Seed Sales Surge

This edition of Green Gazette includes updates on seed sales, online homesteading education, mutual aid networks, and more.

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by Adobe Stock/Maggie
New and experienced gardeners bought seeds in record numbers this spring, perhaps signaling a perennial shift to supporting local food systems.

As the coronavirus pandemic arrived and intensified, people responded to the uncertainty by stockpiling goods — toilet paper, cleaning supplies, preventive medicines, flour, eggs. Seeds were no exception — seed sales skyrocketed, forcing many seed companies to adjust their fulfillment processes and halt orders temporarily.

According to Matthew and Nancy Kost of The Buffalo Seed Company, emptying grocery store shelves prompted people to reevaluate their personal food security and decide to grow their own. The Kosts say this applies to both new and experienced gardeners, with returning customers purchasing more seeds than ever before, and first-time buyers asking for gardening advice to pair with their purchases. To manage increased demand, The Buffalo Seed Company plans to diversify its offerings, and source and sell more grains. The Kosts believe this shift could be either short-lived or long-term, depending on how long the pandemic lasts. “While we hope this level of attention will be maintained and aimed at deeper underlying issues, such as climate change and social injustice, change is often difficult at a large scale and is often induced and maintained by hardship and necessity,” Matthew says. “The longer the pandemic lasts, the more intense the transformation to relying on local food systems and food growing will be.”

Joshua D’Errico of Johnny’s Selected Seeds says new gardeners are citing their fear about losing safe access to healthy food as a reason for securing seeds and for investing in local food options, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) systems. D’Errico says, “Our direct-to-market farmers are reporting that their online CSAs are selling out, which helps, in part, to replace their lost sales to restaurants and at farmers markets.” In an effort to bolster the success of new gardeners’ efforts, Johnny’s is offering growing advice and support to gardeners who started during the pandemic to help them get through their first growing season and to help growers of all kinds keep planting in the years to come.

At Seed Savers Exchange, Emily Rose Haga has also noticed people turning to seeds for peace of mind. “Many people want to grow their own food for security in these uncertain times, and look to seeds as a source of hope and resilience,” she says. “Many people just want to take care of themselves and their communities right now, so that they can be resilient in the unknown future we’re facing in food supplies and government assistance.”

Haga reiterates that this raised consciousness could last after the pandemic ends, noting that disruptions to the mainstream food supply will have long-term ripple effects, and that homegrown and local food offers additional security, come what may. Joining or developing gardening collectives and seed libraries and participating in seed swaps are other ways to build regional food security, Haga says.

Across the board, these companies urge their customers to grow and enjoy the seeds they’ve purchased rather than shelving them, and to save and share the seeds that result from those plantings. Kari Brayman of Sow True Seed thinks beginner seed-buyers could establish a new passion. “We would love for the lifestyle shift to sustainability and self-sufficiency to remain long after COVID-19. And I do think the situation will breed a new flock of gardeners,” she says. “Save your seeds! There’s no better path to food security for your family, preserving genetic diversity, America’s food heritage, and connecting with your community.”

Mutual Aid Networks Help Communities Connect and Thrive

Rather than attempting an individualized response to disaster, with each household relying only on its own supplies, mutual aid is a practice based on the theory that communities are stronger when people voluntarily share skills and resources. This can take the form of a simple gesture — such as “borrowing” a cup of sugar from a neighbor — or involve deeper organizing in response to a particular crisis. Post-pandemic, numerous mutual aid networks have launched to help neighbors connect and pool resources to build resilience and combat virus-related isolation and strain, from help with housework to child care.

Even in isolation, you can start or join a local mutual aid network to offer or seek financial resources, grocery delivery, yardwork, emotional support, and more. Connecting with mutual aid efforts can help you get to know your neighbors, contribute to your community, and request what you need in return. Even if your needs are currently met, supporting your local mutual aid network can help you and your neighbors band together to better prepare for any future crises that come your way, whether personal, regional, or global.

Find or start a mutual aid hub in your area by using the interactive map on the Mutual Aid Hub website. You can also search online for “mutual aid” paired with the name of your location to discover local efforts that support reciprocal relationship-building with neighbors.

Hone Your Homesteading Skills from Afar with Webinars

Prior to the pandemic, aspiring and experienced homesteaders alike could gather at conferences and clubs to share their experiences and swap skills. Now, many educational events — even for hands-on topics — have been moved online for safety’s sake, taking the form of digital classes, webinars, and video series.

For those who can access an internet connection and desire a digital introduction to homesteading skills, a number of options are available.

Mother Earth News Fair Online. With the live Fairs put on pause, the Fair team has developed an online learning environment with video courses and prerecorded webinars from popular Fair workshop leaders. Viewers can learn about the benefits of elderberries; get tips for raising chickens; follow instructions for fermenting kraut; and receive guidance on going off-grid. The webinars are live and interactive, and recordings can be accessed afterward.

National Young Farmers Coalition. The NYFC has published more than 150 free resources in response to the virus, including an article on how farmers can navigate COVID-19 relief; a guide to direct-sales software platforms; food safety information; and more. The resources can be searched by topic or location.

Penn State Extension Online Courses. Peruse 57 online courses featuring videos, readings, and quizzes. Some courses offer certificates upon completion, and others provide continuing education credits. Topics covered include food safety, farm biosecurity, business practices, livestock management, and more.

Tilth Alliance. Attend live, online classes that cover methods for container gardening, companion planting, canning, and more. These classes are interactive, with group activities, demonstrations, and Q&As.

Pandemic’s Effects on the Food System

The presence and spread of COVID-19 has disrupted our food system, with some farmers confronting lower demand for their crops because of business, restaurant, and school closures — leading to massive food waste, from piles of unsold potatoes to gallons of dumped milk.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) has produced a report about the first 100 days of this disruption, titled “COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems: Symptoms, causes, and potential solutions.” The report describes a fragile and unfair food system that’s been on the edge for decades, in which “children have been one school meal away from hunger; countries — one export ban away from food shortages; farms — one travel ban away from critical labor shortages; and families in the world’s poorest regions have been one missed day-wage away from food insecurity, untenable living costs, and forced migration.”

Small Rural Farmstand

The report draws three lessons from COVID-19:

  1. Industrial agriculture leads to habitat loss and creates conditions that enable viruses to emerge and spread.
  2. Disruptions are revealing the vulnerabilities of food supply chains.
  3. Hundreds of millions of people are constantly on the cusp of hunger, and are thus highly vulnerable to the effects of a global recession.

Recommended responses to these lessons include:

  • Taking immediate action to protect the most vulnerable.
  • Building resilient agroecological food systems.
  • Rebalancing economic power for the public good.
  • Reforming international food systems governance.

This detailed report urges readers to see the crisis as a starting point for transformation that builds resilience at every level, from producing to distributing to consuming. Read the full report on the International Panel of Experts on Food Systems’ website.

Oil Prices Plummet

Energy demand dropped in response to the coronavirus outbreak, plunging oil prices to negative $37.63 per barrel on April 20. This slashed the price per gallon at pumps, shuttered some coal-fired power plants, and left sellers struggling to unload their oil reserves before intaking their May deliveries.

Since then, crude oil prices have steadily increased, but the market remains volatile. Some oil and gas companies have received federal aid in the wake of the virus, but this turmoil could still have long-term consequences for the energy sector, in which the cost of oil has had a harder time competing with that of renewables in recent years, and new government projections show renewables surpassing coal this year in electricity generation.

Plus, to mitigate climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged countries to phase out fossil fuels and transition to renewables by 2030. When energy demand returns, countries must choose between transitioning to renewables for sustainable recovery or bolstering an already tenuous fossil fuel industry that has immense climate consequences.

Learn more about the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s “Short-Term Energy Outlook” on the government website.

A Guide to Selling Edible Weeds

Some people think of weeds as pesky plants that grow where they’re not supposed to — but many of these wild species can provide novel flavors and nutritional benefits, and could serve as a source of supplemental income for growers who might otherwise try to eliminate them.

To help farmers understand how to cash in on these often-overlooked crops, especially as the market for edible weeds expands, the grant program Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) has released a guide meant to help growers identify, harvest, price, and market edible weeds. To create the guide, SARE collected data from 10 farmers in the Northeast United States who include wild plants in their crop plans. Through those partnerships with farmers, farmer surveys, literature review, and interviews with experts, SARE aimed to gauge the marketability of edible weeds and the best methods for selling them. It used that research to create the guide, and then distributed it throughout the Northeast.

This resource includes flavor descriptions, culinary uses, resources for wild food research, recipes, and case studies detailing different approaches for wild roots, shoots, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds.

To review the guide and make use of your weeds, go to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education website and search for project FNE17-884.

Automated System for Insect Monitoring

Insects are key to ecosystems worldwide, but in some places, their numbers are plummeting. Recording and counting a region’s insect species can provide data to guide biodiversity policy or reveal successful measures. Typically, this data is gathered by humans who take on the time-consuming task of manually tracking insects — particularly popular species, such as bees and butterflies. But in 2019, a team of researchers from the Netherlands developed a system of smart cameras that photograph and identify flying insects and calculate biomass. Visit the Diopsis website to learn more about the system.

Researchers from Naturalis Biodiversity Center; insect knowledge center EIS Kenniscentrum Insecten; Radboud University; and computer software company COSMONiO used a database of insect images to train the insect cameras to make observations. According to Naturalis, the results will be compared and combined with data from traditional tracking methods to “provide a much more complete picture of the state and trends of insect populations.”