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Seed Companies Struggle To Keep Up With The Demand

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's been a golden age of gardening. People have done a lot of that during the pandemic with more people working from home and also wanting to grow their own food, which has increased the demand for seeds. Illinois Public Media's Dana Cronin reports seed companies are struggling to keep up.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: Steve Larimore was hoping to triple the size of his garden this year near Bend, Ore. Once his seed catalog arrived, he started to put his order together. And then he hit a snag.

STEVE LARIMORE: Out of about 60 items I ordered, a third of them were sold out already.

CRONIN: Tomatoes, kale, lettuces, sweet corn - all gone. He couldn't even get a hold of his favorite zucchini, the zucchino rampicante.

LARIMORE: That was what I was really looking forward to growing again 'cause it did very well. And it's quite unusual. It gets about 2 to 3 feet long and curls up in all kinds of interesting shapes.

CRONIN: Home gardeners across the country are facing similar problems sourcing seeds for their spring gardens. Last year, nurseries and seed companies saw historic levels of demand. And so far, this year is no different.

NIKOS KAVANYA: The closest before COVID hit was during Y2K. Y2K was just a little blip compared to this (laughter).

CRONIN: Nikos Kavanya is a purchaser for Fedco Seeds based in Maine. She says since the pandemic, Fedco has hired more customer service reps, increased the number of daily worker shifts and had to get creative to find enough seeds. But Kavanya emphasizes, while you may not be able to get your favorite seed variety, there's no overall shortage.

KAVANYA: Not so much a shortage of seed, but it's that we don't have the staffing to ramp up that quickly (laughter), especially in COVID.

CRONIN: Baker Creek Seeds, located in Missouri, is in the same situation. Right now, it's seen five to six times more demand. Its seed-packing machines just can't keep up, and managers have had to bring in more human hands to help sort and package seeds. Kathy McFarland says her seed company is also constructing a 50,000-square-foot warehouse in order to expand their operations.

KATHY MCFARLAND: We are now figuring out that that 50,000-square-foot warehouse is not big enough. We're looking to expand again already before we even have that one up and running.

CRONIN: The spike in seed demand is causing a shortage of certain produce varieties, and that especially poses a problem for commercial farmers. They carefully plan their yearly crop based on specific factors, things like climate, irrigation needs, harvest timing and yield. Hans Bishop helps run PrairiErth Farm in central Illinois, where he's in charge of seed acquisition. He says this year they've had to make some adjustments, including buying different kinds of onions.

HANS BISHOP: We don't know how these different varieties are going to perform. If we're trying something new, we're just going to have to wait and see if it performs the same or better or worse than what the varieties that we have grown to trust over the years.

CRONIN: Bishop's strategy next year is to try hard to get in ahead of the home gardeners when ordering his seeds. Oregon gardener Steve Larimore says he's planning on saving his seeds from this year's garden and using them as bartering stock with his garden club next year.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "FOREST SANG")

INSKEEP: And that story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a Midwest reporting collaborative focused on food and agriculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "FOREST SANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.