Monitoring a machine that fills small packets with vegetable seeds, Holly Laird, 27, watches as a conveyor deposits 130 packets a minute into a cardboard box at Ferry-Morse Seed Co. in Fulton, Ky. (pop. 2,775).
Periodically, Laird plucks a packet from the box and weighs its contents, ensuring that it contains at least 200 milligrams of pepper seed. "It's the hot habanero," says Laird, her sinuses tingling from the pungent seeds. "I've been sneezing all day."
Nearby, Guynell Pierce, 68, counts packets of carrot, cucumber, lettuce, turnip and tomato seeds. "We count by 3s—3, 6, 9, 12—because its faster," says Pierce, speedily filling an order for Kenner Hardware store in Pittsburgh.
With roots dating to 1856, Ferry-Morse is among the oldest seed companies in the nation. Founded in Detroit by Dexter Mason Ferry, the company is credited with being the first to offer an assortment of individually packaged vegetable and flower seeds to retail stores. By discarding unsold packets at the end of each growing season, the company also was the first to guarantee its seeds would grow.
"We still have that same guarantee today," says John Hamrick, 50, the company's vice president of global sales and marketing in Fulton. "If it doesn't grow, we will replace the product."
Incorporated as D.M. Ferry & Co. in 1879, the company acquired its current name in 1930 when it merged with C.C. Morse & Co., a San Francisco seed grower, forming the largest garden seed company in the world. In 1959, Ferry-Morse relocated to Fulton to be more centrally located to its customers, and near the junction of two major railroads.
"At that time, almost all of our product was shipped by railroad," Hamrick says.
Today, Ferry-Morse employs 530 full-time and seasonal workers who package, market and distribute 95 million packets of vegetable, herb and flower seeds to hardware stores and garden centers each year.
"We can put out the seeds," says Alice Jackson, 61, a packet-filling department supervisor. "We have filled 500,000 to 600,000 packs of seed in a day."
Ferry-Morse, a division of Jiffy of the Americas since 2005, also assembles and sells a line of home gardening supplies, including Jiffy peat pots, seed starting kits and potting soil mixes.
Through the years, Ferry-Morse has developed and introduced hundreds of plant varieties, including Ferry's Round Dutch Cabbage, the Detroit Dark Red Beet and Kentucky Wonder Beans. Nowadays, the company does not breed its own seed. Instead, it relies on growers and suppliers to provide 500 tons of seed each year, including cantaloupe and cucumber seed from California, bean and sweet corn seed from Idaho, and flower and herb seed from England, France and Holland.
Seven generations of gardeners have come to rely on Ferry-Morse seed to produce a plethora of crops, from artichokes to zucchini.
Lisa Mailhot, 32, and her three children planted five packets of Ferry-Morse seed last spring. They were delighted to watch the tiny seeds grow into a bouquet of brightly colored marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias that attracted butterflies all summer. "There is a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we grew them from seed," says Mailhot, of Orlando, Fla.
Ferry-Morse has experienced a growth spurt in recent years as more Americans plant vegetable gardens to save money, improve their health and protect the environment.
"It's a really exciting time," Hamrick says. "Even Michelle Obama is growing a garden at the White House.
"Who knows? Maybe the first lady will plant Ferry-Morse seed this spring. It's guaranteed to grow."