Join us on a journey into the heart of Georgia's Department of Agriculture Seed Lab in Tifton. Delve into the meticulous process of testing every seed sold in Georgia, ensuring top-notch quality for farmers and consumers alike. From the rigorous inspections to the specialized testing procedures, discover how these small seeds play a vital role in shaping the state's billion-dollar agriculture industry. Learn about the dedicated team behind the scenes and gain insight into the intricate science that transforms seeds into the crops we rely on every day.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) Laboratories protect consumers by ensuring their food, fuel, seed, and feed meet the highest quality standards.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) Laboratories protect consumers by ensuring their food, fuel, seed, and feed meet the highest quality standards.



Dee Dee Smith: When you're when when you're talking about buying seed in the state of Georgia, we try to encourage farmers to buy certified seed, because when you're buying certified seed, you're buying that seed that has a higher standard. It's required higher germination standards, higher purity standards to be sold as a class of certified seed. So you might pay a little bit more for it, but you're getting a lot better quality.

David Zelski: Seeds are small, but they're filled with life, and it takes a whole lot of science for them to become the food we eat every day. At the Department of Agriculture Seed Lab in Tifton, they test the seeds that turn into the crops we love.

Theme Song: I came from the mud, there's dirt on my hands. Strong like a tree, there's roots where I stand.

David Zelski: I'm David Zelski, and this is the Fork in the Road podcast presented by Georgia Grown and the fine folks at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Each episode, we feature stories from Georgia's farmers, fishermen, merchants, artisans, chefs and others who help provide Georgia-grown products to folks in the Peach State and beyond. Today, we're traveling I-75 south to Tifton, Ga. This is where we'll find the Department of Agriculture's Seed Lab. Now, what exactly is the Department of Agriculture's Seed Lab? I'm glad you asked. This is where they test every type of seed sold in Georgia to ensure the overall quality of our crops. The seed lab personnel are just as important to agriculture as the farmers that tend to the crops. But here, instead of overalls and work gloves, you'll see lab coats and latex. I spent the day with Dee Dee Smith. She's the director of the Seed Lab. She explained that every type of seed for sale in the state of Georgia has been inspected by their agency.

Dee Dee Smith: We are a regulatory agency for the seed industry in the state of Georgia, which means that any farmer or consumer that goes in and you know, your regular hardwood store or a big seed supply store, and he's buying a bulk seed or a small little bitty 1-ounce package of flower seeds. We've tested those seeds to make sure that when they put them in the ground and put them under the right planting conditions, that those seeds are going to come up and produce a normal plant is to make sure that we're putting a top quality product in the marketplace for the consumers, in the agricultural industry, for the state of Georgia.

David Zelski: Now think about that for a minute. Even those little tiny packs of flower seeds have been tested by a scientist. I think we're like two minutes into the podcast and already my mind is blown. Okay, now, because this is Georgia and about 50% of all peanuts grown come from the Peach State, during a certain part of the year the Seed Lab is an absolute madhouse.

Dee Dee Smith: We test everything, but from from December till about the 1st of May, mid-May, we test approximately 12,500 peanut samples in this lab in a five month period. It's it's as hard as they can go. It's everybody in this room doing their part to get to accomplish that, because that's a lot of samples in a short period of time. Georgia peanuts is a $1 billion business, and we play a huge part in that.

David Zelski: That's a lot of money. And more on that later. For now, let's take a trip around the laboratory and see how these seeds get tested. And it all starts here in the receiving room.

Dee Dee Smith: Everything we receive comes in, starts in this room here. We have three different types of samples that come in here. We have official samples, service samples and certified samples. Our official samples are pulled by our state inspectors that work for the Department of Agriculture. Our service samples could be any farmer or gardener or anybody that walks through the front door says, "Hey, I got these seeds; will you test them for me?" Sure we will. And that's a service we perform for the consumers in the state of Georgia at no charge for a farmer. Our certified samples are in conjunction with Georgia Crop Improvement Association, they manage — they manage the certification program for all crop kinds. So we work very closely hand-in-hand with our sister organization in Athens.

David Zelski: When we visited, a fresh batch of seed samples was coming through the door courtesy of the city too busy to hate.

Dee Dee Smith: Yes. And this is Mel — lookit there! And she's actually bringin samples that come on our courier from Atlanta, Ga. We have a courier that runs from Atlanta to here, picking up our samples from inspectors throughout the state of Georgia. And that's, what has just been delivered from the courier today. And Miss Amy Gonzalez is the — is the young lady that that runs and manages this room. So she will unbox this sample and go through the process of her chain of custody, assigning her laboratory numbers, and getting all of her paperwork documented. And once she does that, then she will take those samples down to the lab for to start their testing phase.

David Zelski: Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Okay, hang on a minute. Let's hear more about that paperwork. It seems important.

Dee Dee Smith: Then we have a chain of custody form here that, is for our file room and total log of all samples so that we have a true record of everything received in our samples. This sample, this sheet here, is just for our laboratory purposes. This lets us know that the next set of official samples or service samples — or certified, depending on what comes in — this is the first laboratory number that we should start that series of samples being assigned in the laboratory. This is the number we would start with for their samples.

David Zelski: Dee Dee told me more about the different seed samples they process at the laboratory. I learned that official samples go through a more rigorous process. They also mean enhanced protection for the consumer.

Dee Dee Smith: Our official samples are submitted by our inspectors throughout the state. They come with — accompanied with an official seed laboratory sample inspection report, where the inspector has went to a place of business in his territory, and he samples and pulls this particular sample and submits it to the laboratory for testing for purity and germination analyses. These samples were pulled by Mr. Killingsworth in Metter, Ga. And that's a regulatory check there. We also get them to submit us a copy of the analysis tag in the state of Georgia on anything sold in the state of Georgia. It has to have an analysis tag with a percentage of pure seed, inert matter, other crop seed, weed seed and noxious weed seed, and any other polymers, fertilizer, prills, any other thing that's in that bag that the consumer is buying. It has to be on this analysis tag, along with the arbitration statement that if that consumer buys that product and it does not perform in the manner that it should, then there's a legal recourse for action to get for the consumer to get their money back and file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture.

David Zelski: And this lab doesn't just test samples from Georgia. They have a huge hand in the entire peanut industry of the Southeast.

Dee Dee Smith: We do a lot of out-of-state testing for Florida, Alabama, Texas, a little bit out of New Mexico. We do all the peanuts for all of those states because during budget cuts over the last several years, many of those states lost their laboratories. So we do. We are the peanut seed lab, prominent in the southeastern region of the United States for all seed testing for peanuts.

David Zelski: Right here in Tifton, Ga. Honestly, that's pretty neat. Let's move on now and get a look at the testing process.

Dee Dee Smith: This is our germination lab. And then this lab is where we actually prepare in the sample for every sample we test of peanuts. We test 200 seed. We do eight reps, about 25 seed. So those towels are wet with an ethephon solution for to promote uniformity in germination and to break seed dormancy. So she plants those, and then she'll cover it up for moisture. We have a towel that's offset. It kind of makes a little barrier to keep the seed from rolling out of the bottom or out the sides. She rolls it up, and she'll prepare that sample for germination. Now Ms. Terri, if you want to watch something different — Hahaha! Hahaha.— She's planting some pelleted tomato seed. A lot of hybrid tomato seed are very expensive and these companies only send us a very minimal amount, so we probably don't have — very little seed, the company sends them just like this because they're such a high-dollar seed. And they only want to send exactly what we need to test. She uses that vacuum system. She places the seed on there and, and the rolling process is the same as the peanut. You cover it with two towels for the adequate moisture, and then she's going to roll it up.

David Zelski: Now that the seeds have been prepared for germination, it's over to the walk-in chambers for a long, damp, chill session.

Dee Dee Smith: So once those samples are prepared, they go into our walk-in chambers here. We have four walk-in chambers. On this end, we have two walk-in chambers that are controlled by this computer software panel here, which is data ported. Every — every germination chamber we have here is data ported, which if there's any type of malfunction, whether it gets too hot, it gets too cold in these chambers. It sends an email to my phone any time of the day or night. And believe me, I've been up here at — on a Saturday night at 2 a.m. So when it tears up, I get up and I come see about it.

David Zelski: Going into work at 2 a.m. on a Saturday? Yeah. That's dedication. I'm sorry, Dee Dee. Please continue.

Dee Dee Smith: What we have up here, right up here is this white product here, is called a humidor stat. And that just is set on a timer over here. And it puts in a little bit of moisture in there every once in a while. Because once those samples are prepared on those towels, we don't want them to dry out. We want them to maintain their level of moisture throughout the testing phase to allow that peanut to be able to grow. So that's on a timer, and it just pushes in moisture occasionally into this chamber. And you can see it just came on. But you can see when you walk in this chamber, you get a nice layer of moisture in here. And these samples have been in here for a few days.

David Zelski: Once the seed samples have spent some time in the walk-in chambers, it's time to do the inspecting.

Dee Dee Smith: So what we're looking for is, you look for abnormalities. You want to know what's a normal seedling, an abnormal seedling. So we take them out and we look at the growth here. You actually can open it up and you can see the first set of leaves right on the inside here. So this is your plant that would grow up in the field. So on this towel we had all of these. And you can see we had a few that didn't do anything but grow a little bit of mold. You have one here, this is called Aspergillus niger. This black mold is called Aspergillus niger. And the green mold is called Aspergillus flavus, which causes alfatoxin.

David Zelski: Peanuts go through an additional level of testing at the Seed Lab.

Dee Dee Smith: What she's preparing in that plastic bag is a cold test, which is a bigger stress test for peanuts. She'll place it in that bag, and then she'll put it in a to a different chamber at 15°C. It stays in there in the 15-degree chamber for seven days. Then it's moved into — and removed from the plastic bag and placed in buckets — and moved into our walk in chamber at 25°C to begin its germination phase. And that's a bigger stress test to see how much stress a peanut can take in the field — or this particular lot of seed — can take in the field and still perform at a at a good rate for germination, which will give the farmer his, good stand in his field so that he gets a good yield when he gets ready to harvest. I mean, some peanuts are really vigorous, really strong, hardy. Some peanuts are a little bit slow getting started. And here you see some more abnormalities. You can see where you had that little bit of mechanical damage here. And this seed is trying to grow a new root. This seed here has got a little bit of a lesion. You see how your hypocotyl is discolored here. And it looks like it's got a split right there. That would technically be classified as an abnormal because of that split in the hypocotyl. The hypocotyl is this section that as the root grows, the hypocotyl is going to push through the dirt and become the stem. Then you have your epicotyl, which is going to come out. And see, there's your first set of leaves right here. You can see the little baby leaves right in there.

David Zelski: If you're a fan of grass, this seed lab has every kind you need.

Dee Dee Smith: This is an annual ryegrass. This is a cool weather grass. You see that used a lot in the northern counties of Georgia, up in the mountainous areas where it doesn't get quite as warm up there as it does in South Georgia. So most people, when you see that has a beautiful lawn in the wintertime, this is what they have: this or a type of fescue of some kind. This is a brown type millet sample which is used for forage grass. And they, animals graze on it and feed our cattle so we can eat some T-bone.

David Zelski: Besides checking seeds for mold and other abnormalities, this is also where seeds are given the certified classification. That's based, among other things, on their percentage of germination.

Dee Dee Smith: In the state of Georgia to be sold as a peanut in the state of Georgia, it has to germinate 70%. To be sold as a class of certified seed. It has to germinate 75 or better. So we report those germinations, and if it doesn't meet the criteria set by the Georgia seed law, then we put it under "stop sale."

David Zelski: Here's an FYI: Georgia seed law is more than 18,000 words that dictate the sale and transportation of seeds, requirements for seed labeling, procedures for seed testing and inspection, the Seed Arbitration Council, standards and procedures for the certification of seed and plants by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and more. To classify certified samples, the Seed Lab works in conjunction with the Georgia Crop Improvement Association. Certified seeds need to be inspected by certified seed analysts. At the Seed Lab, they'll often pay to send people to seed school to receive their certification.

Dee Dee Smith: We like to send them to seed schools. They have seed schools all throughout the United States, at different colleges and universities and other laboratories that our boss in our organization is kind enough to put the money here to, to send our analysts off to, to help them obtain their certification. And that aids the farmer, that aids this lab, that aids the product that we're doing, the job that we're doing. It helps to have these certified analysts, because that means that they've tested and they've studied and they — and they know what they're doing.

David Zelski: And the test to become a certified analyst is no joke.

Dee Dee Smith: It's a very intense test. I'm actually on the — the board of directors for the Association of Official Seed Analysts, and I actually work also on the testing committee. And I promise you, it's a 18-page test and they give you two hours to take it. It's tough. It's really tough. I am a certified purity analyst and a certified germination analyst. Miss Jenny Hall you see back here in the very back — back here by herself, she's the only other certified analyst we have at this time and she's certified in germination. We are working towards getting more analysts in the next two to three years, certified in purity and germination. Because the AOSA says we have to have as many analysts in here certified as possible. So they're all working toward that goal.

David Zelski: Testing seeds to become certified not only requires a special analyst but special tools, too. Certified seed inspectors actually use a razor blade to see inside the seed.

Dee Dee Smith: Jeannie's our other certified analyst. She's actually on this screen. She's preparing a test to be evaluated tomorrow, and she's doing a TZ test, which is a tetrazolium test on a Pensacola Bahia grass. And what she has to do, she has to take that Pensacola seed and slice it right down the middle of the embryo. She's going to put half of that seed into a tetrazolium solution, which you see her beaker right behind you. So she's going to put her seed in that solution. It'll stay in overnight in a 20-30 degree Celsius chamber. And at the end of the testing phase in the morning, she'll remove that and she'll evaluate the tetrazolium test. And what it does, if you look on the screen right here behind you on this nice microscope our boss bought us, is the tetrazolium reacts to active live tissue in the seed embryo. So you can see here, where you see this nice red even stain, that's the embryo of this grass seed. So that's a very normal seed right there.

David Zelski: Next up on our tour of the Seed Lab is the herbarium. Here they have thousands and thousands of drawers containing every type of seed that comes through this lab.

Dee Dee Smith: This is our seed herbarium. And in these drawers we have thousands of different little vials and each vial has the seed that's in it. It has its scientific name, its family name and its common name if there's a common name that's referred to out in the industry — because some farmers, if I walked up and told a farmer that he had some Bromus catharticus in his sample, he would say, "What do I have?" And it's rescue grass. So a lot of farmers, they want to know the common name, the people in your scientific community, they want to know the scientific name. So we have to — we keep up with both. And these are filed alphabetically by family name first, then the genus in the species, secondly. And then, you know, we have the common name on there.

David Zelski: So pretty much every seed that's coming through is somewhere in here.

Dee Dee Smith: We have a — there's thousands and thousands and thousands of different kinds of seed. We have a vast majority of everything that we normally see and deal with. And so even in this drawers over here, I mean even down to your to your to your corns and your vegetables and watermelons and cantaloupes and cucumbers and grapes and radishes and all such things as that. So we have it. We have a little bit of it all.

David Zelski: To top off our Seed Lab tour, Dee Dee took me into one last room where things got a little spooky.

Dee Dee Smith: I only got one other room that you might think is fascinating. And this is in here. But I'm going to have to put you in the dark.

David Zelski: So don't be scared, y'all. This is just the room where inspectors use black lights to identify different types of oats.

Dee Dee Smith: Oats come in two different colors, yellow and white. So every sample of the purity sample that my analysts have to determine the percentage of pure seed in that sample, every oat sample has to be brought into this room and put up under the black light. And what we're trying to achieve is we want to make sure that if this sample came in labeled a Coke or 227, which is typically a fluorescent white oat, to make sure that there's no yellow oat, which is typically 4 to 501s. And several other varieties come in as yellows. So our analyst has to bring their sample in here and they're physically going to separate what's white oats to what's yellow oats. They'll calculate that percentage. And in accordance to the Georgia seed law, any component or contaminant that contains up to 5%, unless it's a weed seed, then that sample will be classified as a mixture. So we do that to determine how much seed is in there. How many can cross-over contaminants are in there to to determine what the labeling would have to be on that lot of seed being sold in the oat industry.

David Zelski: The Department of Agriculture Seed Lab is the scientific arm of the farming industry. The work they do there ensures that all of us get the highest-quality product wherever we buy our seeds.

Dee Dee Smith: Agriculture drives that economy into the crops that we produce, and our job is to make sure that we're putting the right seed out there, that the farmer or the consumer can can grow their yield, make their product, ends up in the grocery store. And we — it's all a circle of life here.

David Zelski: And for more stories like this one, you can watch A Fork in the Road on GPB-TV or any time on the website. That's where you'll also be able to listen to and subscribe to this podcast, or download it on your favorite podcast platform. I'm David Zelski. Thanks for listening to A Fork in the Road.

A Fork in the Road airs Saturdays at noon and Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on GPB-TV. Check your local listings for other replays throughout the week and watch all episodes anytime at  Please download and subscribe to the Fork in the Road podcast at or on your favorite podcast platform as well. 

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