A package arrives at your door. You don’t recall having ordered any jewelry, but the outside indicates that’s what’s inside. The return address bears Chinese characters. When you open it up, there are seeds. Much like the jewelry, you didn’t order those either.
What are they? Where did they come from? Who sent them and why you?
These are questions the Department of Agriculture is currently grappling with, and residents of Cherry Hill are among people in more than 20 states who have received the mysterious packages.
Anyone who receives a packet of seeds is asked to mail it to the Department of Agriculture and not plant or throw the seeds away.
“Our main concern is the potential for these seeds to introduce damaging pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agriculture,” said a representative of the state’s agriculture department.
According to the representative, the USDA currently analyzes seed samples at its labs. Their preliminary analysis shows the seed packets appear to contain a variety of herbs and other plants.
For Cherry Hill resident Sheri Hopkins, receiving a mysterious package proved unsettling. The package arrived a few weeks ago, and initially, she thought the contents may have been bulbs she’d ordered a few months prior on Amazon.
But the package said it contained jewelry and it was postmarked from China. Upon further examination, Hopkins decided the package didn’t contain the bulbs she’d ordered, so she put the contents in her fridge until she could decide what to do.
Then the reports began to come out that people were receiving mysterious seeds from China. Hopkins said while hers were bulbs, the description of the package matched hers, so she reached out to the state agriculture department. The department asked her to send a photo of the bulbs and the packaging.
Shortly thereafter, Hopkins received a response from the department asking her not to plant the bulbs and to mail them to its office for further examination. She has no idea how someone got her name or address to send the package, and the whole experience left her with a lot of questions.
“Was I the only one? Is this a common occurrence?” she asked.
Hopkins took to Facebook and posted on a Cherry Hill community page to see if others had received packages from China. It was there she learned she wasn’t alone.
Fellow Cherry Hill resident Jorie West was another recipient. She said when a package arrived addressed to her husband with a mailing address from China, she knew it wasn’t something either of them had ordered.
West threw out the packaging — not realizing its significance at the time — and put the seeds aside. Two weeks later, she saw a Wall Street Journal story about the phenomenon and immediately looked up contact information for the federal Department of Agriculture.
“I was shocked;I forwarded (the article) to my husband right away,” West recalled. “I said, ‘This is happening to other people. It’s becoming something a lot of people are getting.’ I wondered why.”
The agriculture department also had West send a photo when she mailed the seeds.
For Cherry Hill resident Rachel Siegel-Sanchez, the packages have not been a one-time occurrence. To date, she has received seeds four times.
At the start of COVID-19, Siegel-Sanchez ordered seeds on Amazon, but when the first package arrived, she knew it wasn’t what she’d ordered. She said the address didn’t say Amazon and all of the outer packaging indicated there was jewelry inside. Instead, there were seeds.
Through posts on social media, Siegel-Sanchez surmised she was part of the phenomenon. As a gardener, she knew better than to plant the mysterious seeds for fear they might grow in a landfill. She plans on crushing the seeds before disposing of them, so they won’t grow.
Much like West and Hopkins, Siegel-Sanchez is not sure how someone got her name and address. She said the experience has her monitoring her credit to ensure her identity isn’t being stolen.
“I wasn’t feeling safe,” she added.
Anyone who receives seeds is encouraged to mail them to: USDA APHIS PPQ Attention: Gregory Soto 1500 Lower Road Linden, NJ 07036. The Department of Agriculture asks that each recipient write down their name, address, phone number and email address on a piece of paper and insert it in the package.
If you have already planted or discarded seeds, send an email to Gregory.email@example.com at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.