Along with toilet paper and flour, Vermonters are noticing an acute shortage of seeds as they slog through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early April is prime time for starting gardens, and with a directive to stay home, planting vegetables is both a means of exercise and a way to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce this summer (if all goes well). Delays in shipments and new systems at local garden centers, as well as low or nonexistent stock online, has gardeners planting seeds of doubt.
Gardeners looking to stay at home and purchase seeds online are faced with limited selection. Vermont's own High Mowing Organic Seeds
is navigating "unprecedented challenges" and "significant increases in orders and web activity," according to a note posted on the company's blog
. They still have seeds for sale, but many varieties are out of stock, and the shipping turnaround time was extended to 20 days as of March 30.
Nurseries and locally owned garden centers around the state are adapting to pre-ordering and curbside service; many have seeds for sale, but they're learning how to communicate new ordering and pickup systems to their customers. Online order forms, lines to pick up bulk soil, virtual nursery tours and plant delivery are all part of the new normal.
Gardener's Supply Company
customers are able to order seeds, soil, mulch, and early annuals, veggies and herbs for curbside pickup at their local garden centers via an online form, but in-person shopping is not available. The company's website asks customers to be patient, saying, "This is new for us and demand for our products is high."
Red Wagon Plants
in Hinesburg has closed its greenhouses to the public but is now offering home delivery and curbside pickup. Some seed options on the nursery's website are sold out, but many are still available.
The perceived seed shortage — a result of both increased demand and new challenges around ordering with pandemic-era restrictions in place — is being felt statewide.
In Thursday's all-Senate caucus, held on Zoom and livestreamed on YouTube,
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) expressed concern about that shortage, saying that his constituents are concerned about the difficulty of accessing seeds and gardening equipment.
Sears said that the closure of garden centers at big-box stores is an unintended consequence of limiting in-person shopping to essential items, and those stores are a main source of supplies for many home gardeners in southern Vermont. He sought clarification on whether the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets would consider these items "essential," pointing out that spring is here and people are eager to start growing.
"Down here in the south, we're pretty much ready for that," Sears said.
Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) assured Sears that seeds were a "main issue" on the agenda for the Senate Committee on Agriculture's meeting later Thursday morning. He also took the opportunity to plug Vermont-owned businesses.
"Dick, I would tell my folks that called, 'Go to your local farm and garden store and forget the box stores. Buy local,'" Starr said.
In an email to Seven Days,
Sears wrote that he "didn't have much to add to what was said this morning." He reiterated that he'd heard from several constituents who expressed concern about how to obtain seeds from local stores.
Seeds ready for planting last spring
In the committee meeting, also livestreamed
, deputy secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets Alyson Eastman gave a clear answer: "Seeds are definitely essential," she said.
Eastman's statement was a clarification of the directive the Agency of Commerce and Community Development
issued on March 31 limiting in-person sales of nonessential items at big-box stores such as Target, Costco and Walmart.
That directive, while not specifically addressing seeds, had named "home and garden" in the list of nonessential items that the stores would no longer be able to offer for in-person transactions. It also directed that garden sections of large home-improvement centers "should be closed." Locally owned nurseries that had already moved to curbside-only service were unaffected.
The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is now communicating that seeds are essential and can be included in in-person transactions, Eastman told the committee.
"We prefer that they not be in an area where folks are browsing," she said, but with proper social distancing measures — or through prepaying and curbside pickup — there would be no reason to prevent customers from buying the carrot, beet, bean or tomato seeds that they need to start their gardens.
The scene in retail stores around the state hasn't done much to clear things up, Eastman acknowledged, as many still have their displays of seed packets held hostage in "nonessential," cordoned-off aisles. The decision to close aisles is up to individual retailers, as is whether they are capable of offering online ordering or curbside service.
"We realize that [seeds] are seeing heightened sales this year. More folks being home, they want to grow their own gardens,"
Eastman told the committee.
"Seeds are essential, and we want to see them sold, that's for certain," she said.