Seed companies and their customers say paper seed catalogs aren’t obsolete – yet

Despite unseasonal winter heat waves in swaths of the South, Midwest and Northeast that might make you want to get out and plant green thumbs, it’s a fallow season for gardeners and farmers across the United States. Cover crops have been sown, winter storage crops have been hidden, and a few downtimes to lay out next spring’s beds have finally arrived.

The same is true for paper seed catalogs, which are often shipped in late fall and arrive in mailboxes in late December or early January. Brochures from organic and heirloom seed companies take months, if not years, to plan and deliver page after page of bright, enticing images of future bounty. (There are endless options: just a partial list includes almost 100 companies). Some varietals are old favourites; others are fresh out of breeding trials and ready to dazzle with their resistance to pests or drought, or attractive new colors and flavor profiles. For farmers, gardeners and farmers, seed catalogs “are the unofficial start of the [planting] season,” says Catherine Kaczor, sales and marketing manager for Hudson Valley Seed Company in New York.

And although online catalogs have been around for decades, seed companies continue to send paper seed catalogs to their customers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. But are people still looking forward to receiving them? Does someone actually fill out the stapled order form, affix their accompanying envelope with a stamp, and mail it out? Or has everyone completely switched to browsing and ordering online?

Beth Hoffman runs a grass-fed cattle operation in south-central Iowa. His quarter-acre garden provides a summer’s worth of produce like lettuces, Sun Gold tomatoes, sweet corn, butternut squash, watermelon, herbs and Turkey Craw beans to his family and friends. about 10 of its neighbors. It favors a hybrid control approach. “The Johnny’s [Selected Seeds] The catalog is coming and it’s a physical reminder in the house that you need to place the order or at least start looking,” she says. “The paper catalog looks really beautiful and full of hope. It’s good for flipping through and seeing the full breadth and depth of what’s available. But then I go online to place my order.”

Darby Weaver, brand strategist at High Mowing Organic Seeds, says this is a common scenario among his company’s 126,000 commercial and gardening customers – all of whom received the year’s new catalog at the end of October. . People like to “lounge around” with paper catalogs, she says. “It’s this unwavering thing that’s been around for a long time. They’re beautiful, and you’re cold and it’s winter and you want to see some green stuff.” But more and more sales are happening virtually these days, even as requests for print catalogs continue to rise, “I don’t anticipate them going anywhere, even though the trend is to buy in line,” says Weaver. Although she says there are two notable exceptions to this rule: older shoppers, who tend to call in to place orders; and farmers from the Amish community in Pennsylvania and beyond, who send in hand-inked purchase orders.

Keegan Clifford grows 13 raised beds of vegetables – potatoes, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, various crucifers, kohlrabi, lettuces – in his small garden in Middletown, Maryland, for himself and five weekly CSA customers . He places his seed orders online, usually from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. But he also has an inordinate appreciation for printed catalogs. “I’m still a bit old school; I like to pick them up, circle and highlight the things I find interesting, fold the pages and go back,” says Clifford. But he also finds himself constantly referring to obsolete catalogs. “I never recycle them, so I have catalogs that are four or five years old. It’s cool to go through them and see that about 80% of the content doesn’t change. But you also see the evolution of a seed company.”

However, Clifford, the Parks Department’s full-time geographic information systems coordinator, is no Luddite. In addition to buying virtually, he also relies on technology to organize the seeds he already has on hand. “I keep a spreadsheet on the computer of all the different seeds I have, and each one is color coded,” he says. This helps him keep track of his inventory, to avoid making redundant purchases. Also, “If I see anything interesting, I can verify that I’ve never grown that before.” This year, Clifford is looking at pak choi and tatsoi; summer and winter squash resistant to the squash borers that decimated his crops last year; bush beans; and some new varieties of carrots. “I just browse Friday nights and one night, after a few beers, I’ll probably pull the trigger” on a dozen new strains, he says.

Still, there are some downsides to ordering online. These were brought home for Hoffman last year, when a combination of new pandemic farmers placing orders for the first time and people stockpiling seed for fear of a shortage actually succeeded in causing a shortage. “It was part of the experience of using the catalog,” says Hoffman. “You’d look at it and say, ‘This one looks awesome,’ and then you’d go order it and it’d be gone.”

Kaczor of the Hudson Valley doesn’t expect that to be a problem for 2022. “We’ve been following the trends closely and people aren’t hoarding seeds this year,” she says. But it wasn’t a shortage of seeds that influenced the company’s decision to switch to a much smaller 12-page catalog – from around 75 pages – that highlights the company’s mission and the 40 new seeds she sells in 2022, including caribe cilantro, peeled bitter green and Malabar red spinach. The cause was a paper shortage which, according to Bloomberg estimates, has prevented 100 million catalogs from being printed this year. Another factor: an increasingly young clientele, more urban and increasingly inclined to do things virtually. “We tried to compromise by sending at least something, and I think people will appreciate that gesture,” Kaczor said. “But we’ll see how they react.”

One person unlikely to mourn a smaller catalog, if any at all, is Letisha Cobb. The Atlanta-area single mom started gardening in her tiny backyard years ago to save money on groceries for her four (now adult) children; she currently supplies kale, strawberries, kale, and especially tomatoes to friends, families, and “anyone in my community” who wants some. “I like both [print and online] but when it comes to paper, I see where the waste comes from,” she says. “Because afterwards, what do we do with it? We can go online and find what we want faster.”

Like Clifford, Cobb is a fan of Baker Creek, which has so many tomato varieties that she says she’s so “obsessed with” that she jots down their names on paper while browsing their website, to help her remember. of those she envisions. . Last year, she got so carried away that she grew 25 varieties of tomatoes and “almost made me sick.” Although she has a stash of seeds from trades and leftovers from last year’s order, “I still want to make some, but I try to limit myself to 10.” Its current and possibly still expanding list of tomato seeds includes Rose, Great White, Green Giant, Brandywine Yellow, Hillbilly, Mortgage Lifter, Pink Oxheart, Brandywine Pink, Black Cherry, Sart Roloise, and Giant Crimson. “I try to reduce that,” she says. “Wish me good luck.”