Kube-Pak’s Bill Swanekamp: Preparing For Downy Mildew In 2013

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Bill Swanekamp

Impatiens downy mildew was one of the biggest disease stories of 2012, and the potential for more issues next spring has growers considering new ways to manage the situation.

Impatiens walleriana is traditionally a big crop for Top 100 Grower Kube-Pak, in Allentown, N.J. Greenhouse Grower asked president Bill Swanekamp to talk about his plans for impatiens in 2013 and how he’s already working hard to protect his customers and his business this season.

Greenhouse Grower: How was Kube-Pak impacted by downy mildew last year?

Swanekamp: Even though there was downy mildew in our region, there wasn’t much of an impact on our 2011 season. We didn’t really hear about it from our customers because it showed up late in the summer. I think, in many cases, people assumed it was from the hot weather or the plants were just petering at the end of the season.
Then, as we got into the winter months, articles in the trade journals and different researchers, including Cornell’s Margery Daughtrey, started to confirm that’s what was happening in 2011.

In 2012, we were prepared to keep our plugs clean. We’re a plug producer so we’re spraying every week as a preventative against downy mildew and, of course, we’re spraying our finished crops every two weeks to keep the crop clean. We didn’t see any instance of the downy mildew inside the greenhouse this spring.
Once we began shipping material out, I think it was the first or second week of June that we started to get some calls about impatiens that had been put out in April. We had a very damp and mild spring here, so the conditions were perfect for downy mildew.

We had no reports the entire season on any of the plugs we produced. It was all finished product and we mostly heard from landscapers. We had very few reports from garden centers.

Greenhouse Grower: Are you adjusting your production for next spring to account for the possibility of more downy mildew?

Swanekamp: Once we heard about downy mildew last winter, we did cut our impatiens numbers by 6 or 7 percent on finished lines for spring 2012.

For spring 2013, the one thing we feel pretty certain about is our landscape customers — about 35 percent of our finished business — are not going to use Impatiens walleriana in their landscapes. I don’t think they will take the risk.

If you’re a landscaper and your customer says, “I want you to plant this bed,” you have to hit a home run. You can’t tell them, “I’m going to plant this, and there’s a chance six weeks into the season they’re all going to be dead.” Across the board, the landscapers I have spoken to have said they’re not going to use impatiens.

There are alternatives. We think using other alternatives until we know more about this disease is important.

Greenhouse Grower: What do you expect from your retailer customers this year?

Swanekamp: The garden centers are a different story because not all of them have gotten reports back from their customers. The public doesn’t necessarily know why the plants died. So they may want impatiens again.

We’re making an analogy to spring vegetable plants. A customer may want us to deliver peppers and tomatoes on the 15th of April. We tell them there’s a very good chance those plants are going to die. They say, “I know, but my garden center customers want them.” And we say, “OK,” and we ship them out. They’re willing to take that risk.

We feel the same way about impatiens. There are going to be people out there willing to take the risk that they aren’t going to get downy mildew. We will cut back, but for 2013 we will probably produce about 50 percent of the impatiens we grew this past year.

Now, if you feel as a grower morally you shouldn’t produce that item, that’s perfectly fine. But there are going to be people out there that want impatiens. I think our job as a business is to inform them of the consequences and let them make their own decision.

Greenhouse Grower: What are you going to do to make up for that volume?

Swanekamp: Good question. We don’t want to cut our production by those numbers. We think there are really three items that are going to be replacements: not necessarily in this order, but SunPatiens, begonia and vinca. We will grow some proportion of those three.

SunPatiens are attractive because they don’t get downy mildew. They’ve been out in the market about five years. It’s been a slow process getting people to accept them, but they are a phenomenal bedding plant and this may be a good opportunity for people to learn that.  
The other thing we’re going to push is the new more vigorous begonias. We’ve always grown begonias. We been doing the dragon wings, the Whoppers and the Big begonias for years, and I think that’s going to fill a bit of the niche.

As for vinca, I did a little of my own surveying this summer, looking at people’s houses and developments. It was surprising how many people had vinca that were doing very well. And I saw almost no impatiens. So the homeowners here have already started to move toward vinca.

Greenhouse Grower: What would you recommend to other growers that may find themselves in the same position?

Swanekamp: Get educated. As an industry, all of us have to educate ourselves, and we have to educate our customers. We are going to call our top 200 customers and have a personal conversation with each one of them. We will ask if they want us to send them information, and at the same time, get a feel as to what their plans are going to be for 2013. We want to know if they think they’re going to buy vinca or begonias or SunPatiens or marigolds.

We sent eMails to all of our landscapers explaining the problems with downy mildew last summer. We had an open house here with a couple of talks about downy mildew. We’re going to have another in January specifically for our landscaper and garden center customers, showing them the alternatives. We posted information on our web page about downy mildew. And when we send out our spring price sheet, we will include a letter explaining the downy mildew problem.

Growers need to talk to their customers. If they don’t know anything about it, you need to educate them. As an industry and as a grower, you don’t want someone coming back to you and saying, “You should have told me.”

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.
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