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Originally published March 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 9, 2009 at 4:18 AM

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Seed companies have a bumper crop of customers

Seed sales are up 20 to 30 percent at wholesalers such as Irish Eyes Garden Seeds in Ellensburg because of the bad economy and worries about genetically modified crops. Burpee, the world's largest seed company, says it's selling thousands of a $10 "Money Garden" package that it says will grow $650 worth of vegetables.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Most popular seeds

BUSINESS IS UP 20 TO 30 PERCENT over last year at Irish Eyes, both in seeds under its own label and seeds it packages for companies such as Burpee and Park Seed. Here are the seeds that sold best for Burpee last year:

1. Green beans

2. Zucchini squash

3. Tomato

4. Lettuce

5. Cucumber

6. Peas

7. Sweet corn

8. Peppers (sweet and hot)

9. Carrot

10. Radish

Source: Burpee

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ELLENSBURG —

Out here on a farm just off Interstate 90, Greg and Sue Lutovsky hear every day how the economy is going.

Not so great for everybody else, excellent for them.

America had its Victory Gardens in backyards during World War II — not just for the food, but also to boost morale.

Now Victory Gardens are making a comeback: the 2009 Recession version.

Sue is the one who answers the phone at the couple's Irish Eyes Garden Seeds, which produces more than 400 kinds of seeds (mostly vegetables), as well as 70 different kinds of potatoes and 25 kinds of garlic.

By some of the questions they get from customers, the couple know these are first-time gardeners.

"We had one person ask us which way the seed goes in the ground," says Sue.

These days, she's handling 100 customer calls a day, and the family business expects to gross $1 million in sales this year. Business is up 20 to 30 percent over last year, both in seeds under its own label and seeds it packages for companies such as Burpee and Park Seed.

The business has a dozen employees packing seeds from shelves full of bins.

In another warehouse, seed potatoes fill big wooden crates, the kind used in apple orchards. Last year, Irish Eyes produced 160,000 pounds of seed potatoes, up from 30,000 the year before.

They've already sold out of six varieties of the tubers.

Why potatoes?

Maybe people are reaching back, back into their collective memory, back when potatoes were a staple food. Irish Eyes gets its name from that connection, the eyes referring to the eyes in a potato.

"It's the perfect food crop. It's got everything you need. It's a food source with very little effort. It can be stored a long time," says Greg. "There are not many things you can harvest in September and still be eating in June. You could live on potatoes and half a cup of cream and be healthy."

Some dietitians would argue against a cream-and-potatoes diet, but there is no denying that many in this country are now in survival mode.

Out-of-state visitors

There is no retail outlet at the 13 acres at Irish Eyes (the couple leases an additional nearby 90 acres), but customers find it anyway in the wind-swept Ellensburg countryside.

Greg says the wind is just fine with him. It helps pollinate the crops, he says, and it keeps the crops dry so fungal disease is almost nonexistent.

Recently, a customer drove from Montana, and another from northern Idaho, to pick up potato seeds.

"We can ship them to you at the appropriate planting time, probably mid-April" Greg says he told them.

But the Montana customer, who bought 500 pounds of potato seeds, "physically wanted them in their hands, I guess afraid we might run out," says Greg.

Says Sue, "I think they're scared."

Greg says about the run on seeds, "It's just about everything that's happening in the world, the stock market, the economy."

The Montana customer, says Greg, is a contractor who does part-time farming and sells produce at local farmers markets.

With not too much contracting work these days, the farming helps a lot. Those 500 pounds of seed potatoes will produce 5,000 pounds of potato crop, says Greg.

Greg says others show that they're newbie gardeners by placing an order for, say, one-eighth of an ounce of tomato seeds.

"That's like 900 tomato seeds. That's a lot of plants," he says.

Still, there is a simple math about planting your own garden.

"If a person has been laid off, and had a finite amount of money, they're looking at spending $2 for a head of lettuce that'll last two days," says Greg. "Or for $2 they can buy a packet of lettuce seeds that has 300 seeds and eat lettuce all summer long."

Belt-tightening time

It's not just Irish Eyes that has been booming.

A retail garden store like Sky Nursery in Shoreline says seed business is up "at least 20 percent."

And Burpee, the Pennsylvania-based world's largest seed company, says business also is up by that much.

Although it came up with the idea too late for this year's print catalog, on its Web site Burpee sells a "Money Garden" that for $10 puts together $20 worth of pea, tomato, pepper, bean, lettuce and carrot seeds.

It says the seeds will produce "over $650 worth of vegetables!"

"People are belt-tightening, particularly on large-ticket items," says George Ball, chairman of Burpee. "It results in an almost Depression mentality."

But it's not just about saving money, says Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association.

"I think one place where a lot of people feel they have some small control over what is going on around them is in their backyard," he says. "It's this whole sense of, 'I'm gonna have better-quality food, and save money.' "

And if you don't have a backyard, or you want to garden in the company of others, P-Patches have proved popular.

In Seattle, the P-Patch program in 2008 had a waiting list of 1,230 for plots at its 68 sites, nearly triple the waiting list in 2006.

Food-system concerns

It's not just saving money that has increased business for Irish Eyes, says Greg Lutovsky.

It's also about GMOs.

That stands for genetically modified organisms — for example, corn that has been genetically modified to resist insects and diseases.

"People are starting to rebel against genetically modified seeds in our food system. There is no reason to have fish hormones spliced into a tomato," says Greg. He says that 95 percent of the seeds Irish Eyes sells are certified organic.

At Sky Nursery, Andrea Kurtz, 31, an acupuncturist who lives in Phinney Ridge, is looking over the seed rack.

This is the second year she's having a garden — Armenian slicing cucumbers, beets, pole beans, snow peas, lettuce, tomatoes. She's even going to raise chickens — three hens for eggs, and later they'll be slaughtered for meat.

"I like being able to grow what I eat, to pick something and eat it 10 minutes later," she says.

She's among the youngest of the garden crowd, who tend to be baby boomers.

Gordon Smith, 61, and Saphire Blue, 64, are husband and wife who've gardened for decades. They're retired city of Seattle employees, she a gardener, he a carpenter. They have two properties, one in Seattle and another on Vashon Island.

They talk about the joy of eating fresh produce.

But Saphire also mentions why they'll be growing more potatoes this year.

"If we have an earthquake, or in any way have to survive," she says, "you can trade potatoes with a neighbor for eggs."

That's not a quote you'd have expected to hear a couple of years ago during the boom times.

But these days, it's not about flipping houses for an easy profit.

Flipping dirt for that bumper bean crop is more like it.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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