First it was toilet paper flying off the shelves in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it appears garden supplies, seeds and soil are the hot ticket items hard to come by as more people turn to growing their own food.
“We sold out of vegetables back in May, which is very unusual,” said John Wickman, owner of Native Roots Garden Center. “But pretty much everything in garden is selling well.”
With more time at home and concerns about food security, people in Southwest Colorado are increasingly gardening at home. Tom Bridge, owner of Durango Nursery & Supply, said many people coming in are first-time gardeners.
“They want to increase the food that’s available right in their backyard,” he said. “And we love it when we see more people interested in growing.”
At the onset of the novel coronavirus outbreak, a rush of panic buying left grocery store aisles empty. The shortages, however, likely spurred a rethinking of how vulnerable the food distribution system can be.
“This system has been broken,” said Rachel Landis with the Good Food Collective. “And here’s a moment where we can see what is broken, and put things in place to make it work like it should.”
Home gardening is just one way people can supplement a portion of fresh produce needs. Larger issues, such as having access to regionally grown food, loom as tougher obstacles to tackle.
But efforts are afoot to establish a process to get more people fresher, healthier and locally grown food.
Statewide, Colorado State University’s Extension recently launched its Grow & Give program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which encourages home gardeners to donate produce to food banks and other organizations.
In La Plata County, 30 gardeners have already signed up, said Darrin Parmenter, director of the La Plata County Extension Office.
“I was just floored with the amount of people signed up in just three weeks,” he said. “But this is a push nationwide, that growing your own food, when we don’t know what the system is going to do, is a good thing.”
At Needham Elementary School, a garden started about 15 years ago to educate students, has been repurposed with schools closed. Now, teachers are tasked with the upkeep of the garden, which will eventually donate some of the produce to Grow & Give.
“A portion of what the teachers grow will go back into the food-insecure system,” Parmenter said.
Eric Ryba, who lives in the Animas Valley, said the outbreak reinforced the reasons why he turned to gardening all those years ago – a distrust of big growing corporations, such as Monsanto, and a preference for locally grown produce.
Ryba has been gardening for 30 years, but he planned to increase production with more time at home this year. Now, he expects he’ll have excess crops, such as onions, tomatoes, peppers, spinach and beets.
“I produce more than I can use, but it’s not a problem because I’ll give it all away,” said Ryba, who is taking part in the Grow & Give program.
While more people gardening is a good thing, that’s not to say it’s a silver bullet for food-distribution issues or even without its own obstacles. Landis, for instance, said even having access to space to garden can be difficult.
The Good Food Collective is part of an effort in La Plata and Montezuma counties to give food-insecure populations, such as black and indigenous people, seniors and rural residents, more opportunities to grow their food.
“Oftentimes, that’s a position of privilege to have enough space, time in the day and money for the supplies to do it,” she said.
The Food for All program, for instance, provides garden boxes to vulnerable populations. The boxes can be placed on a porch or outside a home.
Another consequence of the novel coronavirus pandemic is strong support for local growers.
Landis said within the region, every CSA – community supported agriculture, where consumers buy a share of a farm’s harvest in advance and receive food once production ramps up – has sold out.
“People are just going crazy for local food, whether it’s home-grown or purchased,” she said.
But CSAs aren’t an option for all farmers, and traditional ways of selling produce, like at the farmers markets, are struggling because of complications surrounding the coronavirus response.
But the wheels are in motion, Landis said, to improve food security so that when, eventually, the pandemic is over, the system doesn’t go back to the old, unstable way of doing things.
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for where a disturbance on what has been the normal forces us as a collective to shift and do things differently,” she said.