Two things were clear from the results of Greenhouse Grower’s 2014 State Of The Industry Survey: Growers are very aware of the potential problems facing the industry and their businesses as we head into spring. And based on their plans for the upcoming year, they’re prepared to overcome those issues.
Growers expect to face significant challenges and uncertainties in the coming year — the economy, healthcare reform, labor availability and costs, a shifting consumer base and, of course, weather. Always weather. But on the whole, the numbers in this year’s Greenhouse Grower State Of The Industry survey show an industry in recovery. And also one that’s relatively optimistic about its prospects for 2014.
Respondents to this year’s survey included wholesale growers, grower-retailers and young plant growers from across the country. The questionnaire also had a separate section to gather data from vendors.
It’s not uncommon to see high hopes from growers in our State Of The Industry survey. Last year, for instance, nearly half of growers indicated they intended to increase production for 2013. That optimism seems to have paid off with 68 percent of growers in our 2014 survey reporting an increase in sales last year.
Those positive results look to be translating into preparations for another year of growth, as 59 percent of our grower respondents say they are increasing production for 2014. One-fifth intend to up production by 10 percent or more.
Even with that expectation of selling more product in 2014, growers seem convinced that their customers will continue to be price sensitive. Sixty-two percent of respondents say they will keep prices flat this year. That’s up slightly from 58 percent in 2013.
More Focus On Food Crops And Convenience
The shifting priorities in crop mixes will continue. While bedding plants still dominate, the biggest categories for growth this year will continue a trend we saw in 2013.
Nearly half of all growers surveyed — 43 percent — say they plan to increase production of vegetables and herbs in 2014. That’s up five percentage points from 2013. Interestingly, that number is led by the smaller growers in our survey (those with less than 100,000 square feet of production), about half of whom will be growing more edible crops, compared to 36 percent of medium growers (between 100,000 and 399,999 square feet) and just 25 percent of large growers (more than 400,000 square feet).
That edibles trend is continuing to expand into growing and selling produce as a gap crop for ornamental producers, with 45 percent of respondents saying they will shift some space into produce this year or within the next five years.
Perhaps in response to consumers trending away from traditional backyard beds toward container and small space gardening, requiring less time and effort, flowering potted plants and container perennials will also see significant increases in 2014. More than 30 percent of growers in our survey expect to increase production in these categories.
Smooth Sailing Is Not Expected
Much of this optimism is counterbalanced by an awareness of the many potential stumbling blocks growers will likely face this spring and in the next few years.
When we asked specifically which topics concern growers most, production costs understandably topped the list. And despite the long, steady climb back from recession, the economy is still weighing on everyone’s mind as we head into 2014.
“The overall economy is what most concerns me — uncertainty in the debt ceiling and government funding that affect the volatility of the market going into spring,” says Ariel Montanez of Pender Nursery.
Another issue weighing heavily on growers is the potential impact of government regulation.
“What keeps me up at night?” says Ben Miller of Stutzmans Greenhouse. “The crazy uncertainty of Obamacare!”
“Government regulations make people nervous. It’s tough to keep up on this stuff in a busy, understaffed operation,” says Diane Olivares of Rainbow Garden Nursery.
The impact of increased recordkeeping requirements is also being felt.
“Thirty years ago it was fun. You planted and sold your product. Now you have to do so much for the government, from having to keep records of each irrigation, to labor and now healthcare,” says Joe Wojciechowski of Wojo’s Greenhouse.
Trying to find legal workers is a problem, says Phil Campbell, Campbell Road Nursery. “The system is broken in the worst possible way. American citizens will not do this type of work.”
Another challenge, of course, is the evolving customer for our industry’s products.
“How do you attract a new and younger consumer base that seemingly has no interest in landscaping and gardening at this time? Meanwhile, the old guard customers are diminshing in number due to age. We need to figure out how to appeal to this new group that wants instant satisfaction but is not willing, or possibly able, to pay for it,” says Kevin Wilson, Shademakers Nursery & Landscape, Inc.
Taking Challenges Head On
Based on the responses to this year’s survey, more growers seem to be taking steps to combat these business uncertanties in 2014.
“We are becoming more efficient by increasing sales in the right proportions so that our crop cycles are more stable, manageable, predictable and projectable,” says Andreya Daubman of Continental Organics.
“We spent more time with key accounts to find out their future needs,” says Steve McCall of McCalls Nurseries, Inc. “We have increased contract growing to make sure they have plants available at the right time, and we’re making them more aware of POP and tools to support their sales.”
Other growers are diving into their own market research in an effort to make sure their product and message match both their retail customers’ and the ultimate consumer’s desires.
“Participating in consumer-focused shows and sales like Philly Farm & Food Fest and Trade Secrets has us interacting directly with the consumer, and having discussions with them about food, edibles and rare plants. This helps us better understand the current plant trends for consumers,” says Stephanie Whitehouse of Peace Tree Farm.
“We worked with researchers on what Gen Y and Millennials are interested in,” says Kathrein Markle of Wekiwa Gardens, Inc. “There is some very cool stuff coming along really soon.”
The best thing you can do to prepare for the future is listen, adds Deborah Lucas Angel of Sandbox Farm. “We are looking on social media and following trends to see what people are asking for in their plants.”
“Now that the economy is on the mend, housing is recovering and employment is stabilizing, I believe we are in for a good two to three years of sales,” says Joe Ward, Southwood Landscape & Garden Center. “Much work has been done over the past four to five years to shore up a bright future.”
Vendors Are Looking Forward To 2014, Too
Greenhouse Grower’s State Of The Industry survey included a number of questions for vendors, as well.
As with our grower respondents, 2013 seemed to be a positive year. Nearly 85 percent of vendors said sales for 2013 were up or at least flat compared to 2012.
And expectations for the coming season are even better, with 62 percent of vendor respondents saying they expect sales to increase in 2014. It appears vendors expect most of that growth to come from increased investment by growers, rather than raising revenues through price increases. Nearly 70 percent of vendors say they expect to keep their prices about the same in 2014.
What excites vendors most for the greenhouse industry in 2014? According to survey responses, many seem to see more potential opportunities for growers to take advantage of.
“I’m seeing increased technology as it applies to increasing efficiencies, finished plant quality and increased retail shelf life,” says Ken Harr of Sakata. “I hope growers will capitalize on this.”
“The growth of specialty markets and plants is encouraging. There is a lot more profit and opportunity there than traditional markets,” says Stan Slawek of Therm-O-Rock East.
Other vendors are encouraged by changes they’re seeing among the growers themselves.
“I see the industry as a whole looking at the way they are doing business,” says Curt Thimm of Griffin Greenhouse Supplies.
“I’m excited about the next generation coming up,” adds Edwin Hoenderdos of Hove International. “They are innovative and full of new ideas.”