For seed suppliers, Spring 2021 has been hectic, with demand spiking as early as January and forcing some seeds on back order, while new and experienced home gardeners clamor for just the right tomato and spinach plants.
Blame soaring demand as new and existing home gardeners seek out exciting varieties, along with old favorites, to plant in their backyards so they can have healthy, homegrown food, says Doug Rohrer, president of Rohrer Seeds, a Lancaster company started by his great-grandfather in 1919.
"Sales are going crazy," Rohrer said Monday.
At Rohrer Seeds, a 102-year-old company that supplies home gardeners and small farms, the last year has been a mostly positive whirlwind that shows no signs of slowing down. While every year sees crop failures in agriculture, Rohrer said his seed company has seen no shortage of seeds; in some cases, substitutions have been suggested.
Rodale Institute, a regenerative organic nonprofit farm in Maxatawny Township, uses three main seed companies that provide organic, non-GMO seed, said Ian Frederick, a field technician.
"Across the board, a lot of our seeds were either on back order or (sold) out and we had to substitute," he said.
The seeds affected include ornamentals, perennials and vegetables, namely cabbage and spinach.
Last March, amid shutdowns in response to COVID-19, Rohrer Seeds stayed open as an essential agricultural business. While in-store sales dipped, they experienced an online surge, along with a rise in mail order and curbside pickups, Rohrer said.
"We adjusted as we needed to," Rohrer said.
Customers eagerly adapted to those changes, said James Griesemer, retail operations coordinator at Rohrer Seeds. Customers stepping inside the store at 2472 Old Philadelphia Pike, will find an open, spacious environment, showcasing its famous 90-panel seed wall.
"When restrictions hit last spring, we saw an interesting thing — online sales skyrocketed," Griesemer said.
First quarter sales this year are up 38% compared to first quarter sales in 2020, Rohrer said. January's online and mail order sales started pouring in, earlier than ever.
And while they couldn't anticipate everything coming down the pandemic pike, Rohrer Seeds was ready to meet those needs.
"We were prepared because last year was a sales high mark," Rohrer said. "It just started much earlier this year."
Meanwhile, at Rodale, the seed shortage throws off their planting schedule, because it means seeds get planted late, which means a later harvest, Frederick said.
"We've had to substitute varieties that aren't as popular, but at least it gets our crop growing," he said.
Spinach has been in demand at Rodale, Frederick said.
At Rohrer Seeds, the top seeds in demand are tomatoes and peppers, in oddball varieties, Griesemer said.
The high demand for seeds is rooted in a few things, not the least of which is demand for healthy food.
"We've been talking about it quite a bit here," said Frederick of Rodale. "We've just seen a large demand in organic food in general, which includes vegetables grown at home from seed," he said, adding, "the pandemic has a lot to do with that. People see how fragile the supply chain is."
The popularity of shares of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a reflection of that demand.
“We had a 20% increase in share membership from last year," said Margaret Wilson of Rodale. "We sold out in March (two months earlier compared to last year), and at one point, our wait list for 2021 exceeded 40 names.
"We usually do sell out, but in previous years, it wouldn’t be until June or even early July," Wilson said. "We used to let people sign up after the season started. But for the last two seasons, we’ve sold out in March or April.”
Both Rodale and Rohrer Seeds are all about education, offering many videos and resources for growers, both on their websites and social media. Stopping by their stores and asking questions face-to-face is welcome, too. Just remember to wear your mask.
Rohrer Seeds holds seed-starting events, which include tours of the seed-packing area.
"We estimate 50% of people coming through the doors for events are new," Griesemer said.
Rodale is holding a plant sale May 6 to 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown.
"Growing your own food takes time and hard work, but it's worth it," Frederick said.
"In my opinion, growing your own food is really something you need to do yourself to realize how fortunate we are to have the nutritious foods," he said.
Find Rohrer Seeds at rohrerseeds.com, or call 717-299-2571.
Find Rodale at rodaleinstitute.org, or call 610-683-6009.