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Business and Economy

As More Mainers Look Into Growing Their Own Food, Seed Suppliers Struggle To Meet Demand

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Nick Woodward
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Maine Public
Some shoppers are noticing more bare spots on store shelves, and it's led to a sudden interest in growing some of that food at home, but seed suppliers are struggling to meet demand.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, consumers have been getting nervous about supplies — not just about cleaning supplies and toilet paper, but also food.

Some shoppers are noticing more and more bare spots on grocery store shelves, and it's led to a sudden interest in growing some of that food at home, but seed suppliers are struggling to meet demand.

Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Gretchen Kruysman co-chief executive of Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow:

Kruysman: We saw a tremendous surge, really starting the Friday, March 13 when the national emergency was announced. Our phone started ringing, our website traffic went crazy. So we've seen a tremendous spike, almost a tripling of orders that started coming in.

Mitchell: So have you taken any measures to try and meet that demand? Are you able to meet the demand? And if not, then. Are you having to prioritize certain orders over others?

The surge is really amongst the home gardeners. And so what we started doing on the last week was to prioritize our commercial customers to make sure they were getting their seeds right away. And as of last Monday, we made the decision that we really had to put a hold on all home garden orders for another week. So that's allowed us to try to catch up with the backlog and also to just make sure that our commercial farmers who are feeding lots of other people were getting their seed first.

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Credit Johnny's Selected Seeds
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Johnny's Selected Seeds
"We saw a tremendous surge"

So what's behind it? Is it just that so many people want to grow their own food, or are there other factors sort of exacerbating the situation, too?

It's a combination of factors. It's a lot of orders coming in. And we've had a tremendous influx of new home gardeners, with customers who have never purchased from us before and probably don't seem to be buying seeds before. Like, you know, they're taking up growing food. And we very quickly ran out of everything that we'd stocked on the shelves. That's been hard to keep up with. We needed to sort of catch up on that. And we had to make adjustments to everything in our fulfillment warehouse to keep our employees safe as they were trying to keep up with the demand.

These new home gardeners that you mentioned who are really adding to this big surge in seed buying, what are they looking for and what do they say they're hoping to achieve?

We're hearing that they're worried. You know, they have a certain level of food insecurity. They're worried about being able to get, you know, healthy vegetables in their local stores and, of course, they worry about having to go out to the store. So they're anxious to try this. I've spent a lot of time on the phone talking to our knowledgeable reps and getting some guidance and tips. So it is a different kind of customer than we've had in the past. In addition to our loyal customers, and they're not stockpiling. We aren't seeing that the order values have gone up. So we're not seeing people try to buy two years of seed. They're really just buying what they need to grow this summer.

So what's your crystal ball prediction for the seed story over the next couple of weeks? Do you think you will be going back to normal, or do you think that the push is going to continue?

So we're we're projecting that by the middle of April, things will slow down and within a week we're going to be caught up with a backlog or close to it. So we do think that this has been a temporary spike and things will turn a little bit more than normal.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, which has been operating in the state for some 45 years now, based in Winslow, Maine. The company had hoped to start trying to fill consumer orders again Monday, April 6 but a note on the company website indicates that date has been pushed to April 14.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity

Originally published 9:43 a.m. April 3, 2020.