Growing In Sync
This year's survey reveals the most progressive plug and liner growers are highly attuned to market trends.
June 19, 2008
If you really want to know what's going on in the ever-changing floriculture market, there may be no better place to look than at the leading young plant growers. They are in a unique position because they are close to breeders, brokers and global distribution channels, as well as their finished grower customers. Many are diversified, growing finished plants wholesale and even retail for their own garden centers.
The way they respond to trends mirrors the marketplace, as they are the ones supplying most of the market. The rule of thumb seems to be that young plant growers only keep about 10 percent of their plug and liner production to grow on and finish themselves. Most of the millions of baby plants are headed to other greenhouses, by truck or by air, on carts or in boxes or new pallet shippers. (See "Pushing Pallets")
Many of this year's survey respondents reported a trend toward larger plug sizes for quicker turns and to fill out larger finished containers. "Growers are starting to realize the benefit of starting out with a larger plug: less heat, less loss, quicker turns and less chemicals," says David Van Wingerden, whose family owns Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, Ohio.
Green Circle is absorbing its customers' heating costs by investing in a wood-burning furnace that will keep its costs under control. While Green Circle heats its greenhouses cost-effectively, grower customers can fire up their own houses later with the larger plugs.
However, the shift to larger plugs does present production challenges for the young plant grower, because more space is needed to grow the same number of plugs, he adds.
Bobby Barnitz, whose family owns Bob's Market & Greenhouses in Mason, W. Va., confirms the switch from 512s to the larger 288s. "In the year 2000, 512 plugs had 57 percent of production. Now it is 288s with 57 percent," he says.
On the flip side, perennial propagator Northwest Horticulture of Mt. Vernon, Wash., has seen demand for smaller plugs, specifically its new 24-cell perennial. Yoder Brothers in Barberton, Ohio, also reports a shift to smaller liners and unrooted cuttings.
The top challenges reported by this year's respondents are:
- Managing growth
- Recruiting and retaining labor and higher quality personnel
- Transportation logistics and delivery costs
"We are not alone, but everyone struggles with delivery," Van Wingerden says. "We have continued to implement Truckstops Software with quite a bit of success with more on-time delivery. The next step is GPS."
Plainview Growers of Pompton Plains, N.J., is working on a combination of in-house and outsourced trucking to ensure short times in transit for live plants. Speedling Inc. in Sun City, Fla., is coping with delivery costs by offering expanded plant selection to fill trucks and condensing order ship weeks to distant geographical locations.
On the labor side, several respondents say they are implementing Lean manufacturing techniques and aggressively recruiting future employees.
One of the biggest challenges has been responding to later orders and commitments. Growers are producing more plants on speculation than they have in the past instead of turning business away.
"With the trend in later ordering, our organization has to be more flexible and be able to reorganize strategy in an instant," says Susie Raker, whose family owns C. Raker & Sons in Litchfield, Mich. "We're also offering items on an at-once basis."
Barnitz says he is contracting with other growers for finished plants so he can devote more space to plug and liner production.
Glass Corner Greenhouses has extended its order deadlines. Northwest Horticulture is preplanting for target accounts before commitments are made.
Paul Gaydos of GroLink in Oxnard, Calif., says, "With the rate of growth we are seeing, we are doing our best to plan and speculate what and when our customer needs will be. We will try to accommodate any request. We're a small company and make all the decisions as a small group, so we can react quickly to customer requests. We callus cuttings, pre-pinch cuttings, add rooting hormone to cuttings and many other small details that help our customers succeed and make money."