In bad times, seed sales grow

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In the midst of bailouts, stimulus packages and talking heads on TV reporting the doom and gloom that is our economy, it's wonderful to know that seedsmen continue to thrive.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co. has been selling seeds for more than 125 years. They've seen a depression, lots of recessions and two great wars, but have always flourished regardless. They are one of the biggest suppliers of seeds and plants for gardeners.

"Most of the seed companies are fairly recession-proof on the vegetable side," Burpee chairman George Ball Jr. says. "It's sort of the Victory Garden phenomenon. Gardening not only takes your mind off things but it is also is very cost-effective."

During this economic downturn, the company has thrived as more families return to gardening to save money and grow safe food.

Last year, the company saw a 30 percent increase in sales and expects to add another 20 percent this year. Organic seed sales have jumped nearly 50 percent since last January and seed-starting kits are up 10 percent over 2008, an indication more first-time gardeners are entering the market.


Burpee research shows that $50 spent on seeds and fertilizer could result in a produce harvest worth $1,250. This season, Burpee offers a $10 Money Garden packet that's filled with $20 worth of seeds. It contains six packets of seeds, including some of the company's favorite varieties of lettuce, tomato, pepper, peas, carrot and beans.

The key to getting the most out of the garden, according to Mr. Ball, is to keep planting all summer. By filling up fallow ground, the garden is used more efficiently and more produce can be picked. He adds that nutrients from fresh vegetables are much higher than in produce from the store and as far as taste goes, there's no competition.

"A family of four can literally not have to go to the supermarket for vegetables for an entire half year."

Over the past two years, Mr. Ball has watched as the economy and other issues have helped the seed industry.

"There's been a huge change if you go from the salmonella last year alone, then add to it the fuel crisis and the economy. You've got three big factors, any one of which alone would have been adding to a big spike in orders."

At the locally owned Heirloom Seeds in West Finley, Tom Hauch is buried in seed orders. He runs the business with his wife, Barb, their daughter and one part-time person who works from home.

"They say the economy is bad, but it's not affecting us at all."

For the past 21 years, business has improved each year. The company now does business via Internet only.

He sees lots of first-time gardeners and has noticed a dramatic sales increase in some of his package deals.His Complete Garden Packages are sealed in plastic with a silica gel insert. The seeds can be stored for three years are for people concerned about a complete economic meltdown.

"They are either trying to save money by growing their own, or they are scared that something might happen and there might be shortages."

Bill McKay, owner of Seeds from Italy, is so busy he was packing seeds during a phone interview. "I thought last year was really good. This has got to be one of the few recession-proof businesses in the world."

He has been selling specialty seeds from Italy from his Winchester, Mass., office for the past 10 years. He has talked to lots of first-time gardeners. Some of his repeat customers are ordering many more seeds this year.

"Some of the orders have just been astounding, the size of them."

But in his opinion, it's not just the economic climate that's affecting sales. "More and more people are concerned with buying local, eating local quality stuff and often the only way you can do that is growing your own."

Mr. McKay hopes that the economic downturn starts new family traditions.

"It's really good that people are actually starting to grow their own stuff again, and I think they'll stick with it.

With a laugh he adds, "fire those landscapers and turn over your backyards."

Doug Oster can be reached at or 724-772-9177.


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