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Tom Stearns
High Mowing Organic Seeds
December 15, 2015

When you think about 'food jobs' people often overlook the very foundation of where our food originates: the seed. But if you spend ten minutes with Tom we guarantee that you will have a whole new appreciation for the role that seeds play in our food system, our communities, and our daily lives. His knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are only trumped by his generosity and desire to share. If you are looking for a place to flourish and grow, then High Mowing Organic Seeds is the perfect place to plant some roots

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I grew up gardening, as well as walking in the woods, all the time. But as I went away to high school and college I began to realize that this love of nature and interacting with it could be a career path. Once I discovered seed saving and plant breeding at the age of 18, I knew I was hooked. I had many mentors along the way; Mel Bristol in CT, Becky Routsen, Tim Murphy and Tim Crews in Arizona and then the entire Northeast seed crew - CR Lawn at Fedco, Nathan Corymb at Turtle Tree, Rob Johnson at Johnny's and many others. I was very fortunate to be welcomed in to every seed company I reached out to - a tradition that we continue today, as we always say yes to seed companies who ask to visit us.

How did you get your current good food job?
I am fortunate to have turned my hobby into a career and business. I do what I love every day - and it keeps changing. As the farm and seed company grows, my role changes based on what is most needed and what I am most interested in. I am stretched a lot into new areas of marketing, research, partnership negotiation, specialty equipment and more. We also provide work for many folks (63 at the moment) and it is my hope that they can each find a role here where they thrive and where their passions are put to use. We are a quickly growing company with 8 really interesting jobs currently available. We need people with the ability to work hard and work smart. We are eager to help supply organic seeds to hundreds of thousands of farmers and gardeners.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I grew up with parents who worked at home, doing their own thing, as opposed to driving away to work everyday. They never discouraged me in anything, ever. I only now realize how supportive that was. My family are all artists and artists see the world differently. They are creative people - making beauty every day - and that invites one to participate in life, not just be a bystander. The notion that anything is possible and that we can each create new things has been an amazing influence on me as I guide my own company and farm. We can choose to create a different path than those that others have taken. I think that a lot of people do this these days - in part because they hope that they, and all of us, will end up in a better and healthier place for our communities and the planet. That is certainly why I am doing it.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream? 
High Mowing has grown very quickly and I have needed to bring in a lot of expertise that I didn't have. Saying "yes" to the growth has meant that I needed to admit the things that I did not know how to do and learn to hand off responsibilities to others. That wasn't as hard as you might think, but then I had to stay out of their way. That's been a little harder sometimes. Financing has been tricky too sometimes - but with creative models, we have been able to build some good wealth for community lenders while they met our needs for flexibility, patience and a lower interest rate than traditional financing. Again, I had to gain the confidence that a different approach was possible. With that mindset, we have always found a good road through various challenges.

Name one positive thing that a former boss / employer / manager taught you that you continue to use / admire / appreciate?
CR Lawn told me that good people will help you grow your business and that doing everything to keep them was usually worth it. He is totally right and that advice has served me well and made me very clear that I want to be surrounded by very smart, effective and passionate co-workers. A lot of folks gave me bad or limiting advice about how there was no way that this organic seed company thing would ever work. But thank goodness I didn't listen to it. In fact, their words probably made me just work harder to prove them wrong.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now? 
High Mowing has a lot of opportunities and how we evaluate and test them will be important. While following our gut is critically important, if we do so without data or testing different possibilities, we run unnecessary risks. We need to balance our work on the basics - delivering exceptional quality organic seeds of exceptional varieties - with new and innovative work such as breeding new varieties and investing in new facilities. Both make this place work, but focusing on one without the other would not be wise and would lead to becoming out of balance as a farm and business.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
I get to travel, learn new things and meet and work with amazing people. I really could not wish for more. At High Mowing, every employee gets free food from our research farm and trades we do with other local farms (and cheese makers - yum!), free garden space, seeds and seedlings and many other special benefits. I love all of these for my family too and am glad that we care about our team like they are family. Check out these 8 new jobs that we have posted and consider what a life in Northern Vermont might be like for you. Our region is a hotbed of organic farming and food business activity with more organic farms per capita that any other place in the World - over 300 within 30 miles!

Editor's Note:
While we have limited space for our introduction above, we figured that we'd add additional information for those that are captivated by Tom's story. This profile does not come close to doing justice to capturing Tom's energy and enthusiasm. Tay likes to call Tom 'the Michael Jackson of Seed Saving' - namely because it is a rare combination to have solid experience doing something for decades, but still be so vibrant and full of youth. Tom has been saving seeds since his pre-teen years, and running a seed company for nearly two decades - all before he reaches 40. 

There's also just a profound richness that comes from interacting with people that truly care about what they do - so much so that they've dedicated decades of their lives to a given pursuit. In our opinion, sharing this energy is what makes life worth living. 

We're eager to see what continues to happen with High Mowing. It's through using their seeds - and the knowledge that they so freely share - that Taylor caught the gardening bug in Vermont. Their trials gardens, and breeding plots (done the old fashioned way in the field, not the laboratory), and seed farm are the most incredible growing plots that you will find - full of the most beautiful and flavorful specimens we've ever encountered. 

Whether you are interested in contributing positively to the food system, educating folks about the fundamentals of good food, or are eager to use your agricultural background in a way that has a larger impact, we highly recommend checking out the opportunities at High Mowing Organic Seeds. If you ever have questions about life in the Northeast Kingdom of VT let us know at hello at goodfoodjobs dot com. We are happy to provide first hand information that might be of use. 

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