Most markets are local in the plant industry. The best way to increase sales is to create demand in the region you serve and bring those sales home. America In Bloom (AIB) fits the bill as a national campaign comprised of local, grassroots efforts as communities ranging from rural to urban enter the national competition.
Entering its 11th year, AIB has built a positive track record facilitating beautification programs that last long-term. In 10 years, nearly 200 communities have participated in the national competition from coast to coast. Most of the towns are still committed to plantings today. Growers and grower-retailers are ideal partners to get beautification programs started.
“If you’re contemplating it, just throw yourself out there and do it,” says Susie Raker of C. Raker & Sons, which sponsored Jonesville, Mich., a town of about 2,500 people in the AIB competition last year. “Whatever you do with your town will be better than it was before.”
Raker grew up in Jonesville. Over the years, she would help provide bedding plant flats and mums to the village when requested. But the decision to get Jonesville to enter the AIB competition came about when her uncle, Gerry Raker, spoke with the village’s energetic young village manager at the barber shop.
With the village’s support, Susie chaired the entire effort, and C. Raker & Sons paid the AIB entry fee. Local interest was high with 50 to 75 people attending each monthly meeting to get organized and execute plans. About 30 were hardcore, dedicated volunteers.
Civic groups rolled up their sleeves to divide the work at hand. The Lions Club installed new beds at the softball and baseball fields, while Rotary focused on plantings at the town entrances. American Legion planted memorials at the cemetery. FFA (Future Farmers of America) grew plants for the program, too. A fun group of ladies from the garden club devoted themselves as “the weed hags.”
C. Raker & Sons also partners with the Jonesville school district on fundraisers, which generated $35,000 in sales last year and put more plants in the community. Raker had an additional plant sale on site and split half the proceeds with the beautification effort. “We sold $10,000 worth of material we would have dumped on a cold, wet rainy Saturday,” Susie says.
Become The Resource
Susie has found it is worthwhile for communities to have growers guide them and support their efforts. “The civic leaders and volunteers are not plant people. In the past, they would often buy the wrong products,” Susie says. “I also learned people are afraid of plants. I didn’t realize how scared of plants people are. I just told them, don’t get overwhelmed. They just need food and water.”
Susie also believes it would be difficult for a town to start a beautification program without horticultural industry involvement. “What Raker did in Jonesville never would have happened without the support of an industry organization,” she says. “I don’t think communities would pick up AIB themselves. With tight budgets, the last thing they are thinking about is plants.”
Participating definitely strengthened Raker’s community ties. And because Raker is a wholesale grower, local garden centers received many referrals. “People got to know us and feel comfortable calling and asking for help,” Susie says. “We benefited greatly. It’s the intangible, feeling connected to the community. We also bring a lot of people to Jonesville as they visit Raker. Yes, they can visit and see plants here, but they also see them planted in a real setting downtown.”
Susie has tapped a co-chair to assist her as she gears up for the next AIB competition. Together, they will be growing the local committee and getting more service groups involved. “We’re going to build on what we started. There’s a lot of valuable feedback we received from the AIB judges we’ll be implementing next year,” she says. “It’s not hard stuff. It’s easy stuff. The judges aren’t there to judge you but to give ideas and make you realize how cool your town is.”
To fellow growers, she says, “It’s not an investment in plants or money. It’s time. You need someone with energy to get the ball rolling.”
Susie also advises new participants to keep projects manageable. “People have big expectations the first year – they feel they have to redo everything. No, you bite it into chunks you can actually achieve or you’ll be disappointed in the progress,” she says. “As the project leader, I had to help our volunteers be realists instead of dreamers.”
The registration deadline for the 2012 AIB competition is Feb. 28. Help is available. AIB has published a Best Ideas Book, capturing ideas from communities that have participated the last 10 years. Check out the AIB website’s participation toolbox at AmericaInBloom.org, which has archived webinars, customizable presentations, communication action kits and everything you need to get your town involved.