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  • Betsy Larkin

Gardening During a Pandemic

Rosemary seedlings growing in a windowsill.

Lines at the store. Bare produce shelves. Empty frozen foods aisles. This is our reality now––or at least, it was for a few weeks. For those of us who actually enjoyed food shopping before, it's turned into nothing but a huge stress on our lives, a chore that takes up half the day. So what have many people turned to, city dwellers, suburbanites, and country folks alike––as a way to pass the time at home and cut down on the stress and cost of grocery shopping? Gardening. The opportunity to grow our own food.

It occurred to me back in mid-March that this could become a trend. Little did I realize that most home gardeners by then have already planned their gardens and ordered their seeds. Our family typically just keeps a simple "kitchen garden" with seasonal herbs in containers for flavoring meals. But seeing how we were going to be spending extra time at home over at least a good part of the growing season, I decided to place a seed order. Of the 12 items I ordered from High Mowing Organic Seeds on March 24, I received three. And that was two-and-a-half weeks later. The rest were back-ordered, and one item was completely out of stock. The Burpee website listed "Out of Stock" for so many items that it wasn't worth the time searching.

Gardening at the Growing Center last fall.

Intrigued, I turned to Google to look for some trends. I didn't find much at first. Inputting the search term "will more people want to grow their own food covid-19 social distancing shelves empty" did turn up a story from WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR station, from the very day of my order, Emptier Grocery Shelves Help Cultivate a Growing Interest in Home Gardening. I also uncovered an inspiring story from the Bangor Daily News that shared Tips from Maine's Homesteaders How to Survive Social Distancing. Inspiring, certainly.

A little over a week later, The New York Times published Panic Buying Comes for the Seeds, which delved into the writer's search for seeds and uncovered not only how successful seed producers and sellers are doing during this time, but how overwhelmed they are.

On March 30, the Washington Post published an article about an onslaught of orders giving some seed companies their best profits ever. Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, said his company's orders were double the usual peak demand for this time of year, such that he had to close for three days just to play catch up. A quick look at their website shows they've closed again.

Tomatoes and basil grown at the Growing Center in the past.

It's not just demand for seeds and growing a garden of one's own, however. Or a Victory Garden. There's far more demand for locally-grown food right now, if only at least in part stemming from a high demand for eggs at the grocery store. (There's a run on backyard chickens, too.) This article from The Boston Globe discusses the surge in demand for delivery services, and the ways in which local farmers in Massachusetts are having to pivot really quickly to adapt to a new normal in which farmers markets are on hold. Ironically, extant food aggregate businesses are growing in leaps and bounds. Over one week in mid-March, Farmers to You, a 10 year-old online local food business that brings farm-fresh produce, dairy, meat and pantry items from Vermont to Boston-area households, saw their orders double. The company grew from 40 to 60 employees over three weeks.

This pandemic is tragic and heartbreaking, and it showcases so many infrastructure, healthcare-related, and socioeconomic shortcomings that urgently need to be addressed when it's all over. One tiny sliver of a silver lining might be that it causes the country to rethink our food systems and how we might more effectively feed our citizens through regionally grown food.

Map of local farms and farmers markets in Massachusetts

For more information on how to purchase high-quality food from Massachusetts farmers, check out the Somerville Winter Farmers Market Preorder Market webpage. You can also see the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture's How & Where to Buy Local site.

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