Nearly a year into COVID-19, seed industry is booming

Almost a year into COVID-19, the domestic seed industry is flourishing.

“A lot of seed companies are selling out. Some warehouses are empty of seed. They’re having an incredible year,” said Angie Smith, executive director of the Oregon Seed Association.

Industry leaders say when the pandemic hit last March, there was an alarming lull in sales. But from about April on, experts say sales took off in most seed sectors and the momentum has continued into 2021.

The specialty seed sector, including vegetable and flower seeds, is blooming on the retail level. Last year, Americans nationwide planted a record number of gardens. Extension agents at the time wondered whether people’s interest in gardening would carry into 2021. So far, the answer appears to be “yes.”

“The season started off awfully strong again,” said Tom Johns, president of Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore. “When our catalog came out around January, we had a very high volume of orders that was equal to or surpassed the peak of the pandemic last year.”

Territorial has had so many orders, Johns said, that he and his wife, who usually take off Sundays, have worked extra.

Territorial’s farm operation supplies about 17% of its seed; the company buys the remainder from seed producers worldwide, including contracting with local growers.

Along with vegetables, Johns said people are also buying flower seeds to “decorate” their yards.

Farmers who grow vegetable seed for commercial-scale farms say that market has been less stable during the pandemic, but many seed crops are still performing well.

People are still spending more time and money on landscaping — a boon for grass seed companies.

“It feels like, in the retail sector at least, people went crazy buying,” said James Schneider, president and CEO of Barenbrug USA, a grass seed supplier.

Schneider estimated residential retail makes up about 60% of total grass seed industry sales. Year over year, from 2019 to 2020, he said residential sales of grass seed increased 25%, and sales this spring are projected to jump 5% to 20%.

When sports fields closed last spring, sales of commercial and sports seed mixes initially took a hit. But as sports teams adapted — for example, by filling the stands with cardboard fans — sales returned to normal.

Golf courses, experts say, ordered record poundage of seed because more people have picked up the sport during the pandemic.

“Golf has had a resurgence they haven’t seen since Tiger Woods. We’ve picked up a whole new generation of golfers,” said Scott Harer, vice president at Columbia Seeds, another grass seed company.

Kent Whittig, Western regional sales representative at Allied Seed LLC, a forage, turfgrass and cover crop seed company, said cover crop seed is also in demand, along with warm season annuals, including teff, millet and sorghum.

In general, industry leaders told the Capital Press the forage sector remained fairly static through the pandemic.

“Animals still need to eat regardless of COVID,” said Schneider of Barenbrug USA.

The only change, which experts say is probably not pandemic-related, has been a gradual trend toward more farmers planting higher-end forages.

Originally published in the Capital Press.