How the ‘buy local’ trend is helping a Maine seed company grow

5 years ago

Just like fashion designers await the hottest trends for spring, this is the time of year gardeners and farmers eagerly peruse the famous Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, looking for novel items like purple carrots and the latest microgreens.

And just like last year’s fashion gives way to the new, Johnny’s added 150 items in 2019, mostly seeds, as it does sell garden tools, manures and other products.

The company still is in its most active business season, which started at the beginning of the year. Just a couple weeks ago, workers were spending 11 hours a day, three days in a row, filling orders for a special offer of free shipping on orders topping $50.

“Our growth is concentrated in January, February and March, when people buy seeds in bulk,” said Gretchen Kruysman, co-CEO of the company, which has administrative offices in Fairfield and research, packaging and warehouse operations in Albion.

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“Our primary customer is the small farmer who sells at a farmers market or brings their products to a community supported agriculture location,” she said, although the ranks of home gardeners are growing quickly.

Every year the company has introduced new products, a handful of which it develops itself and the rest from other companies or growers.

“The breeding process takes about 10 years, similar to a new drug,” Kruysman said.

That means only two to four new seed varieties will be ready for sale each year. Company founder and Chairman Rob Johnston Jr. develops new seeds that could potentially grow into plumper tomatoes or purple or red carrots.

Founded in 1973, the company is owned by its employees, who continue to grow in number as farms diversify their products and new home gardeners join the ranks of people thumbing through Johnny’s 244-page catalog.

More than 1.5 million catalogs were mailed out for the 2019 growing season. The catalog information also is online. The catalog includes the seeds and tools for sale and tips on planting and growing.

Johnny’s had 210 full-time and seasonal employees in 2016, a number that has grown to 277, of which 185 are full time. Seasonal workers are brought in for the big seed-selling months early in the year. Afterward they can work at the research farm in the fields in Albion, where Johnny’s tests all of the seed varieties it sells.

Annual sales of $40 million in 2016 have grown steadily to more than $50 million, Kruysman said. Seeds, including seedlings and potatoes, account for 80 percent of sales, while tools and supplies contribute the other 20 percent.

Kruysman, who previously served as head of marketing, was promoted to co-CEO last July after the former CEO left. The company also promoted David Mehlhorn, the chief operating officer, to co-CEO.

Kruysman handles the information technology, breeding R&D and marketing aspects of the company. Mehlhorn focuses on operations, finance, human resources and the call center.

The 2019 sales season is off to a strong start following the close to 1.6 million seed packets sold in 2018. Johnny’s sells its products in the United States, Canada and overseas.

Different colors and sizes of traditional vegetables, microgreens to use as garnishes or in salads and flowers for farmers markets are hot trends in the seed business, Kruysman said.

“We have direct contact with customers, so we can ask how growing went last season and what they will explore this year,” she said.

That’s via the call center, which both takes orders and answers customers’ questions. It’s also a good conduit to get feedback from customers.

Part of the value added to the call center is farmers like Meg Mitchell, who runs South Paw Farm in Freedom with her husband. Mitchell, who also buys seeds from Johnny’s. She is working full time January through March and then plans to cut back her hours in April and May and go back to her own farm in June.

“I can earn startup capital for this year’s crop,” said Mitchell, who has been farming for 15 years, of her first year working at Johnny’s call center. “And the employee discount is generous. I bought fancier seeds and tools than usual.”

South Paw is a 16-acre organic vegetable farm named after Mitchell’s and her husband’s mothers, who both are left-handed. It is located between Waterville and Belfast.

Mitchell said it is rewarding to talk to other farmers and home gardeners about how to prepare the ground for kale and other plants. Johnny’s has its own compilation of advice, to which Mitchell adds some of her own firsthand knowledge.

And she’s learned a lot about flowers from talking to customers who call. She may grow more on her farm this year. She sells her goods at the Portland farmers market and at several restaurants and grocery stores.

“For every vegetable seed I sell, I also sell as many flowers,” she said. “Flowers bring in pollinating insects and improve the health of vegetables.”

She has also found that a lot more customers than expected are growing seeds totally indoors either in hoophouses or in their basements, including both farmers and home gardeners. That extends the growing season in Maine and helps in areas of the country prone to drought or flooding.

“Climate change, labor shortages and the new rules on immigration, especially in California, are putting a lot of pressure on farmers,” Kruysman said. “We’re seeing more hydroponic growing indoors, especially in urban areas.”

One example is customer Olivia’s Garden in New Gloucester, which is about half an hour north of Portland.

“This season we are hearing a lot about customers who have had to deal with more significant weather changes,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out how to best help farmers in midwestern states deal with flooding.”

Another trend paralleling consumer demand for healthy foods and snacks is smaller, single-serving sized and different colored vegetables. One example is Johnny’s lunchbox pepper mix of red, orange and yellow peppers that are smaller and sweeter than traditional peppers and good for snacks, Kruysman said.

Different colors are being added to the carrot seed line, such as red and purple carrots. And heirloom vegetables, especially tomatoes, are coming back as consumers look for authentic foods to eat at home and in restaurants.

Beets also are a popular item with consumers and restaurants that want to make food more appetizing with diverse colors. Beets are being used in some veggie burgers to make them juicy.

Another colorful trend that Kruysman said is a big change is that more farmers are growing flowers to be sold as cut flowers.

The demand for flowers prompted Johnny’s to once again offer flow bulbs this year, mostly tulips and daffodils in unusual colors and patterns such as Darwin hybrid tulips and pink trumpet daffodils.

“The flowers bring color and interest to a farmstand or a farmers market,” she said. “The ‘buy local’ trend is coming to flowers. One of our highest growth businesses is cut flowers like sunflowers, zinnias, sweet peas and snapdragons.”

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