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How We Came to Own an Italian Seed Company

How We Came to Own an Italian Seed Company

Posted by Dan Nagengast on 11th Mar 2024

Along about 2010, life for me was getting a little mundane. We had been farming since 1988, and my body was starting to suffer oil leaks and warning lights pretty regularly. Vegetable and flower growing, the way we did it, was a young person’s game. Our kids were grown. I had been working for the Kansas Rural Center for 20 years, and the joy was going out of grant writing and reporting to funders - which were big parts of every hot idea I ever tried to bring into reality.

Lynn’s magazine - Growing for Market - was humming along, and enriched her life every day, with new people and new ideas and beauty. She was on top of it. 

One of her advertisers was a guy named Bill McKay, who owned Seeds from Italy. He operated out of his house in the northern suburbs of Boston. About 10 years earlier, trying to find vegetable varieties that his Italian grandmother used, and being frustrated, he decided to try to import them. One thing led to another. He bragged about it to all his friends and shared his seed and produce. Eventually, they asked him to bring some seed in for them, and the business was born.

So Bill built the business, but it had been a retirement project in his 60s and he was ready to really retire. He called Lynn one day in 2010 to re-up his advertisement in GFM. He and Lynn are both good at conversation, and in the course of their chat, he mentioned he thought he had already sold the business, but the buyer had fallen through, so here he was, advertising one more year.

Lynn, knowing of my loss of enthusiasm with my work, inquired about the details of the business. I was in New Orleans for a conference at the time. She said she would talk to me when I got back, and he told her his best retail store outlet was Central Market, in the French Quarter right across from the Cafe du Monde. The next day, I wandered over before lunch. The place was famous for its muffaletta sandwiches and there was a line out the door. But it was also a grocery, so I wandered in and looked at a wall rack full of these beautiful seed packets.

I talked to a woman stocking shelves and she told me they sold really well. I said, “But there is hardly any vegetable growing space in the French Quarter, why would people buy so much seed?” She said, “I don’t know. It’s New Orleans. Maybe people are smoking them.” I bought some packs to carry home and show Lynn. Interestingly, an Italian friend of ours in Topeka had brought us some of the same lettuce varieties years earlier, when we were market gardening there.

So we just kept talking with Bill, and he introduced us to Giampiero Franchi, the owner and head of the family that had started the business in 1783.

One of the pleasures of working with a 240-year-old family business is the archive of vintage photographs and seed catalogs, including from the 1940s during WWII - Italian Victory Gardens. Turns out spoons, tiny paper packets, glue pots and ranks of women in long dresses were important at one point.

Giampiero is an engineer and hadn’t assumed he would become the seventh generation owner, but the time came, and the family called. He was the obvious one.

Read the full article.