MOUNT HOREB — As long as Aaron Whaley can remember, he has been immersed in the seed business, either growing, preserving or selling seeds to customers around the world.
So it was only natural that when Whaley and his wife, Becky, left Aaron’s hometown of Decorah, Iowa, nine years ago and struck out on their own, they would start a business that focused on seeds.
The Whaleys are the owners of the A.P. Whaley Seed Co., a Mount Horeb-based firm that specializes in wholesale and bulk vegetable seed orders. They have trial gardens on their 175-acre organic farm south of Mount Horeb and contract with growers in the U.S., Mexico and Asia to grow open-pollinated, non-GMO, heirloom and cutting-edge hybrids that are primarily sold wholesale to seed companies across the country.
Aaron’s parents, Kent Whealy and Diane Ott Whealy, founded the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, in 1975, and Aaron worked with his parents for 15 years before striking out on his own in 2010. His wife was born and raised in the Madison area, prompting the move to Wisconsin.
“I’ve been involved with the seed industry as long as I can remember,” Aaron said. “It was one of those deals where we could have stayed in Decorah another 25 years, but we really wanted to get back here.”
Whaley has maintained a close relationship with Seed Savers, as one of 10 wholesale seed suppliers for the Iowa firm. His company has about 50 other wholesale seed companies who put A.P. Whaley seeds into their own seed packets and sell to customers worldwide.
Because the farm is off the beaten path and specializes in the wholesale market, not many area people know about the company or understand what takes place there.
The farm has trial gardens where the focus is breeding and selection of disease-free, high-performance seed varieties that are well suited for organic and conventional cropping systems.
A.P. Whaley sends stock seed to seven growers around the world who grow commercial quantities of seed for the company. The companies send the finished seeds to Mount Horeb where they are cleaned, tested and shipped to A.P. Whaley’s wholesale customers. Most of the seeds are grown in California, Mexico and China.
“Our customers are winding down their 2019 sales right now and already starting their plans for next year,” Whaley said. “They need six months prep time to get everything ready. These are mostly mail-order companies, so they have to put together their inventories and create a catalog that they can send to their customers.”
The busiest time of the year at A.P. Whaley is December and January, when the seeds are tested and sent out to customers.
“Once we know it’s clean, we can start selling it,” he said.
A.P. Whaley is one of only a few companies across the country that virus tests seeds before they are sold. About 25 percent of the company’s business is virus testing pepper and tomato seeds.
Virus testing is becoming more and more important as viruses take hold of garden plants and damage an otherwise promising crop.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden in August my tomato crop went downhill,’” Whaley said. “It was probably tomato mosaic virus, which is very common. If your checks and balances aren’t in place with your seed processing and cleaning, it can get out of control. It happens a lot with cheap seed that isn’t tested.”
Seeds are stored in a climate-controlled office, warehouse and greenhouse that were built on the farm in 2015, where the store-room temperature is always 60 degrees and the humidity is held at 40 percent.
“That’s a big deal with seed storage — you want constant conditions,” he said. “You don’t want any spikes.”
Some seeds can be kept as long as four to five years and still maintain their germination and vigor traits, Whaley said. Seeds are tested for germination every six months.
A.P. Whaley has five full-time employees who work in the test plots, handle seeds that come in from growers and coordinate testing and shipping.
Whaley said he has no intention to sell the company’s seeds via a retail outlet although anyone can buy the seeds through the company’s catalog.
“At Seed Savers I was working with 40 to 50 people a year for seasonal employment (in the company’s retail store), and I don’t want to go back to that,” he said.
Wisconsin is not an ideal area for growing vegetable seeds, Whaley said, with high humidity that often spawns disease. That’s why the company contracts with growers in dry, arid regions for commercial production.
“We have about 200 acres of seed production this year with our contract growers, and it’s all hand labor,” he said. “Labor is a huge issue. Sometimes we can’t get the labor in California so that’s why we end up going to Mexico or China.”
Like at Seed Savers, none of the seeds A.P. Whaley handles are genetically modified. Whaley said there is a distinct difference between the creation of a hybrid and the genetic modification of plant material.
Unlike hybrids, GMOs are created in laboratories using gene-splicing technology. A hybrid is created by selective breeding and hand pollination.
“In agriculture, genetically engineered crops are created for the purpose of having traits such as pest resistance, herbicide resistance, or increased nutritional value,” A.P. Whaley’s website explains. “The problem is that nobody knows how these unnatural new organisms will behave over time.”
A.P. Whaley’s specialty has become tomatoes and peppers, and Whaley expects that aspect of the business to continue to grow.
“I expect over the next 10 years we’ll introduce 25 new tomato varieties, if not more,” he said. “Everyone is looking for varieties that are resistant to powdery mildew, leaf mold or late blight, and we have varieties that are resistant to all of those. We have some really unique things going on here.”
Two of the company’s latest tomato varieties were recently selected as “All-American Award Winners” by AAS, a nonprofit plant trialing organization that tests new, never-before-sold varieties for the home gardener. Whaley said he believes the two selections were the first ever to be awarded to a Wisconsin company.
Whaley has a herd of Ancient White Park cattle on the farm that he brought with him from Iowa. The herd currently consists of 25 cows and 40 steers.
Ancient White Park cattle are a rare breed that originated in England about 2,000 years ago. The horned animals are different from White Park cattle, which are polled, and British White Park, an unrelated breed.
Whaley said there are only about a half-dozen registered herds of Ancient White Park cattle in the U.S.
The farm’s beef is sold to two meat stores, directly to consumers and to the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative.