Bring On Spring
We asked growers about their expectations and preparations for Spring 2009. Some of their answers may surprise you. Then again, some things never change.
March 23, 2009
Planning for spring is like placing a bet: If you do your homework thoroughly and manage the factors you can control, you increase your odds for success. If you prepare inadequately, conjure guesses or simply wing a production plan entering spring, you're bound to fail.
And then there's the biggest grower gamble of all: hoping for good spring weather. According to the results of Greenhouse Grower's recent Industry Pulse Survey, 70 percent of growers say weather is the most important factor in determining their success this spring - even with a down economy like ours.
"The key is weather. It always has been and always will be," says Abe Van Wingerden, president of Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, N.C. "Many other factors come into play, but they are mainly controllable or manageable. Weather is something we just hope works in our favor. Eight straight sunny weekends equals success for everyone. Eight straight rainy weekends, and only the strongest survive."
Although the majority of survey respondents believe their success again hinges on the weather, their preparations were anything but a repeat of last year's. Nearly 40 percent of growers report hiring fewer employees, and 75 percent report changing the number of crops and varieties grown.
The majority of respondents (44 percent) report growing more of some varieties and less of others, while 32 percent report they're strictly growing more varieties. Perhaps those growers see opportunity in areas where others are pulling back.
"Difficult times often present opportunities," says Erik Jacobsen, owner of Parkway Gardens, a grower/retailer in Ontario, Canada. "We intend to market to the mood of the times, emphasizing do-it-yourself, increased real estate value and healthy lifestyles. We're also keeping in mind that while unemployment is more than 7 percent, that figure is only 1 percent more than a year ago and 93 percent of people still have as much disposable income as ever."
Wholesale grower Jim Clesen, vice president of Ron Clesen's Ornamental Plants Inc. in Maple Park, Ill., is also optimistic about spring. He sees opportunity like many other growers, but seizing the opportunities available requires a different approach than past years.
"What worked yesterday won't necessarily work today," Clesen says. "Adjust your procedures, not your goals. Make better business decisions. Reduce speculation. Lower the amount of an item on your benches. Create your own co-op of other growers/suppliers for when product is in short supply. Give your customers added value and remind them why they're doing business with you.
"We've all learned this before. Now is the time to implement and remain positive."
Many growers are indeed thinking positively, but they're being cautious at the same time. Twenty-five percent of survey respondents report growing more crops later this year, and several growers wrote to us about the potential of vegetables specifically. Those who already grow them are considering growing more, and those who don't are at least aware of a potential mass movement toward herbs and veggies.
Still, it's important to distinguish trends from fads. A grower's take on a crop taking off is one thing. Now, let's see how consumers react to vegetables and other trendy crops.
"There is no longer business as usual," says grower/retailer Mark Landa, owner of Boulevard Flower Gardens in Colonial Heights, Va. You can no longer just grow a few plants, sell them and survive. You have to do your homework the best you can and now market so the customer wants to buy. They must feel good about what they're doing."
Many survey respondents see opportunities for growth with customers, as well. Fifty-nine percent of respondents indicate they serve independent garden centers, and 46 percent say they see opportunity for growth with them. Thirty-four percent of growers see potential for growth within their own retail shops, an area which they obviously can control, and 28 percent think farmer's markets have potential to take off.
Respondents also see opportunities with other growers (22 percent), eCommerce sites (11 percent), mass merchandisers (8 percent) and home improvement chains (8 percent). Several respondents even wrote in "landscapers" as customers to pursue. Karen Ross, a Canadian grower/retailer at Valleyview Gardens, built much of her business up over the last two years because of landscapers.
"We have seen increases in the number of outdoor landscape customers the last couple of years and expect this to continue," she says. "The reason for this is the quality of our product, as well as the level of service which we provide. Our existing customers give us great references, and our prices are not low. A bedding plant flat of 48 impatiens, for example, is $10.80 Canadian wholesale while our competitors are between $7 and $9."
How will you fare this spring? We'll soon find out, but good weather is a must. A vastly improved economy would be nice, too, but many survey respondents are confident their products will sell if the sun makes enough spring appearances.
Many growers cut back production based on uncertain market conditions. Maybe that approach will be the right one for this year. Most growers are hoping otherwise, and those who've increased production are ready to pounce on additional sales should a few windows open.
"As always, we're farmers (figuratively), and everything depends on a few sunny weekends in spring for our customers to do well," says Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon.