Thanks to the recession, more Americans are interested in growing their own vegetables. Bad timing, according to an Associated Press report that seeds for some popular veggies might be in short supply this spring.
However, I had the chance to speak by phone with George Ball, chairman of the home-garden seed industry leader W. Atlee Burpee & Co., who told me that its supply of home garden seeds was plentiful.
The AP reported that an industry representative from the Chas.C. Hart Seed Co. expressed concern that, thanks to increased demand from Europeans and a poor growing season last summer, cucumber, onion, snap pea and carrot seeds could be in short supply. Ball told me that while this could be true for some smaller companies, overall the supply should be adequate for even the increased demand that he's seen over the past two years.
He explained that Burpee's business is counter-cyclical, as evidenced by the 20-30% increase in sales last year, unprecedented in this market. Ball expects 2010 to be another strong year for sales, for even though we're not in the "white-knuckle situation" we were last year, unemployment is still high, and the unemployed have the time and the motivation to grow their own.
Ball also sees two other factors driving demand -- the desire for good nutrition, and the concern about foods tainted by herbicides, pesticides and disease. Vegetables, he told me, take up a lot of vitamins and minerals from the soil late in the ripening process, so there is a big difference in these between foods picked weeks before they appear on grocery shelves and those harvested from a home garden just before serving. Even farmer's market produce, he said, can't match homegrown for nutrients.
A survey the company did recently revealed another possible motivation for home gardening; participants saw this as a good activity for staying fit.
Ball also told me that the price of seeds has not increased, which means that, in his words, "You pay more for a bag of Skittles than a bag of hybrid tomato seeds that are going to give you 30 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes."
Ball speculated that a few seed growers may have been caught short on some seed varieties due to the increase in demand, but overall seed supplies should be adequate to meet even the elevated demand brought on by the recession. From this I conclude that you may have to look to a different brand seed than you are used to, but there's no reason to panic and storm the nursery.
According to the National Gardening Association, around 36 million U.S. households grew food in 2008, spending an average of $70 on their gardens. It estimates that this number was up another 19 percent last year, as we tried to compensate for our job and stock market losses.
Who gardens? More women (54%) than men, above 44 years of age (68%), who live in the south (29%), with incomes under $50,000 (51%), married (64%), without children living at home (67%). Surprisingly, the main reason given was not to save money (54%), but to get more flavorful food (58%). 48% grew so that they knew their food was free of worrisome pesticides and herbicides.
The most popular veggie was tomatoes (86%), followed by cucumbers, sweet peppers, beans, carrots, and summer squash. The least popular? Rutabaga (1%), Chinese cabbage (2%), parsnips (2%), Kale (3%), and leeks (3%). My wife's least favorite, Brussels sprouts (or gag balls, as she calls them) are grown by only 5% of home gardeners.
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