In 2020, seed sales skyrocketed as the COVID pandemic took a firm hold on the globe. Whether due to fears of food insecurity, more time at home, or simple curiosity, droves of budding gardeners emerged. Seed companies struggled to keep up with demand, especially with COVID safety protocols in place, as orders piled up. Several seed companies had to shut down their websites numerous times and limit daily orders to keep up with order fulfillment. Others, unable to print more seed packets due to factory and supply chain shutdowns, looked to local artists to create works of art on blank seed packets. Shipping delays are unavoidable as safety protocols limit the number of employees working at one time. Add to that six times the number of orders from previous years. While this rising interest in home gardening is encouraging for seed companies, it also has created many challenges.
The “grow your own” movement has not lost any traction in the 2021 growing season, and seed companies continue to work relentlessly, often around the clock, to make sure gardeners get the seeds they ordered. As a result of this influx of new gardeners, the availability of seeds among sources has dwindled, with many varieties selling out shortly after becoming available. A fact that is promising for the future of our food system as more people get in touch with the joys of growing their food and at times frustrating for gardeners who are unable to find cherished varieties they wish to grow or acquire their seeds in time for planting. But, have no fear, fellow gardeners!
I recently became aware of a fantastic resource, called the Exchange, offered by Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing heirloom seeds. The Exchange is essentially a seed swap, where gardeners from across the country can offer seeds that they have grown. All seeds are “homegrown,” meaning that a commercial operation does not raise them. The Exchange, started in 1975 by a small group of seed savers, has expanded to include thousands of seed varieties and stewards. All of the seeds offered by the listers in the Exchange are non-hybrid, open-pollinated, and non-patented, meaning they can be grown, saved, and shared freely. Many of the seeds are also heirloom and organically grown.
The Exchange has always done important work, saving thousands of rare heirlooms from extinction and connecting seed savers to new seed stewards that wish to continue the tradition of seed-saving. This seed-saving community is on the front lines of saving and sharing America’s gardening heritage and ensuring it is available to future generations. Anyone can browse the Exchange, but they ask that you set up an account to request seeds. The asking price covers the lister’s packaging and shipping costs, but the seeds themselves are free. Listers can set their prices or use those suggested by Seed Savers Exchange which ranges between $3 for small seeds to $5 for non-seed items such as garlic bulbs, potato tubers, and apple-tree cuttings.
Seed Savers Exchange offers both an online and printed version of the Exchange’s seed database. The printed version, called the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, is reminiscent of my childhood’s giant phonebooks. Boasting over 550 pages, it is a beast of a catalog that includes the available seed listings and a treasure trove of information. Within its pages, you can discover updates on Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm, opportunities for engagement, instructions on exchanging seeds and community policies, lister profiles, and seed saving recommendations. The yearbook has grown from offering just over 5,000 varieties in 1985 to over 21,000 in 2021. The tomato section alone is 184 pages, offering countless varieties that I didn’t even know existed! I could “armchair garden” with this yearbook for hours at a time.
I was intrigued and excited about my discovery of the Exchange and knew that I wanted to be a part of this fantastic community. I love that this platform offers seed stewards a place to share their joy and passion for saving seeds. To start, I requested three varieties of tomato seeds from a seed saver in Michigan. She was wonderful to correspond with and seemed equally excited to share her seeds with me as I was to grow them.
Requesting seeds through the Exchange offered a different experience than ordering from a seed catalog, a more personal one. I appreciated the direct connection to the grower that the Exchange offered, especially at this time of pandemic isolation, where relationships often feel lost. Yes, requesting seeds through the Exchange provided endless variety options and no shipping delays, but it also offered so much more: a chance to be a part of something bigger. By participating in the Exchange, you become part of a community, which is a great feeling.
Ultimately, I would love to give back to this community of seed savers by offering the homegrown seed that I have saved from my garden. It has always been one of my gardening goals to become a seed steward. Participating in the Exchange has helped me get one step closer to that goal.
Source: Seed Savers Exchange