If you’re an avid gardener, you might have noticed a significant difficulty in purchasing seeds since 2020. Even simple items like ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce have become limited, and some seed companies are only selling to farmers. So, what’s happening to the American seed supply?
According to Ira Wallace, co-founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the issue stems from the unprecedented sales they experienced in 2020. It’s not just that regular customers are buying more; there’s also an influx of new customers who have realized the importance of gardening. The problem is that seed farming requires planning a year to a year and a half in advance, so when farmers receive double their usual amount of orders midseason, they can’t just harvest more seed. They have to wait for the plants to grow.
In addition, growing seeds takes up more space than growing crops for food. Customers want to receive the specific varieties they ordered, which means the seed farmer must plant the varieties far enough apart that they don’t cross-pollinate. If the farmer is suddenly hit with numerous seed orders, they not only have to wait for new plants to grow, but also find space to grow those plants. For Southern Exposure, this has meant finding new farms to join their co-op and stopping selling bulk amounts of seed for some products. However, Ira believes they will catch up with demand within the next two years.
Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, agrees with the reasons for the seed shortage. Sales for him went through the roof in 2020, causing him to shut down multiple times to handle orders. Since then, Baker Creek has seen consistent monthly volume increases. Even flower sales have tripled what they were pre-2020, and storage crops like beets have seen spectacular sales increases. Cabbages, in particular, have surprisingly been a huge hit.
Uncertainty always drives seed sales, and what Gettle is seeing in the marketplace now is similar to what Baker Creek experienced during Y2K and the Great Recession. However, it’s worth noting that the pandemic has affected other aspects of the supply chain. The closure of factories that produce seed packets, the decrease in the number of seasonal workers due to border restrictions, and the increase in transportation costs have all played a part in the seed shortage.
So, what can gardeners do in the meantime? Ira suggests trying new varieties and diversifying your garden. Additionally, she recommends joining a seed saver network, where you can trade seeds with other gardeners. Finally, be patient, as seed farmers are doing everything they can to keep up with the unprecedented demand.