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Managing seed shortages

Author: Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator for local foods and vegetable crops

If you’ve been browsing seed catalogs lately, you’ve likely noticed that many varieties have completely sold out, and some companies have stopped taking orders entirely. In this article, I’ll provide some more context for seed shortages, and suggest some ways to get access to the seeds you need.

Is there really a seed shortage?

The seed shortages we’re seeing reflected on seed company websites are complex, and don’t necessarily mean that there is an actual shortage of seeds. There are many factors playing into the “sold out” messages we’re seeing on some of our favorite varieties. Some of those factors include:

A surge in demand

Last year, we saw unprecedented seed sales at the onset of COVID-19, and companies struggled to keep up with demand. Griffin, a large horticultural supply company, conducted a survey of 1000 first time gardeners in 2020, and 80% of them said that they would probably or definitely continue gardening in 2021. Based on early seed sales in 2021, it seems that the resurgence in gardening is indeed going to continue this year.

Many companies responded to the pandemic by ordering more seed for 2021. Seed companies buy from farmers, who grow crops specifically for seed, and so this meant bringing in new growers, and asking current growers to produce more seed for this year. However, many of these contracts are negotiated early in the year (i.e. pre-pandemic in 2020), so some companies may not have been able to account for the increased demand last year. These companies tend to keep plenty of seed in stock so they do not run out entirely, and have had more time to account for increased demand in 2021.
Delays in packing

Seed companies tend to store seeds in bulk, and repackage them into seed packets throughout the year. Due to COVID-19 workplace safety precautions, this process has been slow for many companies. While many seed companies anticipated higher demand, they continue to operate more slowly than they would in non-pandemic conditions, which means it can be difficult to keep up with orders. Smaller seed companies may just have 1-2 people processing orders, which means that with increasing demand, it’s both hard to keep up and hard to predict availability.

Localized shortages

Every year we see seed shortages with specific varieties. Because seed has to be grown in the natural world, insects, diseases, hail, floods, and droughts can have an impact on crops grown for seed. If there are only a few growers of a certain variety of carrot, and one of them loses a substantial portion of their crop, there will likely be a shortage of that variety in the following year. However, there will be plenty of other varieties to choose from.

As you’re looking at seed catalogs and seeing that many of your favorite varieties are sold out, or perhaps one of your favorite companies is no longer selling to gardeners, do not panic. The seed supply is not depleted, it has simply been a challenging year to manage increased demand.

What can you do if your preferred variety is sold out?

  • Get creative with order sizes. For some of our experiments, I've had to buy 10 packets of 100 seeds instead of just buying 1000 seeds, since certain varieties are only available in certain quantities. It's definitely a hassle, but it's often not much more expensive to purchase this way.
  • Explore new companies. Many farmers stick to the same couple of companies each year, but there are many seed companies that stock the same varieties. One Minnesota seed company to check out that sells in quantities relevant to farmers is Jordan Seed. North Circle Seeds is another great Minnesota company, though they tend to sell in packet sizes vs. larger amounts for farmers. Some others to consider include Osborne, SeedWay, Harris, Stokes, and Rispens (in addition to the more common companies like Johnnys, High Mowing, etc.). If you need untreated seed, make sure to double check when working with a new company, since labeling may not be as obvious as you're used to. *We are not endorsing any of these companies over others, and we are likely leaving some out. If you have a seed company you love feel free to share info in the comments!
  • Try something new. Have you thought about trying new varieties but haven't gotten around to it? 2021 might just be the year to trial some new varieties on your farm. If you need variety recommendations you're welcome to reach out to our team!
Diversify your seed supply - if your favorite company is not currently selling the varieties you're looking for, look at other companies, including local Minnesota seed companies.

Have you considered saving or growing seed?

Over the last couple of years I've seen increasing interest around growing seed as a crop, and adapting seed locally, in part thanks to the efforts of Organic Seed Alliance and the Upper Midwest Collaborative Plant Breeding Network. If you're interested in this work, OSA is hosting a seed growers meetup this Friday, and UMCPBN will be hosting round tables next week at the Growing Stronger Conference.

If you're using saved seed this year, make sure it came from healthy plants, and use hot water treatment to help prevent disease problems. 

Save seed from healthy plants only, and hot water treat to prevent potential disease problems.

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