Hard Times Will Go, Strong Growers Won’t

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Twenty-five years ago I wrote an article trying to predict what would happen in the next 25 years. To my amazement, all that I predicted came true.
It is a fairly simple process to predict. If you believe, what your mind can conceive will be achieved! Let’s take a brief look back to 1983 and see what the major concerns of our industry were.

The ‘Greening’ Of America

The use of the words “greening” of America or “greening” of China and other countries was a major topic of interest to our industry 25 years ago. It was used in a positive manner to show the great contributions our industry made to the environment and mankind.

When Dr. Sylvan Wittwer addressed the Bedding Plants Inc. conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., in October 1983, he stated: “Home and landscape beautification has taken hold not only in the United States during the past decades, but also in China, the Soviet Union, Indonesia and all major nations of the world!” He called this the “greening” of America as well as the “greening” of China.

“Greening” meant the renewed awareness of flowers and plants that have an impact on the lives of all of us, including homeowners, land owners and citizens.
The “greening” of America, China and other countries came about with our continued search for new and better varieties, new and better production methods and our ability to provide products of value, food, fiber and beauty at a reasonable price so they can be enjoyed by everyone.

Wittwer stated that new technology, resource inputs and economic incentives were essential to grow the “greening” of all countries and sustain our industry.
The moral of his presentation was that the “greening” of America could only be done by using sound scientific information. It could not be done by public relations firms that pretend to have the answers, yet do not base their “rules” on scientific information or data that can be analyzed to prove or disprove their hypotheses. Our industry has been in the process of “greening” America for over 200 years.

We have also been in the forefront of helping reduce pollution. In the early 1970s, Bedding Plants Inc. (BPI), the bedding plant growers association in the United States and 35 other countries, launched a campaign titled “Plant Don’t Pollute.”

We produced lapel buttons, bumper stickers and billboards with this famous statement. It showed that our industry was not the cause of pollution and that we continuously tried to offer our products to help solve the problem.

At a BPI annual meeting held in Newport Beach, Calif., in the early 1970s, Bill Bettinger and my wife, Barbara, actually presented one of the lapel buttons to actor John Wayne. They were both thrilled to meet him, and he was pleased to support BPI’s cause.

Still Making Strides

Many more steps have to be taken to solve environmental pollution problems, but we can’t address these problems without sufficient research data or without developing a solution that can be economically implemented.

Many of the present-day writers for trade and news magazines, as well as newspapers, write about the problem but cannot present an economically feasible way to solve it.

The approach taken by BPI was positive and helped present our industry in a positive manner. We need to promote our industry as the “good guys” that produce products that take CO² and water, and convert them into oxygen and carbohydrates. We need to work to reduce our pollution impact, but it must be done in a way that also keeps our business viable.

I also gave a talk at the 16th annual Bedding Plant Conference in 1983. My talk was titled “Hard Times Will Go, Strong Growers Won’t.”

Nineteen eighty-three was a tough year for growers in the U.S. The weather conditions were poor in many parts of the country that spring. There were also concerns about fuel costs and how we could reduce the amount of fuel we used. It is ironic to me that, in many ways, the situation that year was similar to the 2008 season we have just experienced.

Computers were just making their way into floriculture. At Michigan State University (MSU), we started the Spartan Ornamental Network. We tried to be able to communicate directly to growers through computers. It was a great challenge because less than 1 percent of growers in Michigan had computers. And if they had them, they were located in their homes – not their greenhouses.

We developed some simple, informative programs like tips of the week, current market conditions, a buy-sell bulletin board, calendar of events and so on. We also developed a hort math program to calculate fertilizer and pesticide amounts to be added to various-sized sprayer tanks.
We worked on this project for about two years and actually had about 50 to 75 growers who used it.

It is hard to believe that 25 years ago we had one computer in the entire horticulture department at Michigan State. BPI purchased an IBM System 23 for about $25,000. Within two years, personal computers were introduced and the System 23 became obsolete within another two years.

Reason For Reflection

All the changes that have occurred are mind boggling, but we need to remember where we were just 25 years ago and how much we have accomplished in that period of time.

Woodrow Wilson once said, “I use not only the brains I have but all I can borrow.”  That was certainly a true statement when he first said it, but it was even more relevant in the last 25 years of our industry.

At the end of my presentation at the 1983 Bedding Plant Conference, I asked, “What are your goals? What do you really want to do? Our goal is to communicate with you directly. We can help you get the information you need to do the job.” 

Mark Twain once said, “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it rains.” We found that to be the time when the interest rates and the economy make big changes.

We have to look at the economy when we develop new systems for bedding plants. We have the ability to double production in the same space we have now. What are we going to do? Are we going to expand? How are we going to market our product? Or are we going to go bankrupt? We can have a lot of seedlings per square foot, but what are we going to do with them?

Remember a few things. Our customers are the lifeblood of our business and every other business. If we don’t have customers, we don’t have a business. The customers make it possible for us to pay our wages. They should not be outside our business. They are the key parts to our success.
We had a tough year 25 years ago and a tough year in 2008.

But remember, strong growers will survive and hard times will come and go. But if you know where you’re going, you’ll be around for another 25 years.
Stay low and keep moving!

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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