Growing Good with Mauro Seed Co.
A Williamson County social entrepreneur puts heirloom varieties in more people’s hands.
Written By: Caroline Leland
Photographers: Nick Bumgardener
Like TOMS, but with seeds: That’s how local entrepreneur Dave Mauro explains his company. Except, unlike a pair of shoes, seeds are renewable.
“The company started as a personal mission,” Mauro says. “It was me and my family saying, ‘Hey, what can we do to give back?’”
Mauro wanted to tackle something big to make his difference in the world—he chose global hunger. Adapting the social entrepreneurship model of the TOMS shoe company, Mauro launched a business selling heirloom seeds with the motto, “Grow one, give one.” For every packet of seeds sold, Mauro Seed Co. donates a packet to a nonprofit that teaches people gardening and preserving. One of those organizations is Grow Appalachia, which focuses on the communities economically devastated by the decline of the coal industry.
“The whole handout system is a temporary solution but doesn’t solve the problem,” Mauro, who lives in College Grove in Williamson County, says.
When he first considered launching his own company, he asked himself what social issue could be solved with the teach-a-man-to-fish method. Americans used to commonly grow and preserve their own food, but the industrialization of the food industry eliminated the need to know those skills. Now that access to fresh, healthy food is a widespread issue, Mauro wants to put that power back in the hands of individuals.
Last year, Mauro Seed Co. donated enough seed to produce a million pounds of food. This year, Mauro is aiming for two million. The company processes all its orders online, and Mauro and his family do most of the packaging themselves. He says his three daughters—ages 4, 7, and 10—are a great help, though the company also sometimes hires temporary workers when demand spikes.
Mauro says he chose to sell only heirloom seeds because hybrid plants are sterile and unable to regenerate. A 1983 survey conducted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International—the most recent of its kind—showed that 93 percent of surveyed crop varieties had gone extinct in the 80 years prior.
“Heirloom varieties are seeds that have remained true to type for about 50 years,” Mauro explains. “It hasn’t been hybridized, hasn’t been genetically altered, hasn’t been augmented through crossing with other plants. It’s important because a lot of varieties have been lost over the years. We’re trying to preserve a little bit of history.”
Although Mauro is clearly a seed expert now, it might have been hard to picture him in this role just a few years ago, when he worked in the software industry. “I have no history in the food system,” he laughs. “I’m an average gardener at best.” He says that, to start this project, “I bought some seeds and threw them in the ground.”
Mauro wants to make that experience easier for other first-time gardeners—and, with a customer base across the country and nonprofit partners around the world, Mauro Seed Co. seems well on its way to sowing seeds, knowledge, and self-sufficiency worldwide.