Ball Horticultural Co.’s CEO Anna Ball recently shared her insights with woody ornamental growers at the International Plant Propagators Society’s Eastern Region meeting in Cleveland. Here are her top trends:
Sustainability continues to top her list, and as a company, Ball has been the leader in creating a sustainable supply chain for growers. Sustainability is the fifth wave of innovation to transform our industry, the way plastics and soilless media revolutionized our industry in the 1960s, she says. Sustainability isn’t a project or program but a new way of doing business. “It’s not a goal on the strategic plan but part of everything you do,” Ball explains. “It’s a vehicle to drive innovation in all different areas. To create a sense of urgency, we need to act as though oil were $300 a barrel, water availability were cut in half and weather variations tripled.”
She advises growers to embrace complete transparency in their production practices. “Imagine everything you do in your greenhouse gets printed in the newspaper,” she says, adding this type of accountability has happened in other industries. “Food labels are a good example. Imagine if on your plant, the label said what you sprayed, the miles it was shipped and the amount of energy you used. We need to prepare for 100 percent transparency on all products.”
Ball is not recommending the industry stop using chemicals and plastics. “This is not extreme. I think plastics and chemicals have their place,” she says. “The answer is in the middle. Sometimes we need chemicals but we need to reduce the need.” This is similar to the medical industry needing to focus on prevention as well as curing, a more holistic approach, she says.
There are opportunities for growers to make money by promoting sustainable practices, whether its presenting plants in eco-friendly packaging with a relevant message or supplying plants for green roofs and green walls.
But the top way for our industry to become more sustainable and make money is to reduce shrink. “Out of 100 seeds or cuttings, how many become beautiful plants in somebody’s yard?” she asks. “At the seed and cutting level, 26 percent are thrown away at harvest. An additional 13 percent is lost in distribution. Twenty percent are lost at they young plant stage, followed by 12 percent in finished plants and between 9 and 18 percent at retail. The consumer only plants 8 percent. This is a huge issue.
“We need better forecasting, better merchandising and better information. How can we reduce costs and increase quality? It’s an economic issue. Going sustainable also saves money.”
Whether they’re vegetables, fruits or nuts, we’re looking at edibles in a different way and rethinking how we use them. “We’re mixing vegetables and flowers,” Ball says. “No more 10- by 10-foot Victory Gardens. Everything should be mixed up. It’s a trend we’re seeing in every country, even South Africa, Australia and Japan.”
Gardeners Are Fading
Decorators are taking over. The two are direct opposites. “Gardening is a lifelong process–the journey not the destination. It’s sustained activity over time,” Ball says. “Decorating is short-term for instant gratification. It changes with the mood and must be fast. What do decorators want? Accurate, clear pricing and signage. No waiting in line. Large, easy carts. Clean hands and shoes. They key is appealing to decorators without turning off gardeners. For the decorators, make it as close to silk as possible–low maintenance, easy to care for and holds up at retail.” But each trend has a counter trend. “We’re also seeing a move to slow gardening in the recession, a return to home and slow food,” she adds.
Consolidation At Every Level
From breeder to retailer, each link in the distribution chain is becoming more consolidated. While this leads to lower prices, narrower margins and places power in fewer hands, it also eliminates less serious players and leads to harmonizing and upgrading standards. Ball says consolidation in our industry will never be as dramatic as in say the office supply industry.
“We used to have independent stationery stores, but within 10 years, they had consolidated 100 percent,” she says. “Instead of those stores you have large chains like Office Depot, Staples and OfficeMax. It didn’t happen in our industry and it’s not going to happen. We’re seeing a counter trend with strong independent garden centers offering better quality and selection along with a knowledgeable staff. The challenge is to keep the large and small growers as suppliers. Big box retailers and independents both have their place.”
Appealing To Young People & Novices
Many Gen X and Y’ers would compare themselves going to a garden center to their grandmothers going to the mega electronics retailer Best Buy. “The experience would be intimidation and confusion,” Ball says. “One guy said he wouldn’t go to an independent garden center unless he took a virtual tour online first. Otherwise, he’d feel too stupid. We have to make it easy for the consumer, especially new people entering the market through vegetable gardening.”
Flowers are not just for beauty anymore. “I think there’s a paradigm shift in our industry and the way people look at plants,” Ball says. “One of our breeders said she thinks people want a different relationship with their plants than before. I think she’s onto something. It’s no longer just putting a tree in the front yard and a bush here. There’s a huge opportunity for our industry to improve property values, boost tourism, reduce crime, increase productivity, reduce energy costs, calm traffic, provide privacy and security, mitigate urban climate extremes, produce oxygen and sequester pollution. Intellectually, we know this but we’re not getting the message out. This all ties in with the benefits of America In Bloom.”
We’re seeing more blurring of crop lines and uses. “Is the plant an annual, perennial or a woody ornamental? Who cares? The consumer doesn’t,” Ball says. “Who cares about zones if it’s a woody ornamental in a mixed container that’s going to get thrown out at the end of the year. I bought all the gardening magazines in May. With my plant mind, I was sorting featured plants by annuals and perennials. I was unable to classify some of the plants because the articles and advertisements didn’t say. People don’t care what they are. They just care what they look like.”