For fifteen years, Earl Wenger has maintained the seed packing machines at Rohrer Seeds on Old Philadelphia Pike, where generations of farmers and gardeners have gotten the supplies and seed they need for Lancaster County's famous farmland.
“This machine’s as old as I am,” says eighty-one-year-old Earl, as he points to a mechanical apparatus that measures, packs, and seals the packs for small flower and vegetable seed packs. Earl shows us the precise parts used to measure the seeds (in a previous life, this seed-packing machine measured out medicine before capsules were invented).
Earl keeps a list of the millions of seed packs filled by the machine during his time at Rohrer Seeds. “Since September last year, we’ve packed 286,719 packs of seed.” There's also a machine to fill larger bags of seed. Only one type of seed is allowed in the packing room at a time to avoid mix-ups, and the machines are always set to add a little extra seed to every pack.
It’s March now, and the planting season is starting for Lancaster’s many farmers. But for the folks who work at Rohrer Seeds, the work is year round.
Rohrer Seeds, located near Smoketown Airport, between Bird-in-Hand and Lancaster City, was founded in 1919. The Rohrer family has run the business ever since then.
“The business started more with chemicals and agri products, with only about 10% being lawn and garden. Now I’d say we’re about 90% lawn and garden, and only 10% agri products,” explained Rob Fisher, the COO of Rohrer Seeds.
Rohrer provides seed for farms, gardens, lawns, and wildlife. Rohrer Seeds are sold in more than 600 stores. The business employees about fifty people, including seed biologists. “We have trial gardens behind our warehouse. Before we sell anything, we grow it and we test it ourselves. A lot of the testing is tasting it and making sure we like the taste and how it looks.”
“All of our employees love to garden,” says Rob. “So we tell them that if they need a break, they can go out and work in the garden.”
“Our seeds are sourced from a bunch of different areas. Some are from the West Coast. Some are from the Northeast. Some of our bulbs come from Amsterdam.
“Our potatoes are grown in Maine. We’re at the end of our potato growing season now, but we go through almost nine full truckloads of potatoes.
“Last year we started dealing with industrial hemp seed, that comes from Ukraine. The cultivars that we have are very special when it comes to fiber. Hemp is like a natural rebar, and people make hempcrete to build houses. In Europe, they’re starting to put it in tires.” To produce more industrial hemp seeds, Rohrer Seeds plan to contract with famers in Peru.
Another huge part of their business is grass seed. “Most of our grass seed comes from Oregon by rail car. Oregon has the best growing conditions in the country. Last year, we got about 15 truckloads of grass seed. A truckload is about 40,000 pounds, so that’s about 600,000 lbs of grass.
“We do our own mixes. If landscapers want special mixes, we can do that for them," says Rob. (Photo below shows the grass mixing bins.)
“What’s fun for us is that we get to choose what we like and how we want it. Someone else grows it in the best growing conditions for this area. Our philosophy has always been to get the highest quality seed you can get," Rob tells us.
“The single most popular seed packet we grow here is the Detroit Red Beet. Anywhere else in the country, it won’t be that way. But in Lancaster County, people love their beets."
Since COVID-19 began, “Our online sales have been up 1500% over the last year,” says Rob. “People finally have enough time to do the gardening they always wanted to do.”
In the shipping room, we meet Jim Gamber (pictured above) who runs the shipping department. Jim has worked at the business since 1979. But his introduction to Rohrer Seeds came years earlier, when he was a child growing up in Ethiopia.
“My parents were missionaries with Eastern Mennonite Missions. Every year, Rohrer Seeds donated seeds to the mission families. They would write a wishlist, and Rohrers would give the mission what they could.’
“We could grow food year-around in Ethiopia. In the dry season, we had to haul water from a spring. During the wet season, it would rain daily, and we saw rainbows almost every day.’
Jim was one of four children and the mission was located far away from any supermarket. “We could buy some food, like eggs, from the locals, but mostly, we ate what we raised in the garden. Almost every type of seed we got from Rohrer Seeds did well, except we couldn't grow sweet corn. So we ate young field corn instead.”
Instead of planting the seeds in rows, Jim’s father planted the seeds in a 2 x 2' plot, then carefully dug out and re-planted anything that grew. “We didn’t thin the crops,” says Jim. “Nowadays, we buy a pack of seeds for 99 cents and pull a lot of them out. But when seeds are scarce, you don’t do that.”
As a young man, Jim was back in America, living in Lancaster and looking for a job. To his surprise, he discovered Rohrer Seeds was looking for a worker.
“I thought, I know that name! I hadn’t known where Rohrer Seeds was located.” He applied for the job and now has been working at Rohrer Seeds for over forty years.
“I love being able to help people grow healthy food.”
Above: Rohrer employees stock seeds.
Above: This sign dates from the 1930's, when Rohrer Seeds was P. L. Rohrer & Bro. Inc.
All photos taken by Dorcas Lichtenberger.