Fear factor opens a new market for seeds

Julie Ann Allender, a psychologist and gardener, believes in preparedness.
Julie Ann Allender, a psychologist and gardener, believes in preparedness.

Not garden-variety sales. More like disaster-pasture quantities for survivalists.

Posted: April 18, 2011

The news is unquestionably frightening: political turmoil at home and abroad; worries over oil, gas, and food prices; earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns . . .

And that's just in the last few months.

Marketers are on high alert. Doomsday is nigh! they shout online and on late-night TV as they hype "survivalist seed banks" and "apocalypse gardens" to the nervous and fearful. More than a dozen companies offer deals of up to 94,000 vegetable seeds, stored in tightly sealed buckets and "ammo boxes," that will feed a family of four for years or decades.

With all the world's disasters of late, and the 24/7 news hype, the peace-of-mind business is predictably excellent.

"It's going well, a little too well right now. We didn't really anticipate that we'd get busier every time something happens," says Dustin Merritt, co-owner of Emergencyseedbank.com in American Fork, Utah.

After last month's earthquake in Japan, business spiked and hasn't subsided, says Merritt. He sells a $139 package of 37,000 broccoli, beet, corn, lettuce, and other vegetable seeds in a "military-grade" container that "is virtually indestructible" and, if wrapped in a garbage bag, "can be . . . buried for decades."

Merritt and a brother-in-law started the company in 2009 as the economy was falling apart. So far this year, he says, Emergencyseedbank.com is doing as much business in one month as it did in three months last year.

Merritt says he doesn't believe "seeds are the be-all and end-all of preparedness. If you can't stay alive for four or five months, till the seeds are growing, it doesn't matter how many seeds you have."

But "I think people's fears are based on real possibility."

Others are dismissive.

They ask: If disaster struck, how would anyone be able to even start a garden, let alone keep one going for 10 or 20 years? Gardens don't produce instant food, anyway, and can be wiped out by pests, disease, or extreme weather.

And what's the point of buying thousands of seeds? Chester County master gardener Elizabeth Alakszay can fill a letter-size envelope with lettuce seeds by shaking one stalk from a single spent lettuce plant.

"You don't need to buy thousands of seeds unless you're going to feed the whole country," she says.

Jim Kennard, president of the nonprofit Food for Everyone Foundation in Gardendale, Ala., acknowledges that the 30,000-seed "perpetual garden" in a can ($49.95 at http://foodforeveryone.org/) that he has been selling for a couple of years is an awful lot of seeds. "But I think, frankly, it's wiser to have too many than not enough," he says.

Others must agree; the "garden" is selling "extremely well," he says. "We can't keep up."

Some customers are ordinary gardeners or people intent on going "off the grid." Others, Kennard says, are "worried about the government run amok and taking away their freedoms, and about big companies trying to corner the market in seeds."

Sales pitches home in on these and other fears:

Despite the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government would be helpless in the face of natural disaster.

Political unrest and weather catastrophes could cause shortages of oil and food or push the cost so high that few could afford them.

Out-of-control federal spending or political manipulation could cause the collapse of the U.S. economy, unleashing social chaos.

A nuclear meltdown like Japan's could occur here.

"I think they're basically trying to scare people. It's old-fashioned hucksterism," says George Ball, chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the garden seed giant in Warminster.

"You're buying thousands of seeds, and you're going to survive. Survive what?" he asks. "Obviously, the intention is that it would be another Great Depression. So they're scaring people."

"It's a marketing thing," agrees John Torgrimson, executive director of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, which has been collecting and sharing heirloom and non-hybrid or open-pollinated seeds with gardeners, researchers, small farmers, and seed companies since 1975. The mission of Seed Savers Exchange, Torgrimson says, is to preserve the diversity of plant life, especially old or rare varieties, and to help develop strains with desirable traits, such as disease resistance.

Heirloom (so-called heritage) and non-hybrid seeds have been pollinated naturally, not by humans or corporations, which accords them vaunted status in much of the gardening world. Sellers of survivalist gardens emphasize this to attract people seeking control over their food supply.

That pretty much describes Marjory Wildcraft, an expert on backyard food production from Bastrop, Texas (http://backyardfoodproduction.com), who works with "people worried about the collapse of existing systems." For the last decade, she has also grown about half her family's food - the goal is 100 percent - and studied weapons, self-defense, and survival medicine.

Wildcraft says she believes that any disruption in imported oil or food could result in shortages, even civil unrest and famine. "The real basics of life could become a huge issue," she says, adding that "the potential for economic collapse in this country is very real and very palpable and just on the horizon, in my opinion."

But Wildcraft is no fan of "seeds in a can."

"A lot of people tell me, 'I bought my can of seeds, and I'm ready,' and I say, 'You are just so dead.'

"You need to have water and soil that you've been working and preparing, and experience in how to do this," says Wildcraft, who applauds the impulse to prepare but believes that "it takes a lot more than seeds to grow food."

Julie Ann Allender, a psychologist in Sellersville, is a "prepper," too, which is shorthand for someone who believes in preparedness. A longtime gardener, she says her interest in self-sufficiency has intensified in the last few years.

"Knowing that we have had so many disasters and so many things are occurring, I think being prepared is a smart thing to do. It's a rational response," says Allender, who'd rather see disaster-fearing folks burying seed vaults than stockpiling guns, as some do.

"If hoarding seeds is crazy behavior, please, do it," she says. "It's not hurting anybody, and it may be, later on, someone finds it because they're dead and gone . . . 'Well, thank you, you left me something I can use.' "

Allender has solar heat, air-conditioning, and water; two huge vegetable gardens; four large freezers and refrigerator/freezers; a cache of water supplies; and a generator powered by a 150-gallon propane tank.

She freezes, cans, and dehydrates enough food each summer to last year-round, with only occasional trips to the grocery store.

"If something happens, whether a disaster or a thunderstorm or tornado, I would be protected," Allender says. "I understand where people are coming from."

So does Alakszay. She estimates that more than 25 percent of her organic gardening students this year have been "in the survivalist category. They're there because, if something bad happens, they want to be prepared.

"These are mainstream people, your neighbors. There certainly is a panic out there."

Contact staff writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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