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Demand for Vegetable Seeds Is Rooted in Recession

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

In 1784, an Englishman named David Landreth opened a seed store in downtown Philadelphia, confident that newly independent Americans would also want the freedom of growing their own food.

The D. Landreth Seed Co., one of the oldest surviving corporations in the nation, has seen several owners and many shifts in its fortunes in the intervening 225 years. But if Landreth were looking down on his enterprise today, he probably would be grinning. After years in the doldrums, the consumer demand for vegetable seeds has abruptly climbed at a rate even industry veterans have never seen.

This spring, sales at Landreth are "up 75 percent over last year," said Barbara Melera, a former venture capitalist who bought the company in 2003. Moving between the shelves of bulk seed containers in her warehouse in New Freedom, Pa., she pointed out varieties that are almost sold out: Detroit Dark Red beets, Danvers Half Long carrots, Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach. She had no kale or a popular beet variety, Lutz. "We have a modest amount of beans left."

Seed producers and merchants across the United States are reporting the same phenomenon of crazy demand and even some shortages, especially of staples like beans, potatoes and lettuces. Sales of seed packets picked up last year and have grown significantly again this season, which runs from January to June.

Industry observers attribute the boost in sales to a concern for food safety following outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisonings and a desire by consumers to be a part of the local food movement. Michelle Obama's new vegetable garden at the White House may also be inspiring people, they said.

But the primary reasons, they speculate, are the recession, income loss and the need for people to lower their grocery bills by growing their own.

In late April, Greg Frandano, a 35-year-old bartender, ripped up part of his lawn to extend his vegetable garden in the rear yard of his brick Cape Cod in Falls Church. "We hardly buy any produce when things are cooking," he said, as he worked composted leaves into the clay soil before planting. He started the garden four years ago and has enlarged it every spring since to feed his family of four.

At four community gardens in Reston, coordinator Deana Demichelis said the wait list for 250 plots has climbed to 140 names, a backlog of about three years. "New gardeners are begging to get in because of the recession and the fact they can save money growing their own food," she said.

Melissa O'Brien, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said seed sales in March were up 30 percent over last year, sales of vegetables and herbs plants had increased by 28 percent and sales of seed-starting supplies rose 40 percent.

"When times get tough, it doesn't take long for people to realize what they can do to help themselves," said Tom Johns, owner with his wife, Julie, of Territorial Seed Co., a mail-order retailer in Cottage Grove, Ore. Johns, who bought the 30-year-old company in 1985, said his sales grew 25 percent last year and have increased another 25 percent this year. "For a company getting as old as we are, those are big percentage increases," he said.

Melera of Landreth Seed personally sells one-third of her vegetable and herb seeds at flower shows in late winter and early spring, bringing her in direct contact with customers.

"A year ago January, we began to see a gigantic increase in vegetable sales," she said. It was driven by 30-something mothers "who were scared to death that their children were going to get salmonella from the [store-bought] spinach."

This season, she said, the customers tended to be from their 20s to 40s and "many, many more males. It was much more driven by the economy."

Melera has also seen a strong demand for staple varieties, "what I would call survival food." These include seed potatoes, winter squash, peas, spinach, beets and pole beans, which produce more food per plant than bush beans. "Very few melons," she said.

The seed producers that supply wholesalers and retailers have been scrambling, along with their contract growers, to meet the demand.

John Wahlert, sales and production manager for Wild West Seed Inc. in Albany, Ore., said in a normal year he would have seed stockpiles in June to get a jump on the 2010 season or to make up for crop failures, but he and other producers are low on a range of basic varieties. "Onions are short, lettuces are short, carrots are extremely short," he said. "Beans are extremely short, peas are short."

Trevor Clarke, a seed producer in Hamilton City, Calif., said recessions tend to bump up consumer demand for vegetables at the expense of flower seeds, but this year he and fellow producers have seen the market for vegetable seeds expand by 30 to 35 percent. "This is the best year we have had in 20 years," said Clarke, of Western Hybrid Seeds Inc. "I have been in the vegetable-seed industry for 40 years, and this is the best year I have seen."

The question in everyone's mind is: Will this boom end when the economy picks up or when novice gardeners realize that raising vegetables requires some skill and a lot of commitment?

Melera said she's talked to beginners who thought you could grow vegetables indoors (you can't) and a customer who wanted to know how many plants he would get per seed (uh, one). She predicted as many as half the new gardeners will give up this summer. "I think we may have one more year, but I'll be surprised if by 2011 we will be seeing the same level of activity we are now," she said.

But Lou Zambello, director of sales and marketing for Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, said people have turned to growing vegetables for fundamental issues of health, food safety and saving money, "so hopefully this will have more staying power."

Frandano in Falls Church has become so canny and thrifty a gardener that he repots tomato seedlings that otherwise would be plucked to make room for others, and harvests seeds from store-bought peppers for garden plants. "I have beans ready to go" from those he saved from last year's crop, and he intends to allow some beans to ripen on the vine this season to sow for a fall crop. "We'll eat beans all year long," he said.

Diane Hund, director of marketing for the Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago, Ill., said two factors will insure a continued interest: "You're bitten by the bug, and second, you've got this big hole in your yard that you have got to fill with something."

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