Hold a Cambridge Pacific-made seed packet in your hand, and you are holding something connected to a lot of

...agricultural history.

The roots of seed packet manufacturing in the quiet Washington County, New York valley where the company is located are long indeed — one can trace them back to the mid-1800s, when the J.B. Rice Seed Company held sway in a complex of brick buildings downtown, and maintained the so-called ‘trial gardens’ on Washington Street where varieties of seeds could be planted, tested and evaluated. Besides many production employees, the company had salesmen who would hit the road annually to go store-to-store, picking up unsold seed boxes and taking orders for next year.

Come 1939...

The firm was purchased by Associated Seed Growers, and a man named Lyman White moved into town to manage its operations (he was no stranger to the business; plus, his father had worked for Ferry-Morse and served two terms as head of the American Seed Trade Association). By the late 1960s, changes were sweeping the industry. With his retirement imminent, and with the vision of establishing his own firm, Cambridge Seed Packet Company firmly in mind, Lyman and his wife purchased a converting machine while on vacation in Germany, and had it shipped to their Cambridge home.

The converting machine (to fold and glue together die cut packet forms) and a second-hand die press found a new home in an old barn Lyman renovated, together with another rather cantankerous English-made converting machine; only one person would ever figure out how to operate it. Thus, the fledgling Cambridge Seed Packet Company went into operation in late 1971. Printing for the time being was jobbed out to a firm in North Adams, Massachusetts 50 minutes away. The finished press sheets were loaded into the back of a pickup truck for the journey to Cambridge, an arrangement that worked fine for the most part, until one day the truck pulled away too quickly and a whole skid of plates fell off in the street.

Lyman’s little firm was at first a niche company, tuned to short runs and stock packets; Lyman frequently provided images for them from his photographs. His wife, son and daughter worked in the barn as well, and soon others joined them. Changes came again in 1986 when Lyman, by then 80, sold the business to California-based Pacific Lithograph, with the stipulation that the company would stay in Cambridge. This, then, was the formation of Cambridge Pacific.

When one considers that Cambridge Pacific today still has close ties to agriculture, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that another thread of its various roots of origin has to do with chickens––and eggs. But first, it’s important to realize that at least a dozen years before Chris Belnap––the company’s owner today––hatched the idea of moving his burgeoning printing business to what is now known as ‘the coop’ in Cambridge, the long blue building was one of several used in the area in the operation of Owlkill Farms. Indeed, the coop, during its heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s, was home to 60,000 laying hens, and worthy of its nickname.

While the original barn out in the countryside that housed the cranky English converting machine is gone, the tradition of a seed packet business based in a barn goes on: the plant’s new office/production building is called ‘the barn’ and is the counterpart to the older production plant next door that’s still called ‘the coop’, home to state-of-the-art Heidelberg printing equipment.

Loads of paper now come in tractor trailer truckloads and press sheets are no longer carried around in pickup trucks, although perhaps in a nod to tradition, the boss’s old ’64 Chevy pickup truck is the star of the parking lot. Downtown, at the end of Washington Street, the old trial gardens where seeds were tried out long years ago is now known the Community Garden. While times have changed, it seems likely that the recipe for growth in the seed business, and maintaining close ties to agriculture, customers and community, will always stay the same in Cambridge.