Arts & Leisure

The pandemic is bringing gardeners out of the woodwork

JUDY STEVENS OF Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham takes a breather after seeing brisk sales of plant starts to gardeners this spring. Stevens and other Addison County purveyors of gardening supplies saw increased demand in the midst of coronavirus pandemic social distancing. Photo by Cody Mears

In mid-March, when the realities of COIVID-19 hit home in Vermont and the state shut off many opportunities for face-to-face shopping, nurseries that dealt with retail customers were unsure how to proceed. Shoreham’s Golden Russet Farm, for instance, normally runs a big business selling vegetable starts and flowers, in addition to growing and selling its own organic vegetables. Co-owner Judy Stevens said they considered cutting back and regrouping for the year. 
“We just didn’t know,” she said.
Then the phone calls and emails started. Golden Russet’s loyal clientele wanted to get their seeds and plants early and get started on their gardens. So many requests came in that Golden Russet came up with a plan for curbside sales and opened earlier than usual. “It was all very controlled,” Stevens said. “Everyone had to make an appointment.
“They just started coming, and they kept coming.” 
Golden Russet nursery sales were well ahead of sales from last year. In May they were able to open up their greenhouses for sales by appointment only. They scheduled two appointments every half-hour, and all slots were filled a day ahead of time. Stevens expected a drop-off after the first few days, but appointments remained completely booked, even during the cold spell in early May.
Many farm-and-garden businesses experienced a bit of a boom this spring despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sales of gardening supplies and plants at Paris Farmers Union in Middlebury have at least tripled this year, according to manager Jennifer Parker. Paris wasn’t sure what would happen when things started to shut down in March, but knew that the farmers who relied on them for grain would continue to buy as usual. 
Like Golden Russet, Paris was able to get seeds and starts from its suppliers before the boom in gardening business started, so they had enough of most things. Paris also sells seeds in bulk, which has proved to be a buffer against running out. Parker and her crew did sell out of seed potatoes early and have nowhere to get more. Supplies of seed potatoes at Paris and Agway were out the door within a week, according to Parker. 
“We’re talking a couple of tons of potatoes,” she said. 
Crediting customers’ desire to be more self-sufficient, Parker noted that increased sales haven’t been limited to vegetables. The store saw a big increase in poultry orders and there has been a bit of a run on grain. Parker likened it to the toilet paper frenzy in the early days of the pandemic. 
Many new gardeners come through the doors, asking: How far apart should vegetables be planted? What are the hardiest plants that produce the most? What can be done about pests? How does canning work? Which is better, canning or freezing? They get their gardens planted then return with questions about fencing. Fencing supplies have run out and Parker early this month was still looking for a supplier to re-stock. 
Parker said it is heartening to see so many people trying to become more self-sufficient, and she hopes the trend will continue. When asked why there was such a surge in sales, she said, “A lot of people were scared and they don’t want to go there again,” she said. “They want to be safe, be prepared.”

Vermont Natural Ag Products makes and sells Moo Doo, a well-known soil amendment that combines composted cow manure and other composted materials. Given the boom in sales of seeds and starts, it is unsurprising that the Middlebury firm saw a large increase in sales — so much so that they have run out of Moo Doo and of their All Purpose Compost, or APC, even though they sourced extra amounts of APC components like peat moss at the beginning of the pandemic in anticipation of a trucking stoppage. 
Manager Heather Foster-Provencher says that Vermont Natural Ag Products’ spring season was very busy and very condensed. With stay-at-home orders in March came people who had a lot more time on their hands and were antsy to do something productive and self-sufficient. As with other businesses, sales picked up early.
“It’s wild, absolutely wild,” she says. “It’s all happened in 11 weeks. People have gone from canceling orders to desperately trying to get product.” She too likened it to the run on toilet paper. “People were picking up compost in snowstorms this year,” she says, something she rarely saw pre-COVID-19.
Vermont Natural Ag Products does the majority of its sales through wholesale, sending products throughout New England, New York and New Jersey. Those clients need to be top priority, so the local company shut off retail sales of Moo Doo and APC until they have filled all their existing wholesale orders and a new batch of the compost products has been sufficiently aged. “There’s a lead time to making compost. There’s a lead to time to growing plants,” Foster-Provencher says. “We don’t want to put out bad product.”
She and her employees are exhausted, not only because of the amount of business that they are doing, but also because they are having to do it in a different way. “You’re tired, but you’re also incredibly grateful that you’re tired,” she says. Like so many others in the industry, they feel really appreciative that they’ve been able to provide people with what they need, and that they have been so busy. 
Foster-Provencher is cautious about saying business is up. “People have been able to find something to do so that businesses that have been able to support them are able to keep going. I’m not sure how it will pan out in the long run,” she said. “What will June be like? Sales are up, but will they be in July?” 
And the worry isn’t just limited to businesses in the agricultural arena. “We are all connected,” she says — restaurants, retail shops, service industries, schools, town governments. Failure in any one of those sectors can profoundly affect all others.”
She hopes people find that they really enjoy being in the garden — taking a breath, getting outside, being self-sufficient — all those great things that are important.

The Elmer Farm in Middlebury grows tons of vegetables, and predominantly does business through its CSA and by selling to local restaurants and co-ops. They have experienced unprecedented interest in their CSA. Because the farm is at its 220-member capacity, they had to turn away more than 50 potential customers. 
“There are many, many farmers around the state that have doubled their CSA numbers to accommodate for missing sales through restaurant wholesale accounts and non-existent farmers’ markets,” says Elmer Farm co-owner Jennifer Blackwell. “To some degree, a CSA was a safer, more secure market. 
“I think this pandemic has really hit a nerve with our national food supply and people are seeing how easily this monstrous system could be broken during a pandemic,” she said. 
Blackwell noted that online seed purveyors such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds had to put orders for home gardeners on hold so they could accommodate commercial growers. Despite that, many wholesale seeds were out of stock, which has caused a bit of stress for her farm. 
She thinks the rush on seeds for personal gardens shows that people are taking more control of their food source. “I see many friends who were not gardeners previously who are embarking on massive gardening projects now,” Blackwell said. “And even a few members didn’t sign up for the CSA this year specifically because they want to grow their own food.” 
Back in Shoreham, Stevens this week said that Golden Russet was out of nursery stock. She attributed sales in part to customers who are re-booting gardens they had left dormant for a while, or to those who know how to garden and want to go bigger. 
Some gardeners are coming back for second or third visits to replace things damaged by pests, Stevens noted. “Wildlife loves gardens, pandemic or no pandemic,” she said. 

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