Drought Update: It’s Spreading, But Greenhouse Growers Continue To Adapt

agave-lophanthaOver the past few years, living with a drought has seemingly become a way of life for growers in California. Just last year, Greenhouse Grower analyzed how landowners and homeowners were looking for any ways they could find to save water, from watering less to incorporating more drought-tolerant plants. Growers, in turn, were responding by adding water reclamation systems and promoting the different ways that their customers could save water while maintaining healthy landscapes.

A year later, what has changed? Not much, perhaps. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that much of the state remains in either severe or extreme drought. Meanwhile, severe drought conditions have expanded to other areas of the country, including the Southeast (northern Georgia and southern Tennessee), Northeast (western New York and eastern New England), and Midwest (Michigan).

New York, in particular, is feeling the effects, as nearly 30% of the state is in a severe drought. Recently, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) successfully pushed for USDA to issue a disaster declaration.

Back in California, the long-term outlook for agriculture is full of challenges. A report in May from CoBank indicates that while California’s 2016 rainy season delivered nearly normal rainfall and snowpack (unlike the four previous years), the state’s parched conditions persist. Due to the lingering effects of the drought, California’s growers and agribusinesses are facing another round of water restrictions, although the new restrictions are perhaps less onerous than those imposed last year.

“California’s lingering drought is projected to result in agricultural losses of $1 to $1.5 billion this year, versus last year’s estimated losses of $1.8 billion,” the CoBank report says. “For 2017 and beyond, the outlook for California agriculture will depend largely on how much moisture the state gets in coming years and also on the continued availability of groundwater.”

Lost Customers Aren’t Coming Back

What are greenhouse growers and nurseries doing in response to the drought? Richard Wilson, CEO of Colorama Nursery (one of Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Growers) and La Verne Nurseries in Azusa, CA, has some thoughts.

• The effects from the drought have been major, Wilson says. “The public has been scared to death that they must cut back their use of water, which is fine,” Wilson says. “But any attempt to temper that statement with ways to conserve water and still maintain a healthy living landscape did not come out. Because of this, brown lawns and lack of annuals and perennials abound. The public took this very seriously, and it has left our annual and perennial business in shambles.”

• Wilson says Colorama has factored the drought into its product mix whenever possible. Unfortunately, most of its major succulent customers are locked up by another grower, which means a market segment that has grown exponentially can’t be touched.

“We grow succulents, but the volume does not come close to replacing the annual and perennial business lost to the drought,” Wilson says. One bright spot is that Colorama is the number-one supplier/grower of Certified Organics to The Home Depot on the West Coast, including Arizona and Nevada.

• About 10 years ago, Colorama began taking steps to mitigate water use by adding large water recapturing ponds, along with filtering, installing ultraviolet light to kill pathogens, and using ozone gas to kill any remaining pathogens.

“The water usage is not our direct problem,” Wilson says. “It is the public that has cut back purchasing our products because they have cut back water usage.”

• In the long term, Wilson notes that when a homeowner decides to take advantage of incentives to replace their lawns, annuals, and most perennials with succulents and artificial turf, you might think they will eventually tear all that out when the rains finally come back and fill up the reservoirs. But that’s not the case anymore, he says.

“We just lost that customer to our products that they put in the ground,” Wilson says. “The key word is ‘in-ground,’ as we have been doing a lot of above-ground pots using annuals and perennials. But this does not replace the mainstream flatted annuals and perennials.

“In my opinion,” Wilson says, “this drought will be in California for at least another three to five years, and we are constantly looking for other products that will sustain our business. I am not bitter, but it is very trying these days with a drought over our heads, blurring the future.”

Three Ways To Survive And Perhaps Even Thrive

Despite all of the problems that the drought has posed for growers, there are still ways to make a profit. Earlier this year, Julie Newman, James A Bethke, and Steve Tjosvold of University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension co-authored a report outlining three ways to make this happen.

1. Grow And Market More Drought-Tolerant Crops. Some growers that produce outdoor plants have actually benefited from the drought and report an increase in production and sales. These are nurseries that specialize in drought-tolerant plants, or that have a broad range of plants but have stepped up production of drought-tolerant plants. Many drought-tolerant plants used in gardens and landscapes originate from areas around the world where Mediterranean climate predominates, such as coastal California, central Chile, the Western Cape of South Africa, southern and southwestern Australia, and around the Mediterranean basin. The report outlines four California growers and nurseries that have taken such an approach.

2. Help Educate Plant Consumers. What can you do to offset sagging sales of plants that are not among the most drought-resistant? Perhaps the best solution for declining plant sales during a drought is to help retail and landscape professionals educate their clients. Everyone needs to pitch in to change the public perception that equates drought with foregoing plants.

The report authors cite the University of California as a great source of information to educate your customers. In fact, there are several publications available for free download at the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources website. In addition, the UC Davis Center for Urban Horticulture (CUH) maintains a “Landscaping Resources During Drought” web page with resources that growers can use.

3. Continue Conserving Water. Because water rates have increased and may be one of the highest operating costs growers incur, it is important to ensure that a broad spectrum of water-conserving measures is implemented. Not only will this save water, but in the long run it will also reduce costs.

For example, Suncrest Nurseries in Watsonville, CA, has reconfigured its irrigation system to improve distribution uniformity and adjusted its soil mix to improve water holding capacity in response to the drought.

“Adding earthworm castings gives our mix a higher cation-exchange rate, allowing us to reduce the fertilizer charge and enhance the safe use of recycled water from our 22-year-old water recycling system,” says Jim Marshall, General Manager of Suncrest. “We also pay more attention to consolidating crops so we don’t water areas that are sparsely populated.”

A Long-Term Strategic Vision

The April 2016 issue of HortTechnology, the primary outreach publication of the American Society for Horticultural Science, included a research report on “The Next Ten Years: Strategic Vision of Water Resources for Nursery Producers.” In the report, a group of nursery and greenhouse producers, research and Extension faculty, and representatives from allied fields collaborated to “formulate a renewed vision to address water issues affecting growers over the next 10 years.”

The authors of the report maintained an original container irrigation perspective published previously, while broadening the perspective to include additional challenges that face greenhouse growers today and in the future.

“Water availability, quality, and related issues continue to garner widespread attention,” the report says. “Irrigation practices remain largely unchanged due to existing irrigation system infrastructure and minimal changes in state and federal regulations.

Recent concerns over urbanization and population growth, increased climate variability, and advancements in state and federal regulations, including new groundwater withdrawal limitations, have provided an inducement for growers to adopt efficient and innovative practices.”

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