Johnny's Selected Seeds gatherer Jean Furrow reaches for a seed packet in the company's shipping room Wednesday, March 11, 2009 in Winslow. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

Some Maine seed companies have been suspending ordering and delaying shipments this year. But unlike last year, it’s not because of seed shortages. Instead, it’s due to the staffing shortages and challenges caused by the pandemic, companies say.

“Demand has been high through the last several months compared to average years, but we have seen that really ramp up over the last several weeks,” said Joshua D’Errico, marketing manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Waterville.

Gardeners ordering seeds might have noticed delays in their seed orders — or, in some cases, companies limiting and restricting home gardeners’ ability to order seeds altogether. This isn’t because of a shortage of seeds, though. D’Errico said that while their supply of some gardening tools is low due to the increased demand and decreased production resulting from the pandemic, the seed supply is relatively stable.

“In any given year, we experience seed shortages and seed crop failures, limiting some varieties’ availability,” D’Errico said. “That said, we do not expect any seed shortages outside of what can occur in an average year.”

Why the slowdown?

Due to the pandemic, staffing at seed companies is restricted to keep employees safe. However, that means that it’s taking more time to fill orders in a timely manner. As a result, seed companies have made changes to keep up with the orders.

“We can only have a certain number of people filling orders in a building,” said Heron Breen, research and development coordinator at Fedco Seeds. “There are only so many hours in the day and there are only so many people. It’s not that there’s a lack of seed, but when all the orders come in at once, and we only have certain numbers that people can pull [and] we don’t want to get behind a certain number of weeks.”

To prevent backlogged orders from getting unmanageable, seed companies have put a system in place whereby they will temporarily suspend customers’ ability to order seeds until the company has caught up at least somewhat with existing orders.

“If we’re behind more than two weeks we’re not going to be able to fill the seed,” Breen said. “It’s hard to keep track of stuff. We know how many we can handle without getting crazy [and we] got to a place where we were like, ‘OK, things look a little crazy.’ Some companies have totally shut down, [and] part of this is not being able to pack the seeds enough.”

D’Errico said that Johnny’s Selected Seeds is also only accepting home garden orders “on an intermittent basis.”

“We’re doing this because of the high volume of orders we have been experiencing and the need to keep our employee-owners safe by following COVID safety precautions,” D’Errico said. “Our goal is to process and ship the orders we currently have as quickly and safely as we can. We are doing our best to manage the significant growth in interest from new commercial farmers and home gardeners this year.”

For Fedco, the demand for seeds this January isn’t as high as it was last spring when a surge in gardening interest sparked many to order, according to Breen. But it is “definitely more than normal,” in his experience, Breen said.

What can customers do?

For now, customers can take a few steps to ease the pressure off of their favorite seed companies while still having their orders fulfilled. First, Breen said to be flexible about what seed varieties you order. You might need to branch out past your usual favorites if they are out of stock, or be prepared to make multiple orders. Certain varieties of seeds may not have been delivered to the seed companies yet, or they may not be available at all this year.

“I think accepting substitutions is going to be the best way for somebody ordering from everyone to get things that they can use even if it’s not exactly the thing they wanted,” Breen said.

D’Errico agreed, and suggested that gardeners should browse Johnny’s Selected Seeds by characteristics that are important to you as a gardener, like cold tolerance, or even the easiest-to-grow varieties.

D’Errico also said to consider limiting the amount of seeds that you order, focusing on only what you can use in the growing season. Gardeners can use tools on Johnny’s Selected Seeds website, like the Interactive Seed Quantity Calculator or our Vegetable Seed Quantity Charts, to estimate the amount of seed you will need.

Finally, be patient. Keep checking back with your local seed companies to see if they have reopened orders to home gardeners. Breen said that the rush is likely to slow down as the ordering season goes on, but it could still take several weeks for seed companies to fill an order.

“I think that orders are going to slow down, but that might not happen until February,” Breen said. “This is like the toilet paper situation last spring. We have to cool it a little bit. If you can delay placing an order for a week, it’s probably going to help you because you’re not necessarily going to get your seed any sooner. You will get seeds, it just might take a while. ”