Kelways were pioneers in growing, selecting and distributing their own seeds, which they did on a grand scale. They were also unusual in showing their plants at exhibitions abroad, which significantly enhanced their international reputation. They regularly attended the international exhibitions in Paris, where they won a gold medal in 1889, but they were particularly keen to break into the North American market. They won medals at shows in Chicago in 1893, St Louis in 1904 (when the Olympic Games were being held there), and in San Francisco in 1915. Their reputation must have helped them to become one of the few non-American firms who were asked to tender for a very special contract – supplying seeds to the US Government.
CONGRESSIONAL SEED DISTRIBUTION SCHEME
For the five years between 1912 and 1916 Kelways were one of the few foreign firms who won contracts to supply seeds to the United States Government under the Congressional Seed Distribution Scheme. The Office of Congressional Seed Distribution purchased seeds from commercial firms, sometimes tested them, packed and labelled them, and, in close cooperation with members of Congress, distributed them among constituents of the Congressmen. The scheme was intended to encourage American farmers to try new crops, but over the years it became simply a way of Congressmen (or women) currying favour with the farm vote.
In 1914 a total of 45 non-US firms were asked to quote, and only 7 were successful. This was the year that Kelways won their biggest ever order, for seeds worth $13,867.94, which is equivalent to nearly £200,000 today. They were mostly vegetable seeds. When the official report from the Secretary for Agriculture was published, it revealed that in 1914 the Distribution Scheme’s entire supply of parsnip seed came from Langport!
The Australians were impressed, as this extract from an article in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette, based in Darwin, reported: “This is probably one of the largest orders for flower and vegetable seeds ever received by one firm from one customer, as it is not composed even in part of agricultural seeds or of large seeds such as peas and beans. Many hundreds of acres must have been under cultivation for the production of the weight in question. How large an area such an enormous quantity of seeds would sow seems almost past human computation.”
The seeds weighed approximately 44 tons, and had to be transported to Langport East railway station in 35 lorries, as this illustration shows.
Over the whole of the 5 years Kelways earned $24,995.72 worth of business, which would be about £350,000 today. Quite an achievement!
SEEDS FOR PRISONERS OF WAR
On 24 August 1918 the Langport and Somerton Herald reported that Kelway & Son had received a letter from the Central Prisoners of War Committee thanking them for sending food seeds for prisoners of war. Letters of acknowledgement had been received from the following prisoner of war camps: Munster, Altdamm, Giessen, Lechfeld, Stendal, Dulmen, Minden, Gustrow, Gardelegen, Friedrichsfeld and Langensalza. The letter added "The men all seem most grateful and wish to thank the donors."