Alaska seed companies are overwhelmed as people panic-buy for pandemic gardens

Nick Schlosstein with a stack of seed orders. (Claire Stremple/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Nick Schlosstein opens a filing drawer, reaches into a file called “Basil” and pulls out a plastic baggie of small black seeds. He’s filling seed packets—a job he thought he finished weeks ago.

He and his wife Leah Wagner own and operate Foundroot, a small Alaska seed company. March is usually their busiest month, but this year is different. Seed orders are coming in at a rate the couple didn’t anticipate.

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“We might be like, three to three-and-a-half times more than we may than we sold all last year, with, you know, another month and a half of steady seed sales to go,” said Schlosstein.

As coronavirus disruptions stoke food security fears, seed sellers are inundated with orders. A thick stack of online orders sits next to their inventory of seed packets. Foundroot is experiencing the same phenomenon as other seed growers across the state and the country.

“We’ve seen a real shift with people essentially panic buying seeds,” said Wagner.

She said the couple works overtime hours and weekends to keep up with demand.

Foundroot is not the only seed company that’s taken off. Anchorage’s Denali Seed Company said sales are up 60% over last year. They’ve hired additional staff to fill the need. Seed and Soil in Palmer also reports an uptick that warrants working extra hours. Seed sellers report they’ve sold out of some items, but say they have enough seeds if everyone shops for what they need and can reasonably use.

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For Wagner, the business success in a time of pandemic fear is a mixed blessing.

“Our goal was always to help relinquish those fears to make sure people felt secure and safe and fed,” she said.

She said she’s grateful for sales that mean he and her husband are self-employed full time while so many are out of work. But in some cases, she’s urging customers to buy fewer seeds.

“People are ordering, you know, honestly, like 10 times as many seeds as they’re ever going to be able to plant within the life of that seed. And so we’re seeing a kind of a depletion of our seed supply without people actually knowing how to plant those seeds or what to do with them. And seeds are a living thing too. And they won’t last forever,” said Wagner.

When consumers panic buy toilet paper, it’s something they already know how to use. But for many people, gardening is something new. So on top of filling an onslaught of orders, the couple is interacting with new growers as often as they can via Facebook question and answer sessions, phone calls and email.

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“We want to try to cultivate as much success from new growers and people who went all in,” said Sclosstein. “There’s a lot of people that have had gardens before and are making it a much more serious investment this year. And so we want to make sure that they can all get as much food as they can out of it.”

He said business success isn’t how many packets of seeds the couple sells. It’s how many growers turn the seeds they have into food they can use.

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