Tanya Stefanec is one of those fortunate people who makes a living doing the work she loves. She owns and operates Heritage Harvest Seed from her farm home near Carman, Man.
Her company carries over 600 varieties of rare and endangered vegetables, flowers and herbs. “We try to specialize in the really rare varieties that no one else offers,” she says. “It’s exciting to grow varieties that were grown by the first settlers or by native Canadians.”
She came across Steeves Caseknife beans (a rare strain of the Caseknife bean which was very popular in the 1800s) at a Seedy Saturday in Winnipeg, Man., a meeting place for seed savers.
Jan Steeves-Cuvelier approached her with a bag containing about 150 seeds that were 10 years old and the last of the Steeves Caseknife beans. The Steeves family had developed this rare strain but they were no longer able to carry it on.
“It’s a bean with a long history,” Stefanec says. “The beans were dried pod and all, and in the winter months the whole pod was soaked in water and made into beans and pork and cooked for hours. It was always a big Steeves family dinner when they made it.”
Stefanec accepted the seed and increased it until she was able to offer it to everyone who wanted it.
When her hobby of gardening and seed collecting grew too big for her own needs she decided to start a business. In 2004 she had her first catalogue printed and Heritage Harvest Seed was born. Two years ago she added the website http://www.heritageharvest seed.com/.
On 17 acres set aside for the seed company, Stefanec grows her flowers, vegetables and herbs to the point where there is ripe seed. The plots are hand weeded and when the seeds are ripe she harvests and processes them.
Some of the seeds, such as tomatoes, must be fermented as this increases germination. The pulp and seed is extracted from the fruit and put in a container where it is mixed once a day and left to ferment for the remainder of the day. This continues for three days until the gel around the tomato seed is gone. The seeds are then strained and dried.
Large pods such as sweet peas can be shelled by hitting with a stick or stepping on them, and chaff is then blown off with an air compressor or the wind. Tiny seeds such as petunia or lobelia require many different sizes of screens for seed cleaning.
Processing goes on into January when it’s also time to update the website, get the catalogue out and start filling orders. “There’s never a dull moment,” she says. “There’s always something to do at every point in the year.”
From about 100 in 2004 her customer base has grown to thousands from across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Sales have grown 30 to 40 per cent each year.
Seed growing is very weather dependent, she says. The last two years have been wet and that’s made things more difficult but harvests have still been good.
So far she, her husband Jesse Friesen, and her mother have been able to manage the workload with help from part-time weeders but as the business grows she’s looking at hiring more employees.
Stefanec can’t resist adding more varieties (45 in 2010) so the business will continue to expand but it will probably remain as a mail order business. This allows her more time to work at the harvesting and processing of the seed.
“It’s very rewarding work because we can make a living doing something that’s also preserving these varieties. Not every job allows you to do that,” she says.