Earl Wenger feels a kinship with the antique seed packing machine he spends his days with in the two-man seed packing room at Rohrer Seeds in Lancaster.
"The man who invented it was a genius," says Wenger, 81, who has worked for 15 years with the Ballard antique seed packing machine he fondly calls "The Machine." He has kept it oiled, calibrated, cleaned and even designed modifications to meet the hand-packing needs in the back room at the seed company at 2472 Old Philadelphia Pike.
As he straightened packets so the glue reservoir would hit its mark, Wenger pointed out the features of the machine that was designed in the 1880s and works with Rohrer precision in 2021, from its custom-made scoops to the spinning drum, feed gate and funnel.
Wenger delighted in showing visitors how the Ballard swiftly fills paper seed packets with seeds for, on this Monday, lettuce.
There are only 20 to 30 such machines still in use, according to the Ballard/Brown Bag Seed Packing Machine Owners & Operators Facebook page. The forum is for those who use the antique machines to "share knowledge, ideas and support each other."
Members of this group include Doug Rohrer, president of Rohrer Seeds, a Lancaster company started by his great-grandfather in 1919.
In these uncertain times, Rohrer Seeds is providing food security to people. What helped the company respond and adapt quickly to meet pandemic needs of anxious gardeners was a company-wide pivot in January 2020, Rohrer said.
"We totally changed our infrastructure priorities," he said. "If we had not done that, we wouldn't have been able to handle (demand)," he said.
With a sunflower on its cover alongside the message, "Hope Will Rise," this year's 2021 Rohrer Seeds catalog was mailed to 30,000 people initially, followed by another 10,000 requests, said Jim Griesemer, retail operations coordinator.
In the catalog's intro, Rohrer writes, "In 2020 our team was able to handle the unexpected, huge increase in garden seeds and supplies ... it was a credit to our personnel and the systems that we put in place that we were able to keep fulfilling orders through the entire season."
Sure, the pandemic brought bad things, Rohrer said in a recent interview.
"But more people learned how food is grown, an appreciation for growing their own food," said the father of three, who had his children out in the garden learning to identify plants at a young age.
He expects high demand to continue through this growing season.
New things at Rohrer Seeds are three varieties of industrial hemp seed; and Tecomate Wildlife Systems, their own wildlife food company.
They hired a new retail manager in 2019, and started removing shelves and reorganizing to create a more spacious environment — which happened to comply with pandemic protocols, Griesemer said. Their retail team includes seven employees in store — including Grace Book, retail store coordinator — plus six in shipping.
On a recent Monday morning, Book was helping a customer interested in asparagus, and said tomato seeds and pasture mix are hot sellers.
Adapting to heightened demand has meant ramping up marketing efforts through email blasts, Facebook and blog posts and scheduling of in-person seed starting events (socially distanced and with guests wearing masks), Griesemer said.
Want to know more about onion varieties or asparagus roots? They've got that.
The next event topic is Composting & Soil Health for the Home Gardener on May 22.
"We've been very happy with the turnout," Griesemer said, estimating that the new gardeners coming to Rohrer Seeds are in their early to mid-20s through mid-30s.
The showcase of Rohrer Seeds retail store is its famous 90-panel seed wall. While heirloom varieties are still selling, people come to the landmark Lancaster store for the variety, Rohrer said.
Despite COVID-19, there have been "no hiccups" with their proprietary seeds, which are sourced all over the world, Rohrer said.
There wasn't much carryover seed, he said, so the surge of demand, combined with playing catch up, made for very lively sales.
"We still have a lot of growing season left," he said. "We know there are a lot of new gardeners out there."