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N.L. gardening store revives 19th century seed-packing machine

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Technology from the 19th century has been brought out of retirement at a Newfoundland gardening store, as staff look for all the help they can get to fill orders during a busy season.

The Seed Company in downtown St. John’s has repaired and unleashed their nearly 90-year-old Ballard seed-packing machine, which is somewhat of a family heirloom.

Owner Peter Byrne said he has good memories of his grandmother using the machine when she owned the store, in the 1970s.

"From what I figured out, there’s probably eight machines left in Canada working," Byrne said.

"The quantity of seeds that we needed to produce every year, I really had no choice but to pull the Ballard seed machine back out of the warehouse and get it going again."

Byrne estimates his machine was built sometime in the 1930s or 40s, but the technology itself is even older -- it was developed before the turn of the 20th century.

Jeremy Carter, an employee of The Seed Company, worked with the machine to get it back in operating condition.

"Some of the stuff is probably difficult or impossible to get off the shelf," he said. "So a few improvisations to make up for wear and tear."

Owner Peter Byrne said he has good memories of his grandmother using the machine when she owned the store, in the 1970s. (CTV News)

The machine can turn out about 1,200 seed bags an hour, and has been busy working on packing carrot seeds into bags for the coming growing season.

Carrots are a popular vegetable to plant in Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly suited to growing conditions in the province.

The retro machine is part of a big turnaround for the St. John’s company.

Byrne said he bought the store in 2014, bringing it back into the Gaze family after about 25 years.

Since then, his group has focused on social media and online ordering. Jackson McLean, who helps run the store and its online presence, said their approach has served them well throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our website started off getting maybe like, one or two orders a day, and now we're getting dozens and dozens a day," he said. "Like it's almost rivaled the in-store business, which is pretty amazing."

Their seeds are shipped across Atlantic Canada, thanks to distribution deals with grocery stores that the business would love to expand.

They’ll need their old Ballard machine for a few more years, at least. Byrne said they’ve been shopping for modern replacements, but there’s a long wait for manufacturing for newer seed machines.

"You just can’t go on Amazon and buy a machine," he said. "There’s only probably two or three companies that do make them."

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