Skip to comments.Weekly Garden Thread - January 21-27, 2023 [Seed Shortages: Opinions & Articles As To Why]
Posted on 01/21/2023 8:00:22 AM PST by Diana in Wisconsin
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Seed Shortages: Where Do Seeds Come From?
(Understanding a continuing supply problem)
Ever since 2020, I’ve found that buying seed for my garden is significantly harder. Many times, I’ve called a company with my order only to hear, “Sorry, that’s out of stock.” Many times, the seed catalog has shown up in my mailbox telling me I could no longer purchase as much ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce as I’d like. Now, I could only buy two packs instead of my typical four.
I’ve even had friends tell me some seed companies refused to sell to them because they were now only selling to farmers! All of this has resulted in significant stress for those seeking to plant their “usuals” when nobody has them.
The seed racks at the stores are empty, the catalogs are hollow, and it makes one wonder: Where do seeds come from? And what’s happening to the American seed supply?
To get a glimpse into what’s going on, I started reaching out.
Seed Manufacturing During Unprecedented Sales
I reached out to Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Affectionately referred to as “Mama Wallace” by those around her, Ira helps ensure the day-to-day operations of Southern Exposure run as smoothly as possible. According to her, I’m not alone. She says Southern Exposure has seen similar problems since 2020, when it saw unprecedented sales.
It wasn’t just that Ira’s regular customers were buying more; 2020 also gave Southern Exposure an influx of new customers who’d realized the importance of gardening. And ever since, those same customers have stuck with the company.
The problem, Ira says, is that when seed farming, you have to plan a year to a year and a half ahead. If you suddenly get hit with double your usual amount of orders midseason, you can’t just harvest more seed. You have to wait for the plants to grow.
In addition, growing seeds takes more space than growing crops for food. Customers want to know they’re receiving the varieties they ordered, and unless the seed farmer is planting varieties far enough apart that they don’t cross-pollinate, that’s not going to happen. This means the farmer who’s suddenly hit with numerous seed orders not only has to wait for new plants to grow, but also has to find the space to grow those plants.
For Southern Exposure, this has meant finding new farms to join with its co-op. It’s also meant the company had to stop selling bulk amounts of seed for a number of products. Ira believes Southern Exposure will catch up with the demand within the next two years.
When I asked Ira what she sells the most, she said biennials, such as collards and broccoli. “I think it’s because people really like eating those, and they want to make sure they can keep those foods in their diet.”
Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, largely agrees with these reasons for the seed shortage. Sales for him went through the roof in 2020, to the point where he had to shut down multiple times just to get orders handled. Since then, Baker Creek has seen consistent volume increases monthly.
It’s across the board for him as well, with even his flower sales tripling what they were pre-2020. Storage crops, such as beets, have seen spectacular sales increases, and Jere says cabbages, in particular, have surprisingly been a huge hit.
Historically, though, perhaps this isn’t too surprising, Jere points out. Uncertainty always drives seed sales, and what he’s seeing reflected in the marketplace now is similar to what Baker Creek experienced during Y2K and the Great Recession.
This gave me much to think about. Growing plants does take time, and it’s not necessarily a process you can speed up. But were other factors involved with the American seed shortage?
Craig Dremann of Redwood City Seed Company in Redwood Village, California, thinks so.
Where Do Seeds Come From?: Logistical Logjams
Craig’s been selling seeds since 1972, specializing in sweet grass, hot peppers, and other veggies. According to Craig, one of the key factors that has contributed to supply chain shortages is inflation.
Seed companies typically contract with farmers to produce a seed crop. The farmer raises the crops and brings them to the seed company, and the seed company harvests and cleans the seeds. However, when a rapid inflation occurs within just one growing season, a farmer then looks at their crop’s food value versus the crop’s seed value and often realizes they can make more money by breaking the contract and selling the harvest for food.
This, in turn, leaves the seed company in a bind.
In addition, Craig says a lot of America’s seed comes overseas from China, India, Chile, and Africa. Pre-2020, the price of a shipping container was affordable. Now? Shipping containers are not only much more expensive, but they’ve become more difficult to find as well.
Craig also says the combination of Chinese ports being locked down and cargo ships being forced to wait for a harbor on the U.S.’s west coast means those seeds are going to be trapped in very hot and humid shipping containers for a lot longer than they would be during “normal” times.
When you combine increased prices, fewer port openings, and the importing of more ruined seeds, you end up with a recipe for a perfect storm.
Whether the Weather Matters for Seed Manufacturing
If you ask Rick Nation, owner of Clear Creek Seeds, an heirloom seed distributor in Oklahoma, what’s the cause of all this, he says, hands down, it’s the weather. Maybe it’s too much rain. Maybe not enough. Whatever the cause, if weather prompts crop failures throughout the United States, seed farmers don’t have any product to sell.
Clear Creek Seeds purchases from seed farmers all over the country. When those farmers have problems, the entire industry is affected.
In addition, Rick says 2020 caused U.S. residents to recognize the fragility of the food-supply system, resulting in a massive influx of new customers. He thinks, combined with the weather, these are the two main reasons North Americans have difficulty finding seeds.
His company has been bombarded with new customers too. Proof of this are his sales patterns. His regular customers typically purchase the same seed every year. But now? Now, he’s getting customers new to gardening just buying one of everything. Rick has started selling “Garden Starter Packs” to help direct these gardeners who are just beginning their journeys, and the starter packs have done phenomenally as a result.
Several times, his company has had to shut down to catch up on all the new seed orders that have come in. He notes that even some of the industry’s major players have had to do the same. This problem has impacted everyone.
Where he used to purchase, say, broccoli in 5-pound bags for resale, now he has to buy 20-pound bags in an attempt to keep up with demand. And even then, he has no problem moving that much product.
The people want seeds. It’s just getting as much of them as they want that’s the problem.
The Final Word
A massive influx in demand seems to be one of the main reasons people are having problems getting seeds for their gardens right now. The pandemic changed the world, and people everywhere realized the importance of a self-sufficient lifestyle as items disappeared off the shelves, prices rose, and fear of illness abounded.
Of course, crop failures and contract violations could be a part of those shortages as well. As Rick points out, “Anytime there’s a bad news cycle, our sales go up.” A lot is going on right now in the world that people are concerned about. And as a result, they’re turning to raising their own food at levels perhaps unmatched since the “victory gardens” of World War II.
Will things ever get back to “normal?” I think so, but as Ira of Southern Exposure says, that’s something that will take time. In the meantime, I think I’ll go out and plant a bit more kale. I may need it.
What You Can Do During a Seed Shortage
Join a local seed library to find open-pollinated (OP) seeds saved by gardeners in your area.
Learn to grow from cuttings. Many annuals, such as tomatoes, grow well from cuttings and allow you to propagate F1 varieties.
For varieties that you like but are sold out with one seller, cross-check with other sellers.
Consider alternative varieties or making substitutions. Try a yellow or orange paste tomato, or interchange squash and sweet potatoes within recipes.
Find seed-swap groups and events in person and online.
Allow some of your OP plants to reseed themselves.
Regrow kitchen scraps or vegetables and herbs from the store, such as celery, garlic, green onion, potatoes, and mint.
Save seeds from heirloom varieties you’ve purchased.
A beautiful tulip/windmill picture is on:
I have a few azalea and rose blooms here in Florida.
Bare root roses are now $9.99 at Walmart, up from about $6 a few years ago.
I saw a $19.99 tomato plant, pot and small support at Lowe’s yesterday.
I have a few cherry tomatoes on my from seed tomatoes.
My herbs (spearmint, oregano, rosemary, parsley, sage) are doing well.
I was thinking of planting some around certain plants the abundant local rabbits love to eat.
Empty grocery store shelves in Spring 2020 made a lot of people think about availability of food not being a guarantee. Hatcheries ran out of chicks too. With egg prices as high as they are now, I’m sure a lot of people are glad they started a flock of laying hens.
I have here in the lower part of zone 9 some copper plants that are doing well.
They can be damaged by cold, but recover here.
Copper plants grow to several feet fairly quickly.
My hibiscus tend to be straggly. They need regular pruning.
I was talking to my neighbor about chickens. I suggested that small operations would be better able to raise chickens, but she said the big operators would continue to dominate doing whatever it takes to control the virus.
It’s not just home gardeners having seed supply issues:
Wild Horse Seeds adjusts for seed shortage, optimistic for 2023 - Jamie Henneman Jan 14, 2023
As the 2022-23 winter snowfall adds up, growers and service providers are feeling optimistic about the state potentially recovering from the drought conditions of the past couple years. Among these is the family-based business Wild Horse Seeds in Havre, Mont. The business will be featured at the upcoming MAGIE show in Great Falls, Mont., on Jan. 18-20 in booth C26.
“Last year, in December, we were only seeing eight inches of snow and this year we already have 30 inches, so that’s really helping to fill the reservoirs and bring things back to normal,” said Renelle Ruhkamp, sales rep for Wild Horse Seeds.
But the moisture is only one of the items that will be needed to rebound from the drought years. Seed supplies are also down.
“We are encouraging our farmers to speak for seed early, as supplies are down from the drought,” she said.
Wild Horse Seeds is a certified seed conditioning plant that cleans a wide variety of seeds from wheat and barley to oats, peas, triticale and grass seeds.
The family-based business is owned by Brad and Janet Ruhkamp and their son, Dustin, and his wife, Renelle. The company, formerly Macintosh Seeds, was purchased by Brad Ruhkamp in 2002. Brad started working at the plant in 1983 and started out cleaning and bagging seeds, eventually working his way up to foreman, then a system manager, and finally, the plant manager.
After eight years of managing, Ruhkamp learned that the family running Macintosh Seeds was ready to move on from the business.
“I realized that I was either going to have to go out on my own or find a new career,” Brad shared on the company website. “I liked what I did, so I got financial backing and bought the company in 2002.”
He changed the name of the plant to “Wild Horse Seeds” to reflect its location along the historical Wild Horse Trail (which was used for bootlegging whiskey between the United States and Canada during Prohibition).
The company contracts with local growers to purchase seed that is cleaned and resold. Buyers can choose from several varieties and special grass mixes can also be made at the plant.
Being in the seed business can be challenging, as the company doesn’t have access to some of the financial tools available to farmers.
“The farmers all have some kind of insurance,” Renelle said. “If we have a bad year, we still have to buy the seed, but it may not sell.”
The last several years have been challenging for Wild Horse Seeds, as farmers have cut back on their purchases due to weather and the cost of inputs.
“Farmers have been in dire straits the last couple of years, not only with the drought, but also with the increased costs of fertilizer and diesel. There is also a decreased availability of seed since not much has grown during the drought,” Renelle said. “We know what farmers really like to do is grow a crop, not an insurance check.”
As 2023 is off to a decent start in terms of snowfall, Renelle said the company is optimistic about the coming year.
“We hope to continue to get more moisture. A lot of farmers planted less winter wheat. We aren’t sure what the conditions are going to be, but we know this spring people need to get stuff into the ground,” she said. “But like they say, ‘it takes moisture to get moisture,’ so we are off to a good start.”
My friend Don grew up in DC long ago when people kept chickens in the city.
If a policeman showed up after a complaint of a noisy bird, its keepers promised to deal with the problem by dinner time.
However, many of the peat pellets, now fully puffed out and wet, are showing white mold right at the top where the netting is open and no seeds are sprouting. The pellets are new and absolutely dry before I water them.
I'm wondering if I could spray them with some Daconil to kill whatever fungus are growing on these?
Many seeds can last more than one year, such as tomato seeds.
I’ve even grown parsley from seeds more than a year old.
I’ve never had luck growing mint from seeds. I bought a wonderful mint plant from the produce department of Walmart.
I’ve had good luck growing other herbs from seed.
A seed shortage is not what I want to hear. I don’t grow many things from seeds, not enough room here, but I would if I could. Interesting reading about this though. Thanks for all you do here, Diana!
I often grow seeds in old plant multi-packs using seed starter mixes.
I sow zinnias where they are to grow since they don’t like to be transplanted in my experience.
Netherlands is (Was) second largest agricultural producer in the world, including seed production. Mandatory closure of 3000 farms pretty much insures that things will not return to normal.
All you seed are belong to us.
Just replant. Don't drown them.
I can’t really garden because of water expense/soil issues and laziness, so I only grow a couple of things.
I just ordered Caspian Pink tomato seed and Butterstick Zucchini Summer Squash seed.
I hope they are good.
I had a clump of oregano which I divided.
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