On a grocery shopping trip in advance of Governor Phil Scott’s “stay home, stay safe” order here in Vermont, I noticed the installation of a new seed rack in the middle of the produce section of our local supermarket. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the store never carried seed packets, yet this newly installed rack was completely sold out at the time of my visit. This instance represents a trend that I have come to call the Coronavirus Seed Rush. By the end of March, small and large seed companies all over the country suspended orders for a few days so they could catch up with higher than expected sales levels and shipping demands for seeds. In a handful of interviews conducted in an effort to document this phenomenon, High Mowing Seeds, headquartered in neighboring Wolcott, Vermont, reported an increase of 18,000 new customers after the onset of the pandemic. Compared to the same time last year, orders to Fedco Seeds, headquartered in Maine, were up by 5,000 and sales increased by $350,000. Sow True Seeds in North Carolina reported a threefold increase in sales volume, with an estimated 50% of those being new customers. Similar increases were reported by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange, and other seed companies across the country.
A New York Times article by Kendra Pierre-Louis characterized the Coronavirus Seed Rush as panic buying, but perhaps it represents another tendency, and that is the trend toward a greater desire for self-sufficiency in our domestic food economies. As anthropologist Katherine Dow recently wrote of parallel surges in seed sales in the UK, “If we get bogged down in simplistic binary moral judgements about people being either selfish or heroic, we can miss the chance these moral debates present to rethink what is normal and whether we should even try to get back to it.” Seed industry insiders report that people are genuinely interested, many for the first time, in growing some food for themselves or their families, or in teaching their children how to do so. In seeds and gardening, others are finding “a little bit of peace” in this unsettling time. Cul-de-sac sized cooperative groups have popped up, each member committed to growing a particular crop that will be redistributed at harvest time. People who have never gardened before are reaching out to friends with gardening know-how, asking what they should plant, when, and if they have any seeds to share. Overnight, we have become a nation of gardeners, and seeds are being recognized as the cornerstone to self-provisioning efforts that they have always been. What are we to make of the Coronavirus Seed Rush? Is it symptomatic of panic, a response to fears of collapsing food supply chains? Or is it the expression of rational and measured efforts to increase levels of local food security in a time of great uncertainty? Whatever it is, it signals a shift in popular perceptions of food security and sovereignty. Time will tell if it represents a broader, lasting shift in local seed systems and food sovereignty. As an interviewee with Seed Savers
Exchange speculated, this will probably depend to a great extent on the success level of first time gardeners. In the meantime, however, seeds are enjoying an unparalleled moment in the spotlight.
Paralleling other efforts toward increasing local food security and sovereignty, and with our attention drawn to the increased demand for seed, we are continuing to grow-out locally adapted, heritage seed crops to stock our very own Black River Seed Library, which we are hopeful will launch this coming fall/winter. Building on this momentum, the Rian Fried Center is joining a collaborative applied research project with UVM’s Department of Community Development & Applied Economics, titled “Seeds of Resilience: Learning from COVID-19 to Strengthen Seed Systems in Vermont.” We are also assisting NOFA-VT in the production of seed saving guidelines for volunteers growing out indigenous seeds for the Abenaki Land Link project. For more information on these efforts and how you can be involved, contact Tony VanWinkle, at [email protected]