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Botanical Bulletin, Summer 2020

Photo by Unsplash/ Christian Joudrey

The novel coronavirus has upended business for our seed company friends. Due to wildly increased demand, many have had to shut down website orders and stop answering phone calls and emails. Four companies answered our questions about the dramatic changes currently affecting their businesses.

When did you realize something was up, and why?

When the National Emergency was declared on Friday, March 13, we experienced a 250 percent surge in visitors to our website, our phones were ringing constantly, and orders came flooding in.

–Joshua D’Errico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Nancy began to realize that change was in the air while she was at the Kaw Valley Seed Fair in Lawrence, Kansas, on February 8, 2020, with Cottin’s Hardware & Rental, our first wholesale customer, who was selling our seeds. She read a report of a potential SARS-COV-2 infection in Lawrence the day before the fair. Subsequently, a number of venues we were going to table booths at across the Kansas City Metro area cancelled due to the pandemic. As such venues provided us networking opportunities and a large portion of our sales last year, we began to realize that the market was going to be shifting toward online orders and wholesale sales. Matthew was traveling back from Israel around the same time and became aware that the pandemic was picking up steam as airports began taking action to slow down the spread of the virus. Subsequently, as grocery stores began having shortages of toilet paper and food, we knew that people would start contemplating where and how they would be getting food.

— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

Our demand started to go up on March 13th, and really spiked substantially over the next two weeks. So much so that in those two weeks Seed Savers Exchange received over 2x the amount of orders we had received in the previous two weeks and far higher than the same time period last year. 

Just as this increased demand was starting, we were in the process of reconfiguring our work areas to follow the CDC’s recommendations of social distancing and groups of less than 10 people in a given area. Since agriculture is a critical sector, and seed companies are essential businesses, we had to do this to protect our staff’s safety while getting seeds into the hands of people who want to grow their own food (and hopefully save the seed) in the uncertain times ahead.

Many people want to grow their own food for security in these uncertain times, and look to seeds as a source of hope and resilience.  Some people also want something to do at home while society is social distancing and sheltering in place, and gardens can be very joyful and rewarding—whether it’s on your patio, in your backyard, or in a community garden plot.

So the increase in demand was compounded by the change in operations, which is why we had to stop taking orders temporarily to catch up.  We are about halfway to getting all the orders out the door, and really appreciate all our customers for understanding this unprecedented situation. 

This is the same story for all the seed companies I know of, so it’s not just Seed Savers Exchange that has seen a skyrocketed demand coupled with major operational changes. Even our seed company friends in Australia reported the same experience of unprecedented volume of sales demand through mid-late March!

We hope to be taking orders again in a few weeks, but there are still many variables in play so an exact date is difficult to estimate.

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

Right around St. Patrick’s Day we noticed a jump in online sales as well as increased traffic into our small retail shop in Asheville. I think it became clear that people were panic buying when we had to enlist a “bouncer” at our front door, limiting the amount of folks in the seed shop!

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed

Has anything like this ever happened before to your company?

No, as a young company, we have never experienced a transition in consciousness on the level that is currently taking place. For many, the emptying of grocery store shelves caused a reevaluation of our food system and personal food security. More people are now seeking to grow their own food and local farmers are experiencing an increase in market demand. This has led to a sharp increase in our seed sales primarily in Kansas and Missouri, but also to the east and west coast.

— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

There were similar spikes amid Y2K and during the 2008 recession, but we haven’t had time yet to compare specific data.

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

I don’t think anything like this has ever happened, no! We had a bump when one of our growers, Nat Bradford, was featured on national television with his watermelons. But nothing as sustained as this. I would imagine that something similar happened to gardening companies at Y2K? (Our company started in 2008.)

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed

What’s a typical day like for you right now?

Things are a bit wild right now as we maintain our promised two day turn around on online orders, have numerous wholesale customers throughout the Midwest we are keeping stocked, and have started planting at four grow sites. Our days are varied, several days a week we are farming, other days we are marketing, selling, and packing seeds. On days we are taking care of seed orders, co-owner Nancy often wakes up and starts packing seeds ordered from the day before while our two young children are bouncing off the walls. This includes getting envelopes ready, stamping our logo on packs, final cleaning of seeds, packing, and making shipping boxes from recycled cardboard. Co-owner Matthew oversees the marketing of product, the finances, ordering of supplies for planting, and currently is finalizing the sourcing of seeds and planting designs to ensure variety maintenance. Once Nancy gets the orders packed, she shifts her attention to ensuring the wellbeing of our plant seedlings. During that time, Matthew is often taking photos of the seedlings as they emerge out of the soil, or is photo documenting the new seeds he has sourced for planting. Usually, we send out orders in the late evening as the traffic is low at the Post Office. If we will be planting seeds the next day, then Matthew concerns himself with getting the vehicle/trailer, additional equipment, and seeds ready while Nancy continues packing seeds, gathers supplies for the day, and keeps an eye on our two little helpers, Thomas and Silveria.  

— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

Constant monitoring of the situation and preparing for multiple scenarios as well as the sales rush when we do open the website back up while at the same time getting seed orders out as fast as possible. It’s a collaborative effort, and we face new challenges every day. We are making sure we share the good moments and the successes across the organization and with our members, donors, and customers!

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

Operations has shifted to 100 percent fulfilling and shipping orders. We have a modest staff of 10, so our marketing person (me), even our accountant, are all packing orders. It’s all hands on deck. We’ve also hired a second shift to help us tackle the volume of orders. We’re currently packing day and night, seven days a week!

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed 

Are the people who’re attempting to order from you gardening newbies, or returning customers who want more seeds? (In other words, is this an extension of hoarding in your opinion?)

Both. We have a number of returning customers that are purchasing more seeds then they did last year. A few returning customers have placed multiple orders. As we are a young company, we have a number of first time buyers. Many have been asking for advise on planting, which leads us to believe that many are growing food for the first time. This is exciting to us as one of our primary goals is to increase resiliency and sustainability of food systems. Increasing the number of people growing food helps fulfill this goal. In addition, we have a number of farmers who are growing our seeds for the first time this year. Partially because they have learned about our efforts, but also because the larger more established seed companies are running low on seeds.

— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

We haven’t had time to dig into the data yet (and won’t for a while yet), but anecdotally it’s both. Returning customers want the seeds they order every year and are ordering extra, and then a lot of new people are rushing to buy seeds as well.

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

Johnny’s sells to both Home Gardeners and Direct-to-market Farmers, and 90% of the increase in orders was from Home Gardeners. About half of the Home Garden orders were first-time Johnny’s customers. The first-time customers seemed to be new to growing as well, with lots of questions about how to grow their vegetables and what to choose. We have also seen a significant increase in visits to the Growing Library on the Johnny’s website. On the phones, the new Home Gardeners are talking about wanting to grow because they are worried about having safe access to healthy food. Overall, the value of our orders since March 13th is not above our historic averages so we are not seeing stockpiling of seed amongst our customers.

–Joshua D’Errico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Many of our new customers are indeed new to gardening. I feel like about half are hoarders and the other half are truly looking to fill up their new-found time from the pandemic with the authentic experience of growing their own food. The panic buyers reacted early, with large orders that included seed varieties that cover a whole year or more.

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed


Seed companies experienced an overwhelming amount of orders during the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Photo by Ogden Publications

Obviously the pandemic initiated this behavior, but how long do you think it’ll go on? Is this a long-term change for the better, in your opinion?

It is hard for us to decipher if this is simply a blip, or if it will lead to a more stable shift in the consciousness of our society. We see this pandemic as a crystal clear message from Pachamama (Mother Earth) informing humanity that we need to live more in sync with her ecological rhythms. Now more than ever we model our daily lives to be more in sync with the pulse of Pachamama and see others doing the same on the levels they are capable. While we hope this level of attention will be maintained and aimed at deeper underlying issues such as climate change and social injustice, change is often difficult at a large scale and is often induced and maintained by hardship and necessity. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more intense the transformation to relying on local food systems and food growing will be. The shorter it lasts the more likely things will shift back to ‘business as usual’. 

— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

We are very excited by the renewed excitement around gardening, and all the new gardeners that might be interested in joining the seed movement by extending their food production into seed production. I did read an article in Modern Farmer that joked how seeds are the new toilet paper, as the pattern of buying matched the hoarding of toilet paper seen in grocery stores. People should know that seeds are living organisms, and will have a limited shelf-life.  Some can last a long time on your shelf, but some will not… so don’t let them languish in a closet forever.  The volumes of seeds being sold took a lot of effort to grow and sell, and many seed businesses are working around the clock to get them to you in these trying times for everyone.  Please grow what you’ve purchased, share with your friends, and consider being a steward that saves seeds.  It is important that these traditions be carried on by gardeners and passed down to future generations. That is the ultimate model of food security!

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

Johnny’s hopes that this will lead more people to experience growing food for themselves and their family. We will be offering growing advice and support to the new Home Gardeners who started during the pandemic, to help them be successful this summer, and to bring them back to growing next season. Johnny’s did experience a similar increase in Home Garden customers during the last recession and many of those people are loyal Johnny’s customers today.

Our Direct-to-Market Farmers are reporting that their online CSAs are selling out this spring, which helps to replace their lost sales to restaurants and at farmer’s markets. We also hope that new CSA members will continue to support their local farmers when the coronavirus crisis ends.

–Joshua D’Errico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Honestly, we expected a slow down for April since March was through the roof, but it’s just not slowing down. And now, many of the seed companies of our size, in our market, have ceased taking new orders due to overwhelm or lack of inventory, which is sending more customers our way. I think as long as folks are asked to stay home, we’ll see an interest. We do anticipate a slower end of the year, into 2021, since buyers are stockpiling and may have plenty of seed for a time. We’d love for the lifestyle shift to sustainability and self-sufficiency to remain long after COVID-19. And I do think the situation will breed a new flock of gardeners.

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed

Could your company have done anything to prepare for this? Will you be taking steps to handle a repeat occurrence in the future?

While we have sold out of around 20 varieties, we still have plenty of seeds available and could currently handle additional market demand. As we are still a young company, we are focusing this year on diversifying the number of varieties we offer from 70 to over 150. In addition to vegetables, next year we will offer a number of grains that we have sourced from similar climates to ours here in the Midwest. Expanding into grains is a necessary step to ensure regional food security. As a seed system, all seed companies combined, we should ensure that once the larger seed companies sell all their seeds, that market demand is directed to the smaller companies. There are a number of smaller seed companies that could handle additional customers, but who are currently not on the radar of people seeking seeds. If the goal is ensuring seeds for the masses, then we should focus on ensuring all seeds in the country are accessible to those who seek to grow them.
— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

 In our case, and for many other seed companies, the shortage is not that we don’t have enough seed, because we usually try to have enough for at least a few years. The issue is that it’s in large bulk quantities, and we don’t have as much as we now need packed into packets and ready to send. So we’ve had to significantly increase our packed inventory very quickly, at a time when normally we don’t need to, before we can get the orders pulled and shipped. But we are already and will continue to strategize ways to proactively deal with this if it happens again because the moment the website reopens we are likely going to be facing another rush of orders.

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

To ensure we can fulfill the year-round needs of our Direct-to-market Farmers, Johnny’s maintains high levels of seed inventory which allowed us to continue servicing our Farmers during this time. Commercial farmers generally order in larger sizes, and we did not have enough home-garden sized seed packets made up in inventory to meet the tremendous spike in orders post-COVID. We are looking at how we can change our seed packing to allow us to ramp up making Home Garden packets more quickly in the future.

–Joshua D’Errico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Everything happened so quickly, and we wanted to take care of our staff as well as meet the demand, so I don’t think we could have done much else to prepare. Maybe hired a 2nd shift a little earlier to take the pressure off our core team and ordered more seed? We’ve really showed up for this challenging, unprecedented chapter and I’m very proud to be part of such a strong and talented team.

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed

Do you have any suggestions for your regular customers on how to cushion themselves against something like this happening in the future?

Even though we are a small seed company that makes a living off of selling seeds, the best advice we can provide is, save your own seeds, share them, and repeat. Healthy seed systems are the foundation of resilient and sustainable agricultural systems.

— Matthew and Nancy Kost, The Buffalo Seed Company

Many people just want to take care of themselves and their communities right now, so that they can be resilient in the unknown future we’re facing in food supplies and government assistance. There are going to continue to be big disruptions to the mainstream food supply as we know it—both nationally and internationally—from this, with many short and long-term ripple effects. Home grown and local food gives us a lot more security, come what may. Saving seeds from your own garden, joining or developing gardening collectives and seed libraries, and participating in groups like in the Exchange gardener to gardener seed swap, or the Community Seed Network are a few ways to connect and build local/regional food security. Most seeds are viable for a few years, as well, so keeping a couple years supply on hand can also make sense.

–Heather Haynes, Seed Savers Exchange

Save your seeds! There’s no better path to food security for your family, preserving genetic diversity, America’s food heritage, and connecting with your community.

–Kari Brayman, Sow True Seed

Published on May 27, 2020

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