Growing ahead of the pack in seed germination

Published: August 2019 I By: Michael Sheather, Photography: Pip Farquharson

Royston Petrie Seeds is a family-owned and run business up against multinational competitors. Decades of know-how give this family’s passion an edge in the seed growing market. 

 

Rowena Petrie in the dry conditioning room. Seeds can last from a few years to centuries if correctly stored. Photography by Pip farquharson. 
VIGNA angularis, Cynara scolymus and Beta vulgaris – no, despite how these names might sound, they are not a cast list from TV’s Game of Thrones. These are the scientific names of the adzuki bean, the purple-head artichoke, and the lyrically evocative Burpee golden beetroot. And they are just a few among the many thousands of plant varieties available as seed from the storage facilities of Royston Petrie Seeds, a little-known yet immensely successful seed business based in Mudgee.

The company, owned and run by Rowena Petrie, supplies a huge array of seeds to nurseries, commercial growers, revegetation companies, plantations, landscaping businesses, wholesalers, market gardeners, primary producers, and home gardeners right across Australia and overseas.

It is a perfect example of a small family-run company that has found a niche in the challenging world of agribusiness. The seed industry in Australia is dominated by big multinational companies with deep pockets. A family-owned and run business in this environment is a rarity, much like many of the seeds the company sells.

Seeds, and the plants that grow from them, have been a passion for Rowena since she was a child, a passion she inherited from her father Royston Petrie, who started the company in 1976.

“The majority of people don’t realise just how important seeds are to everything that we do,” says Rowena. 
 

Rowena checking her cottage garden mix, an assortment of different flower seeds.
 
“Seeds are the basis of everything we eat, most of what we drink, what we wear and how we live each day as human beings. That’s how important seeds are. And I love being a part of that.” 

“Every single day is different, every season is different with different demands and ideas and plants. It’s dynamic and it’s exciting.”

The company provides more than 5,000 different varieties of seeds, both domestically and internationally, and runs three production farms – a tree-seed farm on 40 hectares; a 28ha property dedicated to annual crops; and another 12ha property with annuals further down the road.

Until 2001 the company was based on a property at Kenthurst, north-west of Sydney, but a lack of affordable space meant that the family had to go west of the Dividing Range to find the right land, and that search brought them to Mudgee.
 

Harvesting xanthorrhoea seeds from the plant’s spikes. 

“Mum and Dad moved out to Mudgee a few years before and we soon realised that this was the perfect climate for seed production,” says Rowena. “It’s dry with low humidity, and that suits a lot of our principal seed crops such as watermelon, pumpkins and tomatoes. We found a piece of land with plenty of water and off we went.

“We work with isolated plots of land because of biosecurity and cross-pollination issues between varieties,” she says. 

“When we grow watermelons, we can only grow one variety on the property. Otherwise it will cross-pollinate with other varieties. It’s the same with pumpkins and cucumbers. You have to know your neighbours well enough to say please don’t grow any pumpkins on your land – we’ll give you some of ours.”

Australia’s seed market is dynamic and highly diversified. In fact, the national industry is worth about $560 million a year and employs 600 people across the country in 140 businesses.

Servicing that means paying attention to changing influences and technology, and being prepared to go the extra mile to meet those changes. “We sell to anyone,” says Rowena. “We don’t advertise as such and most of our customer base has been built up over decades by word-of-mouth. But that means you must be on the ball.

“We have been doing a lot of work in Sydney recently with the new M4 motorway and revegetation of stations on the North West Rail Link [now called Sydney Metro Northwest], and a lot of the Pacific Highway upgrades.

“We provide Australian native seeds and seed mixes that the hydro-mulching teams use. They put the seed and the mulch into a big machine and then spray it out into the area to be revegetated. We work with the hydro-mulching guys, but they get their species lists from the designers, environmentalists and architects that have created the project. You have to make sure you have the right species for the area.”

The company also supplies seeds for promotional activities – think the seed packets on the front of your favourite magazine, as well as many of the major seed brands sold in hardware and nursery stores.
 

The farm’s seed store. 

More than that, the business reacts to market demands. For example, this year the company is growing 12 types of tomatoes to extract seeds. But within a few years demand may change, meaning the family will grow up to 60 varieties.

“You have to be listening to the market all the time,” Rowena says. “Generally with a fad it tends to last more than one season. Kale, for example, is starting to go off the boil now, but it has been around for about five years, so we will start to pull back on our seed production. At the same time there is now a growing demand for bee and butterfly-attracting varieties, so that is all the rage.”

And demand, whether faddish or not, can come from some unexpected places. “One of the attractions of working in this industry is the innovation I see from our customers,” Rowena says. “They’ll come to me and say ‘What about this? Do you think it’ll work?’ I’ll scratch my head and say, ‘Well, it sounds a little kooky, but you could give it a go’. Next thing you know they have something starting to take off.

“We have been working with a guy in Queensland for a couple of years now and we sell him broccoli seeds. He sprouts the plant, then cuts it, dries it, grinds it up and puts it in a capsule. There are always different fads around and we just have to keep up with what they are. It’s my customers who keep me interested because they come up with ideas and they just make my head spin.”

RELATED: Organic broccoli farmers innovating with powders
 

Rowena holding a small canister containing thousands of begonia seeds.

The skills of seed production are delicate and complicated. In fact, there are no formal seed-production courses available in Australia. If the company wants to train its staff they must be sent overseas for courses in seed production. 

Handing down the knowledge of seed saving and production 

Rowena’s skills have been passed down from father to daughter. “How do you extract pumpkin seed from a pumpkin without damaging the seed? The answer is nowhere near as simple as it might seem,” she says.

“How would you know to use sugar in the fermentation process? How would you know the sugars break through the slimy film around the seed without damaging it? How long do you soak it for? Some seeds we use acid, some we don’t. 
 

Rowena with the company’s high-tech sorting machine, which has a full-colour optical sorter that can identify and reject imperfect produce. 

RELATED: Christmas tree farmer cuts production time by 50% with innovative gadget
 
“Every single seed variety has a different processing method. The plants all germinate in a separate way, too. They might take two days to germinate or they might take two months. 
 
 
“I knew one bloke who threw something out after 12 months of it not germinating and it sprouted everywhere like a weed. It’s just about the right conditions.”


Between Royston Petrie’s three farms, Rowena grows everything from tomatoes and watermelons to trees and shrubs, but it’s a production cycle that is out of kilter with mainstream cropping.

“You basically have to wait until the fruit is rotting on the ground and then you go and pick it up because any seed is only mature when the material around it has broken down,” she says. 

“You don’t pick your tomatoes when they are firm, you pick them when you can scoop them up off the ground. It’s the same with watermelon. We only pick them up when they have started to crack because that’s when the seeds are at their peak.”

The industry can also be challenging in other ways. Issues around biosecurity abound. “You have to think ahead and keep up to date with plant health,” says Rowena. 

RELATED ARTICLES: 
What’s bugging our biosecurity experts?
Flower industry at risk without added biosecurity controls

“We have the Department of Primary Industries come out and look at our crops every year just to make sure we are running a healthy show. And when we do go to export, we make sure we have all of our certification in order.”


Handfuls of beans produced at Royston Petrie Seeds. 

As well as exporting to countries around the world, Rowena also imports seeds from a variety of markets. “There simply aren’t enough seed producers here in Australia to meet the market’s demands, so we have to import from other countries,” she says.

Rowena is careful to look to the future. She ensures samples of all the plant varieties grown on her property go into a seed vault where they are stored against the vagaries of climate, fashion and potential disaster. 
 

The form-fill seal machine can make 22,000 sachets of seed a day. 

“My dad had a fantastic collection of what he called ‘mother seed’ for tomatoes,” says Rowena. “And every year we would put in one of the varieties from this collection – some of them might be 40 years old. Tomatoes still germinate after that amount of time.

“We have been able to revive many varieties of tomato that haven’t been available for decades, just by going through this collection. In that way you can reinvigorate the seed stock and keep the variety alive. It’s really important to keep those because if we lose them then they are gone forever.”  
 

Farmer Rowena with her seedling trays.

A life’s work in seed germination

Royston Petrie Seeds has its genesis back in the late 1940s when Rowena’s father, Royston, was a boy. His father died when he was just 12 and he and his brother were sent to an Anglican boys’ home in Carlingford,north-west Sydney.

Plants soon became the focus of Royston’s world and he worked in the home’s kitchen gardens planting and caring for everything from carrots to cabbages. In his spare time, he rode his bicycle to nearby bush, climbing trees and gathering tree seeds for Harry Kershaw, who later launched Australia’s first tree-seed business.

After a stint as a packer for a local nursery, Royston moved to work in Parramatta at Rumsey’s Seeds, a nursery famous for its roses. 

When that business was sold to Yates in 1965, Royston stayed on with the Rumsey family while it established New World Seeds. When New World Seeds was bought by Yates in 1966, Royston went with it and worked with Yates for nearly a decade. In 1976, he branched out on his own to set up Royston Petrie Seeds.

Coming full circle, the company, with Royston’s daughter Rowena at the helm, purchased Jarit Vegetable Seeds from the Rumsey family in 2018. 


Puss, the working cat – Rowena’s pet catches mice in the shed.

Enjoy this story? Want more in-depth news on farming in NSW? Members of NSW Farmers receive a free glossy monthly magazine called The Farmer, direct to their letterbox, with over 130 pages of exclusive news, views and deep analysis. Plus of course, you get all the benefits of being a member of the largest state farming organisation. Join here