Consumer demand overwhelms vegetable seed producers

Jun 3, 2020

The panicked rush to buy vegetable seeds in the wake of this year’s coronavirus pandemic is something that farmer Frank Morton has seen before.

Previously, the surge in demand was spurred by the Great Recession over a decade ago, and before that, by fears of the Y2K glitch causing technological mayhem at the turn of the new millennium.

Worrying about widespread havoc tends to make humans prioritize basic biological imperatives, said Morton, who started his Wild Garden Seed company in 1994 near Philomath, Ore.

“When tensions are high and economic prospects are threatened, one of the first things people remember to buy — after toilet paper — is seeds,” he said. “There’s a certain victory garden mentality that’s taken hold. There’s a return to the garden.”

Vegetable seed sales were already strong during the typical peak sales season in February, which Morton attributes to a “hangover from the impeachment trials,” as political turmoil also spurs interest in self-sufficiency.

Once sales began taper off before the spring planting season, however, a national emergency related to the coronavirus was declared, he said.

“All the sudden, the orders went through the roof,” Morton said. “It shot back up the same as the peak or more.”

Morton estimates his sales this spring were three times what they’d normally be, which is akin to having “two selling seasons in one year.”

“For companies like mine, it was the sunny side of the coronavirus,” he said.

The phenomenon of “cocooning at home,” avoiding travel and saving money by growing food will probably endure at least as long as the economic turbulence in the U.S., said Tom Johns, president of the Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore., which grows seed and contracts with farmers.

“It’s going to take a longer time to get out of it than it took to get into it,” Johns said, adding that his company projects two years of increased sales, though not the “panic buying” seen in 2020.

“I think we’re going to have a more steady flow of business, but business will be more robust,” he said.

In the past three months, seed wholesalers have shipped 25-35% more seed than they would on average, resulting in shortages of certain popular varieties, said John Wahlert, co-owner of Wild West Seeds in Albany, Ore., which contracts with farmers and sells in bulk to seed retailers.

“Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, and they’re looking out for their own. They don’t realize that one packet or two packets would be enough for their whole family,” he said. “The garden seed industry does its best on the worst of days.”

An increase in vegetable seed production is likely to “refill the coffers” for next year, though the prices to growers will depend on what happens in global markets, he said. “To move the seed, I’ve got to be competitive.”

For his part, Wahlert hopes that wholesale buyers will have an incentive to offer farmers higher prices to grow vegetable seeds.

“If I don’t have good growers, I’m not in business,” he said.

Siskiyou Seeds, which grows its own seeds in Williams, Ore., and contracts with other farms, has seen its sales quadruple so far in 2020, said Don Tipping, the company’s founder.

“What was a multiple-year supply is getting sold out in one year,” Tipping said.

Even after doubling the employment level at his company by hiring new workers and extending hours for others, Siskiyou Seeds was unable to keep up with demand and was forced to suspend new orders for five days in April.

Tipping and other seed sellers say they’re not complaining about getting slammed with demand, especially when so many are suffering financially.

“It’s a huge blessing to be busy at a time people are unemployed,” he said.

Tipping said the coronavirus pandemic has caused people to want “more agency over their food supply,” and has probably inspired “hundreds of thousands if not millions of new gardens this year.”

“We were exposed to a lot of new customers who will probably continue to be customers,” he said.

Even so, the boom in demand has overwhelmed the current capacity at Siskiyou Seeds, which will likely need to contract with more growers and expand purchases from existing ones, he said.

Inventories of certain vegetable cultivars were depleted, so Siskiyou Seeds may have to temporarily pare back its usual seed offerings from 700 varieties to 550 varieties, he said.

Most of the demand spike experienced by High Mowing Organic Seeds, a Vermont-based company that contracts with about 40 Northwest farmers, was from home gardeners, though farmers also increased their seed purchases as an “emotional insurance policy,” said Tom Stearns, the company’s founder.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen, and seed lasts,” he said.

Due to the limited number of organic seed producers in the Northwest, Stearns said he’s most likely to expand purchases from existing farmers. To keep up with demand, he’s already increased contracted volumes of seed grown in 2020 by 35-50%, depending on variety.

“If there is a similar surge next year, we will be better prepared,” Stearns said.

Originally published in the Capital Press.