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Save the seeds! America’s oldest seed company in peril!

September 19, 2011 - 03:36 PM
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Barb Melera and her husband, Peter, decided to buy the D. Landreth Seed Company eight years ago when they learned that the tiny but storied operation was about to close up shop. Despite an illustrious history and roots dating back to 1784, Landreth’s business was hopelessly outdated and on the verge of death. Barb Melera says there was no interest from anyone to buy the company. “Nobody stepped up except two nitwits,” she says. “That would be me and my husband.”

With a combination of loans and their own money, the Meleras scooped up the New Freedom, Pa.-based company. “We felt very strongly that it was a part of American history that needed to be saved,” she says by telephone. “It’s the quintessential American business. Just like we treasure things like our great houses, like Monticello and Mount Vernon, we felt it was important to preserve a great American business.”

A lovely notion, and the Meleras very nearly pulled it off. For eight years, the couple worked to modernize Landreth. The company owned no computers when they took over. Accounting was done on index cards; seed labels were typed on a typewriter. She says every piece of Landreth’s ancient equipment broke within the first six weeks.

But the couple was in love with the history of the seed company, the first in America. Landreth was the first to introduce zinnias to the U.S., in 1798. In 1811, the company debuted white-flesh potatoes, replacing the unpopular yellow potatoes that had previously reigned. And in 1826, Landreth introduced Bloomsdale spinach, the modern spinach we eat today. The charming lineage made the risk worth it for the Meleras, even though the company had been greatly diminished over the centuries.

The new owners managed to turn Landreth back to profitability—the company made a profit in 2010 and Melera says it should again in 2011—partly based on the growing national interest in heirloom seeds, which Landreth specializes in, and on a bit of nostalgia. The company went from a customer base of about 350 to nearly 4,000.

Despite the return to profitability, the D. Landreth Seed Company is once again on its last legs. One lender has called in her $250,000 loan to the company, and the Meleras are scrambling to pay it back. Behind that noteholder are more, and at least one other is ready to sue if the debt isn’t repaid, Melera says.

And what is Landreth’s grand plan to raise the money? Sell seed catalogues. One million of them. This month. Landreth sold 50,000 all year last year.

“I don’t know that we would really be able to sell one million catalogues,” Melera admits. In fact, the $5 catalogue price (which includes shipping) wouldn’t in of itself go toward the $250,000 debt. They’re hoping that enough catalogues will be ordered to get a printing discount, and the money saved on printing would cover the debt. “It’s only if we can print this catalogue in huge quantities,” says Melera. “But,” she adds, “we’ve had growing interest in the catalogue because it’s a very unique document.”

The catalogue that now has the future of the D. Landreth Seed Company pinned to it is expected to hold 100 pages of seed listings, historic information, and drawings, plus a history for every single vegetable category and “select history” for more popular flowers. This catalogue will include some original catalogue covers dating back to 1839. “They’re so beautiful,” she promises.

The company has raised $59,335 in online orders as of Monday, with an additional $1,675 from a site set up to collect donations. (Melera says the money is only accessible if she and her husband raise enough.) That puts them quite shy of $250,000, but not impossibly so. Melera is confident that if this looming debt can be paid off, Landreth will thrive.

“We do have some other note holders, but they’re much more patient,” she says. “If we get these initial guys paid off, we’ll be fine. We’re in good financial shape except for this debt.”

“This was an almost impossible thing to turn around,” adds Melera, who is a career venture capitalist. “This, actually, I look at as my greatest professional success."

 

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