburg farmers' market. Some of their seed also goes to large companies such as Burpee, and some goes directly to garden centers and health food stores. They also export to countries including Holland, Japan and Norway.
Operating in the Kittitas Valley since 1996, the company has 25 employees.
"One thing we try to create here is year-round employment," he said.