Vegetables Are Bedding Plants

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In the June 12, 2008 Lansing State Journal, the comic strip Arlo & Janis surely hit home! It shows an old fellow planting vegetables and saying to himself, “Why haven’t we grown vegetables before?” He thinks they are healthy, creative and so green! His wife tells him they are going to be the next big thing. He looks at her and says, “I thought this was my idea.”

After reading the statistics from the USDA on the 15 percent decrease in vegetable plant sales from 2006 to 2007 and having it reported in another trade magazine, growers thought they should reduce vegetable plant production. Unfortunately, reading a report that is almost two years old is like reading what the stock market was valued at two years ago.

With the increases in the price of food and the tomato-salmonella scare, going back to having vegetable gardens became to many people not a hobby, but a necessity.

The motivation is certainly there, so the demand for the product increases. Vegetable seed and plant sales increased by 40 percent this year. The national media has featured articles on why to grow vegetables and how to do it yourself.

Our local paper reported a large increase in local sales of vegetables and carried a photograph of a customer buying plants, indicating that people needed to get their plants quickly because the supply was limited.

The main people in our business to profit from this trend were the local retailers and growers who were able to respond quickly to the demand. The major chains were locked into a program of branded vegetables in only larger sizes. Since the bedding plant industry started with vegetable plants, it seems only logical that we should be a major supplier of this commodity to the home gardener.

What Do You Mean Organic?

Lately a lot of emphasis has been placed on “organic” gardening. “Organic” is an interesting word and can be interpreted in many ways. One old definition is “acting as an instrument of nature or acting to a certain desired function or end.”

I spent a year in the early 1960s taking “organic” chemistry. The definition of this science at the time was “pertaining to or designating a branch of chemistry treating in general the compounds produced in plants and animals and of many other compounds of artificial origins containing carbon,” in contrast to inorganic compounds from non-carbon related sources. There was no mention of sources that were natural or non-natural, so anything you use outside of products that contain carbon or are a derivative of plant and animal products is non-organic.

If you follow this logic, when “organic” growers use rock phosphate as a source of phosphorus, they are not “organic.” There are many other examples of sources of nutrients that are derived from other than plant, animal or carbon-containing sources.

I visited a garden center that had “organic” vegetables with a sign that said “USDA approved.” You could buy one tomato plant in a five-gallon container with four green tomatoes on it for $16.95. You could buy a two-gallon container with a green pepper plant that had four dead buds and one pepper that was two inches long with symptoms of a fungal or bacterial disease. Or you could buy a one-quart organically grown vegetable plant for $2.49. These plants were showing signs of moisture stress and would have little or no chance of surviving. This was at a large chain store on June 12 in mid-Michigan.
What happens when I buy an organic plug or seedling and plant it in my garden? If I use the “best practices” method of growing, I use fertilizer and pesticides to produce a product that I can enjoy and use for food. Someone needs to tell the real story about a system of growing plants to feed the world’s population. It will not be “organic” production. You would need one and a half times the space and three times the labor to produce the same end results.

Consumer Reaction

The other day my wife Barbara and I invited some of her friends to lunch. She prepared the food and I served the meal. Since I was thinking about this article, I decided I would ask three questions of our guests to get a consumer’s reaction to our two latest buzzwords, organic and sustainability.

I asked, “What is sustainability as it relates to horticulture?” One answer was, “It has to do with the shelf life of your product. The longer you can sustain it, the more money you will make.” Another woman said, “I don’t know.” I said that may be the best answer!

The next question I asked them was, “What does organic mean related to horticulture?” After discussing it, they said, “Organic means naturally grown – no chemicals or artificial compounds used. It is more expensive and does not have the cosmetic appeal of normally grown fruits and vegetables.”
I then asked the question, “If you were in a chain store and had three containers of the same product side by side, one “organic,” one a “store brand” and one a “best practices” product, which one would you buy?” The first thing they asked me was, “What is the price of each one?” I asked them, “What do you think the prices would be?” They responded that the “organic” would be the most expensive, followed by the “best practices” product and that the “store brand” would be the least expensive. Then I asked them, “Which one would you buy?” They said, “The one that looked the best and was least expensive.”

What a great lunch! I learned a great deal from being the waiter. Sometimes it is better to ask questions and listen to the answers than to tell people what you think they ought to know.

The luncheon survey told me that consumers are not interested in how we grow it, but what they see and what they have to pay for the product at the store where they shop.

The final comment of one of the ladies was, “If it looks better, I’ll buy it. I have no sense of danger because I trust people to do the best they can to provide my food.” Here are four essentials you need to deliver a great product to that consumer.

1. Get the best plant material you can buy and make sure you grow it to its potential.

2. Provide that material to the consumer with the information needed to be successful in the garden.

When thinking about where to get that information, I remembered a publication of the USDA Extension dating back to the 1940s entitled “The Victory Garden.” Many of us older folks remember the victory gardens grown during World War II. That publication is no longer available, but you can find good information for your customers by checking the Web sites of many of our land grant universities’ Extension services. Some examples are at Cornell University from Iowa State and from Purdue.

3. Make certain that your plants look great at the point of sale.

Even if you grow the best plants in the best way with the best labels and colorful pots, it’s still hard to sell a dead plant! I am always amazed that it can take the grower seven to 10 weeks to grow a plant and the retailer can kill it in less than a day! Remember that the sale isn’t made until the consumer buys the plant and gets satisfaction from it.

4. Change always occurs.

This has been a very difficult year for many growers in all parts of the country. While we may be in an economic recession, in many parts of the country we have had a weather depression. Remember that, when times get tough, tough growers get going. It sometimes is like riding a roller coaster. You pay your money. You close your eyes. You take the ride, but you miss the view. I hope you will keep your eyes open and enjoy the view!

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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