Business & Economy

Seed shortage worries farmers, home gardeners

Suzanne Long waters pea shoots at Luna Bleu Farm in Royalton, as Garbanzo the cat looks on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. Anticipating potential issues with seed supply due to increased demand and the effects of drought and fire on some suppliers, Long placed her orders in December. Valley News photo by James Patterson

This article by John Lippman was first published Feb. 13 in the Valley News.

The early bird gets the worm. That’s the catchphrase in the farming community this winter as seed suppliers warn of a second straight growing season wherein a squeeze on supply is causing delays in shipments and shortages of popular varieties.

Farmers are reporting that they have taken to ordering their winter shipments from seed companies weeks or months earlier than usual to ensure delivery in time for seeding in greenhouses in March.

“I had all my orders for seeds in before Christmas. Normally I’d be looking at mid-January. I had a hunch things could get tight this year,” said Taylor Henry, who oversees the cultivation of more than 20 acres of crops as production manager at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford. “Even some varieties of tomatoes are in short supply.”

Farmers say navigating the supply of seeds is just another curveball thrown by the yearlong Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced them to adjust everything from how they get produce into customers’ hands at farmers markets or through CSAs to opening farm stands and online ordering platforms.

At the same time, many farms reported a surprisingly robust year in sales as new customers turned to local produce, meat and eggs for safe food sources over uncertainty and shortages at chain supermarkets.

One farmer explained how she saw one variety of seeds disappear — literally — right before her eyes while placing an order online.

Norah Lake, founder of Sweetland Farm, which runs a CSA in Norwich, said she was about to click to buy space spinach seeds from Maine-based Johnny’s Selected Seeds when the website posted the variety was suddenly out of stock. Then, when she went to order seeds for Rebelski tomatoes, a highly disease-resistant greenhouse tomato that Sweetland has grown in past years, and that was out of stock, too.

“We really had to think about replacements,” Lake said. Instead, she selected seeds for a variety named New Girl and is “experimenting” with an heirloom variety named German Johnson.

“We’re trying to see the silver lining and use this as an opportunity to try new varieties,” Lake said. “Maybe in the end this will be a good problem to have solved.”

As of mid-February, 38 out of 138 varieties of tomato seeds that Johnny’s sells were out of stock, according to the company’s website.

Farmers come first

Underscoring the squeeze the company was facing, Johnny’s earlier in the week announced that it would suspend sales to home gardeners to expedite shipments to local farmers and commercial growers who are quickly approaching their hothouse start dates.

Although “the seed production season throughout most major regions was excellent,” Johnny’s website explained, demand from home gardeners has “stretched the resources that allow us to pack seed and to ship orders quickly,” and the company needed to prioritize “those whose work is vital to feeding their local communities.”

Fedco Seeds, a seed co-op, is selling to home gardeners, but only after they place their names on a waitlist. Would-be customers can expect to be on the waitlist for up to three weeks before placing their orders, but if the waitlist is “full,” then Fedco warns it will not be able to fulfill the order for “at least” three weeks and may take “four to six weeks to arrive.”

The delays are “not so much because there is a lack of seeds as much as we don’t have the physical capacity to process all the orders coming,” said Nikos Kavanya, a purchaser at Fedco. “Demand went through the roof last spring and then went up exponentially in the fall. Everything bottlenecks because there are too many orders coming in.”

Kavanya said Fedco has added a second night shift at its sorting and fulfillment center in Clinton, Maine, and has begun “pulling in people on the weekend.”

But Fedco itself is facing delays in seeds arriving from its own suppliers. 

“There’s a logjam throughout the supply system. So what takes longer to get to us also takes longer for us to get out,” Kavanya said.

It paid to place seed orders early this season, said Suzanne Long, who cultivates about 5 acres with her husband, Tim Sanford, at Luna Bleu Farm in South Royalton and spends about $4,000 a season to buy seeds.

“Knowing what happened last year, we got our orders out in December,” Long said. “I know some growers who even did it in November.

“There were a couple things we couldn’t get, like Juliet tomatoes or a variety of carrot we were going to try. Usually, we could find a replacement that is similar,” Long said. “But that happens every year, either from shortage or a crop failure.”

Danielle Allen, who runs Root 5 Farm in Fairlee with her husband, Ben Dana, said in prior years she gave herself until the end of February to order seeds but, this year, “I got 90% of it out by Jan. 1, and about 80% of it has come in.”

The challenge Allen and Dana wrestled with, however, “is that we had to rush a lot of decisions. How much are we going to grow? How many CSA shares are we going to have?” Allen explained, resolving to “let’s just approximate and get our orders in.”

But Allen said there “are a few things on backorder that I’m worried about,” such as tomato seeds. “We got two full greenhouses for tomatoes, and they are on backorder. They say they’ll be here by the second week of March, but we can’t wait any longer than that,” she said.

With the exception of placing his orders earlier than usual, ordering seeds was much the same ritual it has always been for him, said Geo Honigford, owner of Hurricane Flats in South Royalton.

He could look at the pretty pictures of perfectly fulsome vegetables on a computer screen or phone, but Honigford said he prefers the old-school way.

“I put on a bad movie and flip through my catalog,” he said.

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