Need for seed: Pandemic supply problems see second season

Brooke Lovingood of Sow True Seed
MAGIC BEANS: Brooke Lovingood, warehouse operations manager for Sow True Seed, shows off a handful of Luther's Mixed Colors runner beans — one of the many crop varieties now sold out for 2021. Photo courtesy of Sow True Seed

It’s a cold night in early January, and Severian Simmons would prefer to be relaxing on the couch watching movies with his girlfriend. Instead, he’s stationed at his computer with fingers poised over the keyboard, a prepared list of item numbers at the ready. When the clock strikes midnight, an online ordering platform opens, and he jumps into a frenzied buying competition with others across the country.

Rather than trying to score sought-after concert tickets or the latest video game console, Simmons was among the many farmers scrambling to buy seeds for 2021 crops. Last spring, a pandemic-fueled surge in demand emptied retail shelves and websites of seeds and plant starts almost overnight. Those problems have persisted this growing season and have extended to commercial farming operations as seed companies grapple with coronavirus-induced labor issues and consistently high demand.

Simmons, who sources seed from five suppliers, says he encountered challenges as soon as he started trying to place orders this winter for his 2-acre Sandy Mush growing enterprise, Free Orbit Farm. Some companies, he explains, were open only for limited days and times for online orders on a first-come, first-served basis. So far, he’s been unable to purchase seeds for many of the crops he intended to plant this year.

For some varieties, he was placed on waitlists, but other popular seeds were sold out completely. “I just felt fortunate to get what I was able to,” says Simmons.

Root of the issue

Banner Greenhouses in Nebo, which saw its sales leap dramatically with the sudden influx of new pandemic gardeners last spring, has also experienced difficulty sourcing seeds for the organic vegetable and flower transplants it produces for farms, universities and other growers across the country. As a result, Banner is taking special care to be transparent and communicative with customers, warning them in advance to expect delays, substitutions and even cancellations, says General Manager Jeff Mast.

Jeff Mast of Banner Greenhouses
SEEING GREEN: Jeff Mast, general manager of Banner Greenhouses in Nebo, says his company has had trouble filling orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Banner Greenhouses

Seed companies, Mast explains — including Banner’s primary supplier, Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine — have struggled since last spring to cope with a huge increase in orders from home gardeners while simultaneously maintaining pandemic social-distancing limits on workers. “They just physically can’t keep up with demand when it comes to packaging the seeds. They may have it in inventory, but they just can’t get it packaged,” he says. “Also, some varieties are just sold out this season; demand was that high.”

“COVID impacted all forms of labor last year, so the things that we’re experiencing now are just ramifications of that continuing,” notes Simmons, who also uses Johnny’s as a seed supplier. “It impacts everybody, especially with mail order.”

A message pinned to the homepage of the Johnny’s Selected Seeds website explains that despite ramping up summer seed production to boost inventory and adding new staff working night and weekend shifts to fill orders, the “volume we are experiencing this season from home gardeners has stretched the resources that allow us to pack seed and ship orders quickly.”

Both Simmons and Mast add that on a national level, major weather events, including severe windstorms that destroyed crops in some parts of the country in 2019 and this year’s February ice storm in the Midwest that put a freeze on shipping for several days, have further complicated the situation. “[During the ice storm] FedEx shipping was backlogged for about two weeks, so that was another wrinkle that was out of our control,” Mast says.

Worker woes

Asheville-based Sow True Seed reports the same labor and demand challenges experienced by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. “We have essentially maxed out our building capacity with how many people we can have in there and still be observing social distancing guidelines,” says Leah Smith, Sow True’s director of agriculture. “A lot of times, it’s not that the seed is not available, it’s that we can’t keep up with the demand and keep it on the shelf.”

Smith expresses hope that the labor situation will improve in the near future as the company’s warehouse staff members get COVID-19 vaccinations. But the past year’s sharp uptick in demand has caused some supply problems that won’t be quickly resolved.

“It’s true that there are certain varieties that are out of stock for real, and we just can’t get them this year,” she says. “When we buy seed, it’s a multiyear process. It’s not something we can make in a factory and just speed the lines up when demand increases — we have to wait for it to grow. Essentially, when seed companies buy seed, they’re predicting how much they’re going to sell a couple of years down the road.”

For most seed varieties, the company keeps stock on hand that’s robust enough to stretch for multiple years. But popular seeds — especially those embraced by gardening newbies — are completely sold out until more can be grown, a process that takes at least a year.

“The one that we’re probably most bummed about is the Cherokee purple tomato,” Smith says. “That one is our bestselling tomato, and it’s totally out of stock. So far, we can’t get it from anywhere, and we suspect it’s probably sold out for the season.”

Kinks in the chain

Supply chain difficulties have created complications for Banner, which trickle down to the farmers the company serves. “When we receive a late shipment, then also find out that some varieties are not available, we have to work on substitutions or communicating with our customers on options, which all delays our sowing, and then that delays when our customers can plant,” says Mast.

While Simmons isn’t happy that many seeds he’d planned on planting, such as sungold tomatoes, were unavailable this winter when he needed to start them for timely summer harvests, he pivoted by selecting other varieties. But he worries that supply issues that continue through the growing season may ultimately reduce income for small farms.

“In market gardening, the strategy is to keep it moving — let’s crop this thing out, reamend it, and replant. … Timing is key in succession planting, so I think that the shortage of seeds might impact the capacity to have the successions be consistent because the supply isn’t consistent,” Simmons explains. “All we know is how things are right now; we have no idea what it will be like for people ordering in June for getting all their brassicas ready for the fall.”

Growers who contract with seed companies, however, including several local farms that produce for Sow True, could benefit from the situation. “Some of them are getting bigger contracts than they might have otherwise gotten, which is an opportunity for them,” Smith points out.

And when the harvests come in on those new contracts, the nation’s seed supply will rebound, she adds. As early as April of last year, we were looking at adding new contracts for seed that we hadn’t planned to have grown out, but we could see demand was increasing,” she says. “And we’ve added more contracts this year, so the production is ramping up. It’s going to catch up; it just is going to take a little time.”

Meanwhile, home gardeners vexed by the prospect of a summer without Cherokee purples can follow Simmons’ lead and break fresh ground in their gardens by trying out varieties that are new to them, Smith says. There were, for example, 18 varieties of slicing tomato seeds still in stock on Sow True’s website when she spoke with Xpress.

To the gardening public who’s worried about the seed shortage, I would say try to be excited about trying something new this year,” she says. “Try not to panic or feel too upset that your old favorites aren’t there, because they’ll come back.”


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