Seed sellers see business bloom as pandemic pushes demand
Some worry sudden interest from homebound gardeners could strain seed supply
Since mid-March, Greta Kryger has been working 12-hour days, seven days a week stuffing seeds into envelopes and putting them in the mail. Things got so busy she had to shut down her website for a week to catch up with orders.
After three decades producing organic vegetable and flower seeds, Kryger was hoping to retire after this year. But instead of winding things down, she's dealing with three to four times the usual demand, all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I could close today and have enough for my whole year of living," she said. "People say they're scared they won't have enough food. And because they're home now they have nothing else to do. It's an activity to do together with the kids."
It's the same story at Northern Seeds, located north of Wakefield, Que., where Catherine Wallenburg is selling seeds online for the first time.
Wallenburg was concerned when Seedy Saturdays — public markets where people buy and exchange seeds — were cancelled across the region, but said she's actually doubled her anticipated spring sales.
She said some seed sellers have had so much demand that they've closed to home gardeners, focusing instead on sourcing seeds for large-scale farm operations so they can grow food this summer.
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For Kathy Rothermel, who has been struggling to keep up with the "unprecedented growth" in orders, the real worry is next year.
The co-owner of Wolfe Island's Kitchen Table Seeds said they've already sold all of this year's stock, and some of next year's. That's an issue when it comes to certain vegetables such as broccoli, kale and beets, which require two years to produce their own seeds.
"There might be some shortages over the next couple of years in some things, depending on what decisions companies made. Those conversations will be happening," Rothermel said.
The new toilet paper?
Kitchen Table Seeds has also been fielding more questions than usual from beginner gardeners, she said. In response, some Kingston-area master gardeners have started a new online resource for aspiring green thumbs.
"There's been some articles that say seeds are the new TP," joked Rothermel, referring to the hoarding of toilet paper that was occurring earlier in the pandemic.
Manish Kushwaha said he's getting another shipment of seeds soon to keep up with his orders at Ottawa's Gaia Organics. But he's also worried about what this explosion in popularity means for the long-term seed supply.
"This pandemic is a serious test of our seed supply chain. With all honesty, seed companies weren't pandemic-ready, and we have to take a very serious look and discuss what system can be put in place so we are better equipped to handle this sort of demand next time," he warned.
It's a concern Moe Garahan shares, noting that much of Canada's seed supply comes from elsewhere.
"So when there is an issue in other countries that we buy from, whether a climate issue, warfare or pandemic, it reduces access to seed that Canadians have relied on," said Garahan, who leads Just Food, a local non-profit focused on farming and food security.
It's added several virtual workshops on how to plant and grow your garden, expanding into Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin-language webinars.
It also runs a local seed library, preserving seeds produced by households and non-profits across the city. This year, it's expanding those efforts, purchasing thousands of seeds that will be sent out through school boards and community gardens.
People are asked to plant them, save the seeds, and send them back at the end of the season.
"We'll also be putting out videos to instruct people on how to save their own seeds, to assist with the demand which we expect will continue to rise for the next years," Garahan said.
For Wallenburg, this sudden interest in vegetable gardening is an unexpected upside to the current crisis.
"If that's what comes of this time — people taking more of an interest in where their food comes from and growing it, too — I think that's great, honestly."