Meeting Market Needs

As a barometer to see how the spring season was shaping up, I checked in with six leading young plant growers in three regions of the country who specialize in plugs, liners, annuals and perennials. Although the trend toward orders being placed later has gotten progressively worse the last five years, this year has been significantly worse, they say. On average, growers are booking about 20 percent less than last year and the busiest shipping weeks have moved from nine and 10 to 10, 11 and 12.

While numbers may be down, plug and liner growers are seeing gains with certain customers and new customers but not enough to offset the overall reduction in orders. Many growers have opted to sow seed and stick cuttings instead of buying plugs and liners. Some are purchasing larger sizes for quick turns later. Others switched to lower-cost suppliers. Some orders had to be turned down because it’s impossible to make up the time from missed sow dates.

To make up lost ground, young plant growers are producing extra, targeting the peak weeks, larger sizes and the most popular and economical varieties based on historical sales data. Plug and liner growers typically plan production based on orders with a buffer of 2-3 percent. Instead of just relying on brokers, they are emailing product availability to customers each week to drive sales.

As the production link between breeders, brokers and growers, young plant growers are the ones who end up assuming risk and absorbing peak winter fuel costs. Fortunately, fuel prices have come down and several, like Pleasant View Gardens on page 32, have converted to alternative fuel systems. “The broker is in the same position we are all in. They make their money selling product,” says Doug Cole of D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, N.H. “They want to sell product as badly as we do and our customers do. They want to see availability but they can’t go too far out on a limb in reserving it.”

Juan St. Amant, product development manager at The Plug Connection in Vista, Calif., says a larger percentage of his speculative production will be seed items to help growers control their costs. Arie van Vugt from Plain View Growers in New Jersey is growing extra of the top six most popular varieties in larger plug sizes.

Cole says this will be a year of meat and potatoes. “Growers are sorting through genera that don’t sell as well as they first did,” he says. “They are also cutting back on genera that doesn’t perform well all summer. There are a number of items that are great in the spring but don’t stand up once heat hits. The bottom line is we are paying more attention to those varieties that are truly in demand.”

Heading into spring, the growers are cautiously optimistic. Can 2009 be a good year?

Van Vugt says he is preparing by cutting costs and pushing sales as hard as possible. “Many growers are cutting back by 5-10 percent, so we are taking this as an opportunity to sell more finished product in the spring.”

Cole says retail growers are growing less and buying more, which is a great opportunity for wholesale growers who serve them.

Bobby Barnitz of Bob’s Market & Greenhouses in Mason, W.Va., anticipates weather will continue to be the No. 1 factor influencing spring. Growers who booked conservatively may run short on product if weather is average or better.

Danny Takao of Takao’s Nursery in Fresno, Calif., says ultimately, it will be up to retailers to show consumers the value and benefits plants offer to improve their homes and lives. “One of the mottos for our industry should be, ‘Bring the family back together again … in the garden.”

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