British Columbia

Pandemic panic sees seed sales spike

Some seed distributors are reporting dramatic spikes in sales, as the COVID-19 pandemic changes people's behaviour and habits.

Seed distributors are struggling to keep up with sudden demand amid reduced labour

Bingo dry bean is saved for planting at the University of British Columbia Farm in 2018. (UBC Farm)

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the economy strewn with companies struggling to stay afloat and keep staff employed, as governments restrict what sort of business is allowed, and people quickly change their behaviour to maintain physical distance between them.

However, it's a different story completely for seed distributors, which have seen a significant increase in business, ever since the pandemic really hit Canada.

"I don't know if it's fear," said Alex Augustyniak, general manager at Delta-based West Coast Seeds. "I think they're thinking it's going to be like other staples that are on the shelves, people were clearing out toilet paper, they were clearing out canned goods."

Augustyniak said in early March, demand went through the roof, with seven to 10 times the orders the company was getting the same time last year.

B.C. Eco Seed Co-op board member David Catzel grabs a bag of seeds sent to the co-op by a B.C. farm. Catzel said demand has increased 300 per cent since the pandemic began, compared with the same time last year. (David Catzel)

He said the physical distancing rules meant West Coast Seeds had to reduce output at its packaging and shipping areas. On Monday, he said they were so behind they were shipping 40 days after orders were coming in.

Production has changed, Augustyniak said, and 12 workers have been brought in to increase to a 24-hour, seven-day-per-week schedule to try to keep up. The workspace has also been altered to allow more people to work, while maintaining required distance and sanitation.

He said the company has plenty of bulk stock, but it's taking more effort to re-package that into the smaller quantities that are needed.

At B.C. Eco Seed Co-op, which has 17 member farms, there's been a similar increase in demand. Board member David Catzel said since the start of the pandemic, sales are up 300 per cent.

It's a smaller operation, but labour has been down due to illness, making it challenging to keep up.

"A lot of seed companies right now — not only are they 300 per cent up on sales, they're also down on labour, so I think they're just scrambling to get the seeds out the door at this point," said Catzel, who also works as a farmer.

He said commercial growers typically get their orders in January, but many have made new orders to quickly try to adjust for the pandemic.

Boxes of seeds are ready to be shipped at West Coast Seeds in Delta, B.C. (Alex Augustyniak)

Some are changing crops to plant things that store longer to protect from unknown market conditions, others are altering crops to shift from restaurant to grocery demand.

And then of course there are the people either increasing their home gardens or jumping into it for the first time.

"There are a few of us at different seed companies, we were a bit skeptical that it was an continuation of the hoarding mentality," said Catzel, who added that from what they can tell, people are actually planting the seeds, not just stocking up.

One of the groups that sells seeds through the B.C. Eco Seed Co-op is the University of British Columbia Farm, where Clare Cullen is operations director.

"I think this whole COVID pandemic has made people think that our food system, the distribution system may be damaged by a pandemic like this," said Cullen.

She said the farm is just starting its season, but in the past week it's been getting lots of calls and emails from people looking for seed — some saying they're having difficulty finding it elsewhere.

A bee lands on a leek going to seed at the UBC Farm. (UBC Farm)

Those requests are coming from local home and community gardeners.

"Hopefully people aren't hoarding seeds. I don't think there's any need to do that at all," said Cullen.

Augustyniak, whose business buys seeds all over the world and sells across North America, also said there's no need to be concerned about supply.

"There's going to be tonnes of seeds to go around," he said, adding that perhaps one variety or another might be hard to find. "You can be very calm about your seed buying."


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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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