A Canadian seed farmer reflects on the pandemic: A Q&A with Kim Delaney

September 14, 2020

“There have been a lot of challenges. But a lot of learning too—that’s how I’m going to look at it,” says this Canadian seed farmer, reflecting on the pandemic.

Seed farmer reflects on pandemic: woman with curly, shoulder length hair looks at the camera with a small smile. She is crouched in a field with one hand full of small tomatoes and the other hand picking a tomato off of the plant in front of her.
Kim Delaney, SeedChange board member and owner of Hawthorn Farm in Palmerston, Ontario

Kim Delaney has been growing, saving and selling seeds at Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds for more than a decade. But no amount of experience prepared her for the intense 2020 season. During a rare break from tending her crops and packing up seed orders, we spoke with Kim about the year unlike any other. The veteran Canadian seed farmer reflected on the pandemic, why it spurred many people to buy seeds, and how this unprecedented year will impact next year.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

SeedChange: When did you realize this season was going to be quite different from other years?

Kim Delaney: In a normal year, our sales start—BAM—the morning of January second, then they grow steadily. This year, sales grew normally in January and February. Then suddenly, in mid-March, we started doing two times our normal volume. Then three, then four, then five, then six, then seven times. The phone was ringing off the hook. I actually disconnected the phone at my house—it’s the same line—because people in different time zones were phoning at 5 o’clock in the morning and it would ring all the time.

One day, we went for lunch after I’d cleared all our emails. We came back an hour later and there were 287 new emails.

Eventually, we were doing about eight or nine times our normal volume.

SC: How out of the ordinary was this year?

KD: What we normally do in the fall is get our germination testing done on the seed that we want to sell the next year. And we pack as much of it as possible before Christmas, so when the orders start coming in, it is just a matter of filling orders.

What happened this year is all that packed seed was gone in a week. It was just all gone! We’d packed 3,000 packets of carrot seed, how could they be gone? So we were having to print envelopes, pack seed, fill orders, and answer a massive volume of correspondence from very concerned people. (The silver lining was that all of this correspondence was from people worried about seed security. When we were getting overwhelmed, that kept us positive.)

SC: Between growing seeds, contracting other small farms to grow seeds for you, selling seed packets to gardeners, and selling bulk seeds to farmers, and doing your own seed selections, you have a lot of moving pieces to keep track of in any given year. How will the COVID-19 pandemic year affect next year and subsequent years?

KD: We’re still trying to figure that out. We try to keep about a three year supply of the seed we grow on hand to give us a measure of security in case there’s a crop failure or a really bad year. But this year, a lot of our supply has sold out.

We have stock seed that we hold back because it is seed that we’ve been growing out and selecting for disease resistance, vigour, taste, colour—you name it—on our farm here. We don’t want to lose that work, so we always hold back stock seed. But almost all our stock seed needs to be grown out again this year. That really does change what we’re able to grow. It’s going to take a few years to catch up, to bulk up our work horse varieties.

It makes me a little bit concerned for some of the farmers we supply because they’re the one who need bulk quantities. We’ll be able to supply home gardeners, but for a CSA-scale farm I just hope that we’re going to have the volume to offer bulk options in the next few years.

It reinforced for me that what I believe is really important is in fact, quite important! Because of the pandemic, people are realizing on many levels what is truly important: human contact, food and seed and community.

SC: How has the pandemic changed the way you think about your own job as a farmer?

KD: I’m a total seed nerd so I’ve alway thought seed was the most important thing that there is. I live and dream seed. But we’ve heard from so many people—from someone who lives in a condo in Toronto to a firetower sitter up in Yellowknife—thanking us for the work we do.

It reinforced for me that what I believe is really important is in fact, quite important! Because of the pandemic, people are realizing on many levels what is truly important: human contact, food and seed and community.

Seed saving used to be so intrinsic, part of our consciousness. It’s kind of nice that people are thinking about it again. It just hit home how valuable the work is that The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, SeedChange and Seeds of Diversity are doing to educate farmers about how to grow seed for themselves and commerce.

SC: What do you hope people keep with them beyond COVID times?

KD: That you can grow some food! You don’t have to grow all your food. You can have a little balcony or a tiny patio and grow greens and a tomato or so. You can probably save the seed from that tomato too. And just have your tomato that you grow out every year and save like many farm families used to do. That’s number one.

And community gardens are important. Maybe we could have more community gardens and less pavement. I hope the growth in interest in gardening continues. It’s amazing to be connected to the seed saving cycle: taking your seeds out, growing them in the soil, watching them germinate, tending them, eating some of them, saving some of the seeds, storing it for the winter, taking it out, germinating them again… I think it does something wonderful to our psychies when we’re connected to that cycle.

Seed farmer reflects on pandemic: Table set up in a farm field. Table holds squash of various shapes and sizes. a pair of hands holds half a squash and uses a spoon to dig the guts and seeds out of the squash.
Kim saves squash seeds.

SC: What advice would you give people who want to start or continue to support their local food systems?

KD: Sit back, take a breath and think about where food comes from: from the seeds, to the farmers, and on. Think about what you like to eat and how you could 1) produce some of your own food and seed, and 2) how you could support the people in your community who are producing it.

When this is all over, get to a farm! We have open house days and when people walk through the fields they’re just completely blown away. It grounds them, I think. So when it’s possible again for a weekend outing, get out and see where your food comes from. Sometimes, farms have taste testings and they are so fun! You could even ask your local CSA farmer if they’ve ever considered doing taste-testing. It’s so fascinating. If you do a taste-testing on carrots, there are carrots that taste like turpentine and there are carrots that taste like lumps of sugar, and there’s everything in between. And it’s shocking to taste 400 different carrots!

It used to be, if you ate, you had to understand food. So any way that people can actually connect with the food instead of just picking it up and taking it home, helps them learn so much more.

Donate today and support farmers in Central America as they recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

SC: How can people support healthy food systems around the world?

KD: I like to use the same filters I use for locally sourced items I buy and apply those filters to items that I need to bring in. I put them through the same screening tools: is this a small farmer? is this a collective of people who are improving their community or environment? are they growing ecologically and preserving the natural ecosystem?

And you know it’s not always possible financially. Sometimes these things cost a lot more. But in times when I’ve been broke—and there have been many—I pick one or two things that I can focus on.

There are farmers all over the world doing exactly the same work I’m doing here. The work that SeedChange is doing helps make some of this work possible too.

SC: Any final thoughts?

KD: I’d like to put a shoutout to all the seed growers and seed companies and seed NGOs for all the seed work that’s happening across Canada. Now that my work is calming down a bit I’m realizing “yes, all that work continued and all these wonderful people kept doing that work.”

The pandemic just reinforced how important that work is. Thank you to everybody!

Kim Delaney is a farmer and the owner of Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds, where she produces certified organic farm selected, open-pollinated vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. Kim is on the SeedChange Board of Directors.