Have Seeds Become the New Toilet Paper of Pandemic Panic-Buying?
Gardening, always one of Canadians’ most popular hobbies, took off even more during the pandemic – resulting in a spring where those who had never picked up a shovel in their life were suddenly flexing their green thumb. With the onslaught of new gardeners, demand for Alberta flower seeds hit an unexpected spike, causing seed companies to have a shortage – and floral farmers to get their seeds later than expected.
Megan Lethbridge (@PrairieHeartFarm), owner of Prairie Heart Farm Florals in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, about 70 km south of Edmonton, was one of the farmers who had to adjust their strategy to get seeds this year.
Currently, Megan is gearing up for a productive and bountiful season of one-off bouquets, sales for her client base, and weekly Community Supported Agriculture Subscriptions during August (C.S.A. bouquet subscriptions). C.S.A. subscriptions are when the customer pays upfront for a share of the coming harvest from a local farm, in Megan’s case, weekly flower deliveries. Each season she depends on a wealth of planning, support, and some luck.
Having been operational for three years now, Megan has seen her fair share of ups and downs as a part-time micro-farmer. Her bounty of annual blooms include sunflowers, snapdragons, amaranth, zinnias, strawflower, cosmos, and chocolate daucus, peonies, yarrow, and lupins.
Offering weekly bouquet subscriptions for a flat rate during the month of August means that Megan must plan to have a sufficient variety of flowers growing at the same time to make an intricate bouquet for every one of her subscribers each week. But unfortunately, even the best laid plans don’t always mean a perfect crop.
“Every year is different,” she explains, “last year we got so much rain all summer that half of all my flowers didn’t come up. They were either too wet and rotted in the ground, or came up and couldn’t grow because they didn’t get enough sunlight.”
Spring 2021 has brought a different kind of challenge. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Megan says this year she got her seeds from the seed companies about a month later than usual due to the overall higher demand in Alberta flower seeds, and the inventory backlogs it’s been causing for the seed companies.
Throughout the pandemic, gardening has only gotten more popular among Canadians, causing a spike in seed demand in spring 2020 resulting in a shortage, with the trend continuing in 2021. People buying seeds seem to be applying the same logic used when clearing out the toilet paper shelves in March of 2020.
Since seeds were so scant in 2020, this year people have been buying their seeds in bulk as early as January, two months earlier than the usual March rush. After last year, seed companies anticipated the gardening boom would happen again in spring 2021 and prepared for it accordingly.
“There’s always something with farming that will throw you for a loop and you just have to keep going and make the best of it.”, says Megan.
Megan planted bulbs at the end of last year to have flowers as soon as the Alberta soil defrosts without having to depend on the seed companies in 2021. Her first crop of tulips and daffodils should be coming up at the end of May.
For Megan, her flower business has grown during the pandemic. She went from having a few customers buying one-off bouquets, to 18 subscribers to a bouquet a week for six weeks in the late summer months. “I think people are just looking for that bright spot – something to cheer them up in their home.”
Flower Farm Runs on Community Ties
For Megan, it’s all about the community, and connection between the land and the blooms on your windowsill. From day one, when the idea of a flower farm was just that, only an idea, she had unwavering support from her family, her friends, and the agrarian community.
Megan’s mom, Karen Lethbridge, runs Cherry Grove Florist in Wetaskiwin, so she’s been around flowers all her life. But her inspiration to start her own farm was sparked when she took over Karen’s florist business for a few months while Karen was recovering from a broken leg.
“I realized that I really like the work. It’s a good balance of working with people, being creative, working with your hands, and getting stuff done – it was a really good mix for me.”
Now she and Karen, who has over ten years in the industry, work together. She supplies some of Karen’s flower stock, works in the shop during off season, and partners to provide wholesale for events, and bouquets.
Megan relies on grain farmers and long-time friends of her family going back generations, the Rix family of Rix Farms. She borrows a 0.18 acre plot of land on their farm and provides them with homemade jam and bouquets in return. The patch of soil used to be a market garden run by their daughter for a couple years, but it was unused and full of pumpkins to keep the soil covered when Megan had the idea of using it for a flower farm.
“Community is huge,” she says, “I think you need to get some enablers behind you when you start something like this … there was a time at the beginning of the season when I didn’t think I would have enough bouquets for the 18 subscriptions I needed to fill, and Graham Rix [one of the owners of the grain farm] gave me a well-needed pep talk saying how I always do a great job and how I was going to make those bouquets happen … I ended up having enough flowers for my subscriptions all summer long. You never want to do [farming] alone.”
Young Agrarians Unite!
Megan is involved in Young Agrarians, a volunteer organization founded in 2012 as a program of the non-profit association representing organics in Alberta, Organic Alberta. Young Agrarians is a community-building and resource-sharing network for ‘farmer2farmer’ knowledge transfer, and offers events for networking and support for the next generation of farmers. Megan has always had an interest in the group and had been involved since before she started Prairie Heart Farm Florals. She credits them for being a big reason why she started farming in the first place.
“The beginning of a venture is so overwhelming in that planning stage because if you’ve never done it, in that first season there’s so much you have to figure out,” she says. “I’d been going to the Young Agrarians events for a couple years before I even had the idea of a flower farm … and when I told them my idea to start farming, everybody was so encouraging, offering support and tips that helped them when they were just getting started.”
They pushed her to turn her idea into a reality, and Prairie Heart Farm Florals was born. At the beginning, Megan started small, only selling bouquets when she had them available through direct marketing to those she knew. Through Young Agrarians, she connected with Nourished Design to help her create her first website. Now, although she’s still a small floral farm, this is her first year her clients can order online.
The Camrose Regional Exhibition and Agricultural Society
Being a hobby farmer, Megan works her nine-to-five job as an Agriculture Liaison at the Camrose Regional Exhibition (CRE) during the week, where she manages community programs and overlooks events. The CRE is an Alberta agricultural society, charity, and venue on 402 acres of land and buildings in Camrose County, about 100 km southwest of Edmonton and about 30 minutes away from Wetaskiwin. They rent out their land for anything from music festivals to cattle sales and, in the past, saw about 355 events a year. However, COVID has cut that number down to about six in-person, essential business events since Spring 2020.
The largest event they host, the Big Valley Jamboree, Western Canada’s premiere four-day August long weekend country music festival, has been canceled two years in a row now because of the pandemic. Tickets sold are part of a 50/50 lottery whereby 50% of the profits go to the CRE and 50 per cent are given to the winner. For the most part, ticket holders have been holding out on refunds, and patiently waiting for 2022 when the festival is scheduled to take place again.
Huge events like the Big Valley Jamboree aren’t all the CRE has to offer. Dianne Kohler, CRE Executive Director, believes the bigger portion of the CRE’s objectives as an agricultural society are focused on community building through community programs – whether that community is agriculture, horticulture, or community groups.
COVID has presented the unique opportunity of focusing on the agriculture society aspect of the CRE and has resulted in innovative ways of reaching out and engaging the community. Some of these new initiatives include free monthly events, such as socially distanced drive-ins, the Rural Opportunities Podcast (https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-the-rural-opportunities-po-75164841/), hosted by Megan and highlighting hot topics in agriculture and beyond, and a youth leadership program, called Training Tomorrow’s Leaders (https://cre.ab.ca/events/training-tomorrows-leaders-program/), teaching skills that aren’t taught in school, such as backing up a tractor, doing taxes, and budgeting.
These initiatives have gotten amazing feedback from the community and are engaging a new demographic of people they wouldn’t have reached before COVID. For example, this year they built five raised garden beds and held an online draw giving them to five members of the community and their families. These are all Calgarians who don’t have any farming or gardening experience and are new to growing their own food. Megan, the gardening expert, teaches them how it’s done and hopes it helps them find a connection between the food on their plates and the land.
The initiative has paid off well as the winners of the past have become more engaged, been involved in other aspects of the Alberta agriculture society and want to learn more about the Canadian food system as a whole.
When COVID is in the past for the CRE, the community building initiatives they’ve started during 2020/2021 will be here to stay, grow, and get better with time – of course supplemented with their yearly in-person events.
“We know agricultural societies are key to strong rural communities in Canada,” explains Dianne. “We don’t want to be traditional; we want to be the most innovative agriculture society in Canada so we’re going to keep pushing ourselves.”
Sourcing Flowers Locally Seeds the Future
Along with everything she does at the CRE, Megan is also an avid supporter of sourcing local sustainable food and flowers. As a volunteer member of the Food Artisans of Camrose County, she works to promote the local growers, producers, and processors in Camrose, many of whom have seen their sales increase during the pandemic.
“People are looking for that local connection to the food on their table.”
She’s also passionate about educating people on the Canadian food system and the seasonality aspect of sustainable farming.
Megan believes it’s important to educate the consumer on the seasonality of both food and flowers. It’s something that she thinks has been lost in the big floral industry, as Canadians have become accustomed to being able to purchase any kind of flower any time of the year.
For example, she explains that Calgarians are out of their tulip phase by the time hers sprout from the ground in May, because they are so used to seeing them hit grocery store flower sections in February.
“The idea of seasonality has completely washed away.”
Megan has noticed that recently floral suppliers are starting to look towards local flower farmers instead of importing flowers from different countries. One of her mom’s flower wholesale suppliers has asked Megan to grow flowers they can source from Prairie Heart Farm Florals to sell to some of their customers in Alberta.
“I think there’s huge growth opportunities for flower farmers….there’s a draw for local flowers and it’s exciting,” say’s Megan.
Megan’s very optimistic about the future of her farm with the way things are going. Her farm allows her to have a creative outlet while connecting with the community and giving people the opportunity to have access to locally grown flowers.
Megan adds, “we get to decide our impact. Everything we do is going to have an impact, and you get to decide what that impact is going to be.” Right now, she’s just looking forward to seeing those tulips pop out of the ground.
Tune into The Rural Opportunities Podcast Megan helps to host with the CRE, where they talk about all things rural and release a new episode once a month.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.