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Seed stores see surge in gardeners

Tough economic times? Not at the seed store

Tough economic times? Not at the seed store

February 25, 2009|By DEBBIE ARRINGTON, Sacramento Bee

STOCKTON, Calif. - Amid the crowded front aisle, the feeling of expectation is palpable. On a frosty February morning, farmers and gardeners alike are lined up at the huge oak counter, eagerly awaiting their chance at the drawers.

Inside those drawers is the future, packed into tiny seeds. Row upon row of drawers reach the ceiling, each slot filled with promise.

This is the busy time of year for Lockhart Seeds, the West Coast's only bulk and retail seed store. During these tough economic times, it's also one of the few businesses enjoying a boom.

With a surge of interest among consumers in growing their own vegetables, some seed are in short supply. Northern California retail nurseries, which get most of their vegetable seed from Lockhart, saw veggie transplant sales double in the fall and expect that trend to continue this spring.

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"We sold out of onion sets in December," said Lockhart clerk Ray Starrick. "We're running out of a lot more things than usual. It's surprising. But don't worry; we have lots of seed left."

Lockhart Seeds is a throwback with an eye on tomorrow. For eight decades and four generations, this family business has supplied seeds to farmers and backyard gardeners throughout the Central Valley while staying on top of what people want to eat and grow. That includes a vast selection of certified organic vegetable seed.

"We have people come from Fresno and Bakersfield to Chico and Redding," said retail manager Steve Auten, who has been part of the Lockhart Seeds family for 27 years. "Plus we mail worldwide."

Housed in a white-and-red building, Lockhart Seeds has kept the Valley's vegetables growing from this same location since 1935. The Stockton landmark housed another seed company, Silva-Sackett Seed, for several years before that.

Ian Lockhart, who took over the family business from his father in 1973, keeps his operation low-key. Besides mostly vegetable seeds, the company is a large supplier of grass and turf seed.

"It's a unique business, that's for sure," Lockhart said. "We have our niche."

As old-fashioned as its massive seed chest, customer service is another drawing card for Lockhart.

"Most bulk seed companies now require customers to buy in large quantities," Auten said. "We break it down to fit our customers' needs. That allows us to serve the home gardeners as well as the big farms."

Be it a hundred seeds or a million, Lockhart also offers a huge selection with at least 400 different vegetable varieties in stock. Its no-nonsense catalog lists more than 30 each of tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins.

"But we can find just about anything," Auten said. "If you want a special order, we can usually track it down."

For restaurant chefs and small specialty farms, the store stocks gourmet Italian varieties. For the Valley's large Asian population, Lockhart supplies a cornucopia of exotic vegetable seeds.

"We've definitely seen a lot of growth in Asian vegetables over the last 20 years," Auten said. "About 25 percent of our walk-up customers are local Asian growers."

Lockhart's seed comes from around the globe.

"Producing seed is very labor-intensive, especially the hybrids," Auten explained. "The hybrids have to be hand-pollinated and isolated. Most of that seed comes from Mexico, Chile, Vietnam and China, where labor costs are low."

Lockhart's biggest seller is onion seed, mostly to the Valley's many major growers. Through the winter, the company's warehouse ships carton after carton of onion seed.

The potential of each box is staggering. One case contains 4 million seeds, each no bigger than a pinhead. With 90 percent germination, that represents 1.2 million pounds of onions at harvest time per box.

"We had boxes stacked almost to the ceiling," Auten said. "I've never done the math, but that's a lot of food."

Awaiting shipment are scores of 50-pound bags of corn seed, mostly of the super-sweet varieties such as Xtra-Tender and the always-popular Snow White and Silver Queen.

Most requested by backyard gardeners are peppers (especially hot varieties) and tomatoes (particularly heirlooms), Auten said.

"We've also seen a huge increase in demand for pumpkins and other Halloween products such as fancy gourds and ornamental corn," he added. "People particularly want the giant (pumpkin) varieties. When I started here, we carried four types of pumpkin. Now, we have 50 to 60 pumpkins and gourds."

Bulk seed is sold by count, not weight. A seed-counting machine keeps tabs on the inventory.

Changes in consumer tastes, meanwhile, are reflected at this ground level.

"Everything is cyclical," Auten noted. "When this store opened, all anybody grew was old-style tomatoes, what people call 'heirloom' now. Then, commercial growers switched to tomatoes that could ship better and those old varieties went out of style.

"But those old varieties taste better," he added. "So, now we sell lots of heirlooms."

Seed has a limited shelf life; if it's not sold this season, it doesn't stay in the warehouse for next year.

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