Recently, Amazon banned the sale of seeds from outside the United States. That could give American seed farmers a renewed chance at a growing market and an appetite for gardening amidst the pandemic. And one American company is at the forefront of it.
When mysterious seeds started showing up announced in American mailboxes this summer, the concern from environmentalists was fair: they could be invasive species, they could be damaging for the local environment, and that they should not be planted. But some Americans did. And local agricultural departments around the country were inundated with calls and messages of plants in surrounding areas dying or questions about “why did I get a packet of seeds from China that I didn’t buy?
That forced Amazon to take action — and the online marketplace has banned the sale of all seeds from foreign locales. On September 30th, sellers who use Amazon’s warehouses to sell seeds from abroad will see their listings being removed.
For Back to the Roots, an Oakland-based company, that specializes in garden kits for the home, this news is timely. They launched a selection of seeds at 100 Home Depots across the US this spring as a pilot run. Nikhil Arora, co-founder and co-CEO, says that when they launched their new collection of seeds — 92 varieties of popular herbs, fruits, veggies, and flowers, they didn’t foresee what was coming.
As the pandemic struck in spring, many Americans turned to gardening. Back to the Roots saw their kits and seeds selling out at stores rapidly. “It was victory gardens all over again for a new generation,” says Arora.
Back to the Roots had sourced these seeds from farms here in the US— and in fact, they were all organic. “Sourcing 100% from US farmers is important to us not just for the quality, but also for being able to offer our customers the trust and transparency of knowing where their seeds are coming from. Shoppers, particularly millennials, are demanding more and more transparency in where products come from — I think this is just the start of a massive shift in the seed industry.”
Now, as big seed brands are wrestling with the new guidelines on Amazon, and the broader challenges in the industry, Arora says it’s time for a revival of the seed market here in the US. Back to the Roots plans on being at the helm: in fact, the company will be the first 100% US grown national seed brand in retail. They’ll be expanding nationwide into The Home Depot, HEB, and Albertsons in spring 2021.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for American farmers now who grow for seed, which is different than growing for food or feedstock,” Arora explains. The vegetables and fruit that are grown for seed are typically allowed to mature on the plant, making seed collection easier and resulting in a better seed. That can vary from crop to crop, but it’s not quite the same as just harvesting seeds from your veg patch. Plus, they’re working at scale.
The seed market is run by a few selective giants. That consolidation has come with setbacks for farmers as they have to compete with global players. This pivot could give American seed farmers an opportunity to get back into the game, says Arora.
“A small percent of US farmers grow for seed. But there’s money to be made there, especially with new gardeners willing to pay more for the peace of mind of locally grown, organic seeds. And many of these seed farms are run by multi-generational families — it’d be great to see these farmers continue to grow and benefit from this shift,” he adds.