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Home gardeners drive rise in seed demand

Issue Date: February 17, 2021
By Ching Lee
Patty Buskirk, managing partner of Seeds by Design in Colusa County, which produces seeds for home gardeners and commercial farmers, examines a radish crop grown for seed in Maxwell. She describes 2021 as a “banner” year in the seed business, with pandemic gardening continuing to boost demand for seeds.
Photo/Ching Lee

Pandemic gardening, which took root last spring as COVID-19 lockdowns inspired more people to dig in their yards, appears to have staying power—and that has fueled increased demand for certain seeds.

It is one trend that Patty Buskirk, managing partner of Seeds by Design in Colusa County, said is shaping her business, which produces seeds for home gardeners and commercial farmers.

Buskirk said she expects 2021 will be another "banner" year in the seed market, one that matches 2020, particularly the segment that serves home gardeners and smaller farms.

Even though farmers who grow for restaurants and other food service outlets continue to see reduced sales, she said, "renewed interest in gardening has created an increased market for many unique vegetables." Seeds for some of these vegetables are also favored by smaller, diversified farms that sell at local farmers markets, she added.

Though the home-gardening segment is a "very small portion" of the state's seed acreage, Buskirk said, "there will be plenty of contracts available to growers" who want to produce seed for that market. Finding farmers willing to grow small acreages of seed for home-garden use has become harder, she noted, because those contracts are not as profitable as growing seed for commercial agriculture.

Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden, a seed company in Santa Cruz County that sells through e-commerce and to nurseries and garden centers, said she had "a hard time keeping up" with a boom in sales last March, and has packed more seeds in preparation for this year's spring-planting season. Whereas her busiest months usually run from February through April, she said online and wholesale orders started surging in early January this year, "and never really let up."

"Clearly, gardening has taken a significant leap forward as leisure," Shepherd said, pointing to factors such as the lockdown, a desire for more outdoor activities, and concerns about food insecurity and going out to shop.

Vegetable gardening, which saw a revival during the 2008-09 recession, has been a clear trend during the pandemic, she said, with more interest in crops that yield higher nutrition and flavor, and that are used in different ethnic cuisines. For example, there's "big expansion" in Asian vegetables, she said, noting that her company is now testing crops such as purple Napa cabbage and unusual peppers.

"Anything dark green or purple is very popular for home gardeners," Shepherd said.

Also trending are edamame and cilantro, the latter of which has replaced basil as the best-selling herb, she said.

Compact plant varieties that do well in small spaces also are popular, she said, pointing to container green beans and zucchini as examples. Another trend that is taking hold is growing flowers that attract pollinators, Shepherd said.

Outside of the home-garden seed market, uncertainties created by the pandemic have affected farmers who grow seed for commercial growers.

Siskiyou County farmer Jim Morris said the Dutch company for which he grows carrot seed "really pulled their horns in" last year, which resulted in him not growing any seed because the company had concerns about reduced crop sales to food service in the Netherlands. The company "dug deep into their inventory" and now they're looking to replenish their supply, he said.

Buskirk of Seeds by Design said the rise of indoor vertical farms that maintain a highly controlled environment and are very mechanized could contribute to increased seed demand. Such operations "consume a great deal of seed annually," she said, due to their ability to produce crops year-round.

OnePointOne in Santa Clara County, for example, uses automation and artificial intelligence with an indoor, vertical aeroponics system.

"We can maximize the spatial footprint by many-fold," said Jake Eisenberg, the company's director of business-to-business development. "It's really high density, and you're thinking of it as three-dimensional production as opposed to just flat-surface plant production."

In addition to potentially using more seed than traditional farms, he said the company is looking for seeds that offer "compelling characteristics" for growing indoors, such as seeds with genetics that naturally lend themselves to indoor production.

Though the company's initial focus is on producing leafy greens, Eisenberg said it's also doing research and development for other types of crops "to provide a really wide variety, especially heirloom varieties that aren't necessarily often available."

The executive director of the California Crop Improvement Association and University of California, Davis, Foundation Seed Program, John Palmer, said he has observed a number of trends among field crops in recent years that could affect the state's seed production landscape.

For example, he said he expects more production of triticale seed, as the crop makes a bigger plant and produces more forage per acre. Its rise could reduce demand for wheat, barley and oats grown for forage. Production of alfalfa seed, grown mostly in the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys, has dipped due to lower demand from Saudi Arabia, although "that's expected to rebound a little," he said.

Palmer said California production of malting barley has been increasing due to growing interest from craft brewers.

Hemp seed, which spurred "a lot of interest" initially, has moderated as "reality has kind of set in" about its risks, he said. In California, the emphasis in that market has been on feminized seed production, he noted.

In smaller-acreage crops, there's been more interest in heritage grain varieties for bread baking and in organic heirloom bean varieties, Palmer said.

Another growing segment in the seed business has been in native grasses, forbs, woody plants and materials gathered from wildlands and used in restoration and revegetation projects such as following forest fires, he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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