Home gardening trend is boon to seed producers
Patty Buskirk, left, owner of Seeds By Design, and farm manager Jeanmarie Etchepare, pose in a field of orange Swiss chard being grown for seed.
With a desire to eat fresh food and save money during the recession, more and more Americans are ripping up their lawns and planting vegetable gardens, a national trend that has spurred a boom in nursery sales of vegetable plants and seeds.
The rising popularity of vegetable gardening is "the one shining light" for California's nursery business, a $4 billion agricultural sector that has otherwise seen sluggish sales for floral and other landscaping products, said Robert Dolezal, executive vice president of California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.
He noted that sales of non-edible plants are down 15 percent and 25 percent this year, and that nurseries, like other segments of agriculture, are suffering from the recession and the state's water shortages.
Expecting that homeowners would trim their overall garden purchases due to the recession, nurseries began reducing or were simply not increasing their inventories, and that has now led to "substantial shortages" in some vegetable product categories in the market, said Dolezal.
"All the edibles are running not only as strong as prior years but substantially stronger," he said. "There was no anticipation that there would be this huge bump in demand."
Findings from a recent market research survey by the National Gardening Association are encouraging, he added. The report predicts a 19-percent increase in food gardening, with 43 million U.S. households saying they plan to grow their own fruit and vegetables this year, up from 36 million households in 2008.
"We've seen this before," said Marc Clark, executive vice president of Salinas-based Rocket Farms, which produces transplants for retail nurseries and commercial farmers. "People turn to gardening when times get tough, not necessarily because things are real expensive in the stores. It's more like people hunker down and want some old-fashioned comfort."
And the nursery sector appears to be gearing up for the new craze. Clark said at this year's California Pack Trials, an annual event open to the nursery trade to introduce new plant varieties, emphasis on vegetables and herbs was huge compared to last year. He's also seen sales of edible transplants at Rocket Farms surge 20 percent to 24 percent this year.
"Everybody is gardening now. You've got Michelle Obama gardening. It's a trendy thing," he said.
Patty Buskirk, owner of Colusa County-based Seeds By Design Inc., which produces and supplies vegetable, herb and flower seeds for the wholesale/dealer trade, said she's seeing a 10 percent to 15 percent rise in demand for her vegetable seeds this year, but she's not necessarily increasing too much of her seed production because she still has inventory carried over from previous years. California's ongoing drought is also impacting her production, which she contracts from mainly California farms.
"Farmers in California are so limited on water that they can't fulfill all the production contracts," Buskirk said. "So here they've been offered all these high-value seed production contracts, and they can't take them all, because they're limited on their water.".000
Emerald Farms, which grows seed for Seeds By Design, has had to remove 200 acres that otherwise would have gone into seed production, said Jean Etchepare, who runs the family farm in Colusa County with her brother Allen.
"Our actual production is down quite a bit this year because in anticipation of a short water year, we planted a lot of wheat and hay varieties that don't take a lot of water," she said. "So our 2009 production for Patty and some of the other seed companies have been reduced by circumstances we have no control over."
Burpee, one of the largest seed companies in the nation, is reporting a similar upswing in its sales of vegetable seeds and organic seeds, which grew 20 percent and 46 percent from last year. The company's sales of seed-starting kits are also doing well—up 10 percent, while sales of its growing kit are double that of last year, suggesting an increase in first-time vegetable garden customers, said company spokeswoman Kristin Grilli.
"I've seen more movement in the home-grown vegetable and vegetable garden category than I've seen ever," said Steve McShane, a nursery producer in Monterey County, adding that sales of his vegetable starter plants have jumped 25 percent, while vegetable seed sales have risen 10 percent.
Dolezal attributes this recent surge to consumers devoting more of their leisure time to gardening in place of other activities that may be more costly. He said recent food scares have influenced consumers to pay more attention to where their food comes from and to grow their own food, and current promotions of home gardening by the association are helping to drive consumers into nurseries.
The eat-local movement has also greatly benefited the home garden market, as consumers strive to be more sustainable and eat from their own backyards, said Rick Falconer, general manager of American Takii Inc., a seed breeder-producer based in Salinas that sells to packet-seed companies and commercial growers.
And while he's definitely seen an increase in the vegetable seed side of the business, he said other seed segments remain stagnant or have not done as well.
"When all is said and done, I wouldn't say our general business is gangbusters because where you gain in that market, you may lose in the ornamental market or something else might be a little bit lower," Falconer said.
Not all nurseries, however, are seeing a significant growth in their vegetable garden sales. Mike Vukelich, a nursery producer and chief executive officer of Color Spot Nurseries, which distributes to retail garden centers nationwide, said he's seen only a slight increase in his sales of vegetable plants so far this year. He noted that vegetable plants are now a very small percentage of his business compared to 40 years ago when they accounted for half his sales.
"We used to sell lots of vegetable plants, but people got lazy, have smaller yards and everybody is talking about conserving water," Vukelich said. "So people really aren't buying many vegetable plants anymore."
Still, he said sales of his tomato and pepper plants are up about 15 percent this year, compared to sales of flowers, which have been down in the first quarter. His hope is that overall sales will pick up in the coming months as warmer temperatures hit eastern and northern states and more home gardeners flock to nurseries for supplies.
Tomatoes continue to be the most popular vegetable grown, according to the National Gardening Association. Of home gardeners who were surveyed recently, 86 percent said they will plant tomatoes this year, followed by 47 percent who said cucumbers, 46 percent who said sweet peppers and 39 percent who said beans.
Falconer said consumers are also looking for something different, and seed sales of Asian vegetables have been strong.
Dolezal said patio or container gardening remains a very popular trend in home gardening and landscaping, and allows people in apartments and condos to have gardens too. The National Gardening Association reports that 48 percent of home gardeners grow food in containers in addition to growing them in the ground.
Clark of Rocket Farms, which also specializes in container plants of vegetables and herbs, said home gardening as a whole may ebb and flow with the economy, but he doesn't see this new wave in container gardening going away.
And seed breeders such as American Takii are taking note, said Falconer, adding that the company is working on more vegetable seed varieties that are suited for container gardening. Patio tomatoes, peppers and herbs such as basil are particularly popular with consumers.
"I think the bigger trend is this idea of buying these plants as food," said Clark. "You're not going to plant it in your yard. You're buying this plant that's living, taking it home, putting it on your kitchen sink or out on your patio and you're eating food off it."
Buskirk of Seeds By Design said seed companies aren't the only ones benefiting from the current resurgence in home gardening. Other ancillary industries, such as companies that market fertilizer, soil, pesticides and gardening tools, will likely see a boost in their sales as well.
"If this continues—and they're predicting a three-year trend—can you imagine what a nice little bump it will be for the retail economy?" she said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.