You’ve likely heard about the panic buying of toilet paper, flour and milk in grocery stores as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the U.S. But another interesting trend has been happening online and in retail outlets across the country: Vegetable seeds are selling like crazy.
“We are talking about triple the demand overnight,” says Wayne Gale, president of Stokes Seeds, a major distributor of vegetable and flower seeds in Canada and the Northeastern United States. He also serves as chairman of the American Seed Trade Association. About 10% of Stokes’s business is for home gardeners, while the other 90% is for commercial growers.
Gale says it’s primarily the firm’s home garden business that has skyrocketed, mostly vegetable seed but also some flower seed. His workers, who have been deemed “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security during the pandemic, are working hard to keep up with the demand.
"I’ve never seen anything like this,” both in Canada and the U.S., Gale says, as consumers resort to panic buying.
“People see shortages in the grocery store and figure they may continue,” Gale adds.
Jamie Mattikow, CEO of the online seed retailer Burpee, says his firm has seen similar trends, although the Pennsylvania-based company doesn’t share internal numbers.
“That being said, this year’s performance has been incredibly strong. We were growing at high double digits heading into March; over the last four weeks, we are up a multiple of that,” Mattikow explains.
“The biggest increase has been in vegetables, which have taken on a greater interest among consumers, with consistent gains across all our channels of sale — both retail and online.”
Burpee, which ships seeds, live plants, fruit, garden supplies and more, temporarily placed a hold on new online orders until April 15.
So what’s driving the increase? As President Donald Trump has described the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19 as “our big war,” some consumers are hearkening back to World Wars I and II when governments encouraged their citizens to grow their own food in times of scarcity. These “Victory Gardens” were also envisioned as a morale booster for those who wanted to contribute to the war effort.
Diane Blazek, Executive Director of the National Garden Bureau, believes the dramatic increase in sales is strongly related to COVID-19.
“We saw a surge in vegetable gardening during the 2008-2009 recession, but it didn't drop off all that much in subsequent years. Now it's taken a huge leap.”
Blazek says she’s heard her members categorize seed buyers into three groups: Returning buyers (the ones who order every year), returning but inactive for several years, or brand new, who want to try gardening for the first time.
Blazek says the “seed rush” is primarily for vegetables but “herbs are way up there and flowers, too. We think many people now realize you need pollinator-friendly flowers to go along with the vegetables. Plus, many people are gardening for the mental health, so they want their surroundings to be pretty and calming.”
Seed companies are quick to note that they have plenty of supply, but not necessarily of the most popular varieties or seed packet sizes, due to the early rush on purchases. For example, a packet of 30 seeds may be hard to come by, but a 3-lb bag of seeds may still be available. In some cases, it’s just a matter of time before companies catch up with orders.
The same type of delay is often the case with live plants as growers try to navigate uncertainties over product demand and labor.
Lisa Branco is the general manager of Radicle Seed Company, headquartered in Gilroy, CA. and also the sales manager at a sister company, Headstart Nursery which serves the western US. She reports higher sales for vegetables, with growers “looking for farmers market/home garden type projects.”
On the transplant side of things, she says business continues to go on, however a lot of commercial growers on the conventional side are cutting back due to decreased demand from the food service industry.
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Gale says some growers have also been cautious due to the uncertainty of foreign worker availability.
“Horticulture is very labor intensive, unlike field crops that are highly mechanical. You need a lot of hands to plant, care, harvest, grade and pack vegetables. We have one customer with 500 foreign workers to maintain their business,” says Gale.
One of the nation’s largest vegetable plant providers for consumers says business is booming.
“We aren’t going to have any shortages,” says Joan Casanova, spokesperson for Bonnie Plants based in Union Springs, Ala. The firm has over 75 growing facilities, a fleet of trucks and, during a normal season sells “hundreds of millions of plants." She says their vegetable plants, which are sold in retail outlets nationwide, have been “flying off the shelves.” In some cases, “Big Box” stores that are being restocked seven days a week can still sell out in one day.
Casanova says in some cases, people are buying entire flats of tomato plants, rather than just one or two, and not realizing that the harvest will provide much more than they need.
During this uncertain time, Casanova says growing your own food represents a phenomenal combination.
“People want to control something in their food supply and they are concerned about food security,” Casanova adds. “I don’t know of any other product that can both sustain nutrition as well as alleviate stress.”
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