WINSLOW, Maine — Even as sleet and snow still pelt frozen Maine, sales at the state’s seed companies and distributors are shooting through the roof. They are being pushed by two forces: the growing consumer demand for locally grown food and economic hard times.
“Home garden sales are off the wall,” Joann Matuzas, who runs the retail store at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, said Wednesday. “We are up 50 percent, and obviously, the economy has something to do with it.”
Matuzas said she is seeing a wide range of customers: from first-time gardeners who are looking
to save money by growing their own food, to veteran gardeners planning to expand existing plots.
Experts call it the Victory Garden phenomenon: When times get tough, gardening not only takes the mind off the recession, it also can be cost-effective.
The National Gardening Association, a nonprofit education organization, is predicting that the number of homes growing vegetables this summer will jump more than 40 percent compared with two years ago.
“As the economy goes down, food gardening goes up,” said Bruce Butterfield, the group’s research director. “We haven’t seen this kind of spike in 30 years.”
The increase in seed sales has translated into a major hiring boom at three of Maine’s seed companies, Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, FEDCO in Waterville, and Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester.
At Johnny’s, 30 people work in the call center, which takes telephone orders, and that doesn’t include the Internet, international and fax orders center, where 6-inch-high piles of orders sit on each desk.
In the seed packing section of the factory, 15,000 units a day are filled, all by hand. Over in the shipping room, 3,700 packages were mailed out Tuesday. More than 200 workers are employed at the seed plant, which has been operating for 35 years.
“We haven’t even hit the peak,” Matuzas said.
“It is just phenomenal,” Dick Meiners, owner of Pinetree Seeds, said Wednesday. “Our sales are up by 32 percent. It has been years since we’ve seen a double-digit increase.” Meiners, who usually hires eight to 10 workers for the seasonal business, has hired 23 new people.
“And it is all on the vegetable seed, not flower, side of the business,” he said. “I talked to a friend of mine who owns a seed company in Wisconsin and he said his sales are up 30 percent. But he also owns a rose company and those sales are down by 30 percent.”
Meiners said he saw the increase in seed sales begin in 2008.
“There was an economic uneasiness,” he said, acknowledging that many gardeners save money by growing their own food. “But the principal reason is that people want locally grown food and if you grow it yourself, you know exactly what you’ve got.”
Meiners said he is getting 800 online orders daily. “Now there is a delay in shipping the orders out, but next, we’ll be running out of seeds.”
Kip Penney at FEDCO Seeds in Waterville, a seasonal mail-order company, said FEDCO also has experienced a “fairly large increase” of more than 25 percent in sales.
The first time Leilani and Chance Carlson of Belgrade walked into the Johnny’s Selected Seeds store, they were novices.
“I was like a deer in the headlights,” Leilani Carlson said. But over the past five years, they have expanded their garden to sustain not only themselves, but also others. “Now we raise chickens, hogs and will start a community-supported agriculture program this year.”
Building on the public’s demand for locally grown food, the Carlsons will double their production this summer and were picking up a major seed order at Johnny’s this week.
Also selecting seeds was Master Gardener Stewart Kinley of Fairfield. “I have been running into a number of people this year who are going to try to raise their food for the first time,” he said. He agreed with Matuzas that many gardeners are seeking a simple, pure life of self-sufficiency.
On Wednesday, Kinley was buying basil, spinach and rosemary seeds, as well as a germination mix. “I’ve already started lettuce and tomatoes under lights,” he said, laughing, “but it is probably way too early.”
Many first-time gardeners are seeking help from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“We are certainly getting a lot more questions about what to grow and what varieties to grow,” Gleason Gray, an extension educator at the Orono campus, said this week. “A larger than usual number of these are new gardeners. I’ve also been getting a lot more calls than usual to speak to different gardening groups.”
Gray said reading seed catalog planting information is the best thing consumers can do.
“All the information should be there,” he said. He said Extension services can provide information on vegetable growing tips, when to start seeds and when to transplant them into the garden, the length of Maine’s growing season (100 days), and what zone Maine is in (4 or 5).
Gleason said each county Extension office also has information about pest or disease issues and, later in the season, there are workshops on harvesting and preserving the bounty.