Seed craze depletes supply from here to Missouri as green thumbs stock up early

·5 min read

Gardeners are already planning for the spring and summer months, buying seeds so feverishly that suppliers say they are scrambling to fill orders.

Several Alberta garden centre owners told CBC News last March — just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact Canada — that their stores were selling seeds quickly, and ordering in bulk to meet the increased demand.

Months later, the trend continues. From Alberta and British Columbia to the midwestern United States, seed suppliers across North America say they are preparing for another bumper year as product flies off the shelves.

"I think we are going to be selling out early," John Mills, the owner of Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes in Bowden, Alta., told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

"Orders are about 50 per cent ahead this year [compared with] where they were last year, and maybe even closer to double, and we're sold out of about half of our varieties."

'Never seen anything like it'

According to Mills, the bulk of Eagle Creek's supply will likely sell out by the end of February or early March due to a number of factors.

They sold off their supply in its entirety last year, which means they had nothing left over, and their crops were also made smaller by a hailstorm.

"[It is] kind of hitting us doubly bad in this year, when demand is so much higher," he said.

But even without a hailstorm, other suppliers are in a similar boat.

Jere Gettle is the owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield, Missouri. It is the largest heirloom seed supplier in the United States, and has thousands of customers north of the border.

In 2020, Gettle said the company had about 850,000 orders for seeds. So far this year, the company is filling between 7,000 and 8,000 orders a day — and had to stop accepting orders twice already to get caught up.

He expects to exceed one million orders in 2021.

"I've never seen anything like it," Gettle said.

Supplied by West Coast Foods
Supplied by West Coast Foods

Meanwhile, Aaron Saks, the president of West Coast Seeds based out of Delta, B.C, said a new buying season typically coincides with a new year.

But product started moving quickly in November, when they began selling a promotional seed blend to benefit the food bank. It has raised over $145,000 to date — and at about $6 each, that's a lot of seed packets.

Roughly 24,200, to be a bit more specific.

It also kicked off a spike in sales that Saks says hasn't slowed down.

"Since Jan. 1, the numbers have been tremendous. We're getting about four or five times the amount of orders that we typically would have received," Saks said.

Food security, garden therapy and sustainability

When the pandemic introduced safety measures that closed many businesses last spring, Saks said that like most, he and his employees initially worried for their livelihoods.

But he was quickly stunned to discover that rather than stymie the seed business, sales seemed to be fuelled by the restrictions that kept people inside — and looking for things to do.

"When COVID first hit, we were all kind of panicking about our personal lives … [and] we had no idea what COVID was going to do to impact our business," Saks said.

"And maybe three days into [it], we just started seeing sales skyrocket. We were shocked."

In retrospect, Saks said the bump in sales was actually foreseeable: during the 2008 financial crisis, seed sales were at an all-time high because people were concerned about food security.

"It's cheaper to grow from seed as opposed to having to go to the grocery store, people weren't travelling as much [back then]," he said.

Saks believes that food security is a huge factor that is driving seed sales again during COVID-19 — along with gardening's more holistic, therapeutic benefits.

"Now people are fully stuck at home and looking for hobbies … so we were positioned really well," Saks said.

"[Gardening is] a way to go outside and do something safe, and I think there's a massive push toward sustainability."

Order early

So during the pandemic, what's in high demand?

"The easy answer is: everything. Every single seed. We can't keep anything in stock," Saks said.

"There's not one product that I can identify that's doing better than others. We're seeing a lot of growth in our vegetable seeds because, as I said before, food security is very important.

"But we're also seeing a lot of popularity in our pollinator products — flowers and whatnot. Basically, any product that we have in stock is being purchased as soon as it goes onto our website."

Vegetables are the star in Mansfield, too. Gettle said that bok choy, mustard greens and tomatoes are the speedy sellers.

"Anything that's like a superfood or super nutritious, colourful vegetables. You know, the dark coloured tomatoes … is what, really, people are buying the most," he said.

At Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes, Mills said they try to keep enough of a variety of potatoes in stock that if a favourite runs out, there are alternatives.

But for anyone hoping to grow a robust garden this year, his advice is still straightforward.

"Definitely get your order in early," Mills said.

"And just keep in mind that as seed companies, we depend on, you know, the courier systems to move our product around, which can be kind of slow.… But we're trying our hardest on our end as seed companies to get the product to you, for sure."

With files from Danielle Nerman and the Calgary Eyeopener.