For the fifth straight year, growers who took Greenhouse Grower’s annual Spring Crops Survey declared spring to be a success overall (88%), even though the season provided its share of challenges.
With 214 responses to our annual survey, 52% were grower retailers, 36% were wholesale growers, and 12% were young plant growers. Survey respondents were from the Midwest (32%), Northeast (25%), Southeast (16%), West (7%), Southwest (4%), and Northwest (4%). Another 12% are not located in the U.S.
Spring Still a Success, Despite Challenges
While sales have been steadily climbing for four years and most growers responding to our survey said sales increased year over year from 2016, overall numbers were down in 2017, because of the weather issues causing uncertainty among consumers, growers said.
Compared to 2016 sales, the 2017 spring season saw sales increase for 57% of respondents, while 21% said sales were about the same and 22% said sales were down year over year. Last year, sales were up for 73% of growers, and sales increased for 67% of growers in 2015 and 68% of growers in 2014.
For 39% of growers, sales in 2017 exceeded expectations, and 25% said sales met their expectations. Another 26% said sales fell short of their forecast for this year.
Most growers (73%) said they grew enough to meet demand, but missed the mark on a few important categories. Hanging baskets were hot sellers in 2017, and anecdotally several respondents said they wished they’d grown more for the unbelievable demand. Other misses included not growing enough edibles, large combination planters, and premium annuals.
“We underestimated the level of growth potential of our hanging basket market, and missed out on extra sales we could have realized,” said one wholesale grower from the Northwest.
Growers capitalized on the growing interest in houseplants and foliage, as well as succulents, tropicals, and large-scale containers and hanging baskets.
“We really worked with our tropicals and houseplants,” said a grower-retailer from the Midwest. “This category, along with our annuals, was very profitable this year.”
“Not Much I Can Do About the Weather,” Growers Say
By far, the biggest challenge growers said they faced this spring was with weather (63%), but labor availability (17%) continues to be a significant issue, as well. Other challenges included labor cost (6%), competition (5%), and the economy (2%) and access to credit (2%).
The weather for most growers was moderately uncooperative (37%), but 32% said it was extremely uncooperative. Weather, of course, is the most perplexing issue because there’s nothing growers can do about it, they say.
“Our spring had another early start, followed with cold, rainy periods when our season traditionally would be warmer and somewhat drier,” said a Midwestern grower-retailer. “It made it difficult to have plants ready on time, followed with periods when we could not restrain growth during low demand.”
Cooler temperatures and low light caused issues with crop growth timing and quality in some cases, growers said.
“We will adjust our crop timing to counter the possibility of dark, cool weather that held back timing for some products for the peak season,” said a wholesale grower in the Midwest.
Another 22% said the weather this spring was moderately cooperative, and a lucky 10% said it was extremely cooperative.
“Consumers needed to replace losses after last year’s drought. Weather this year was more favorable,” said a Southeastern grower-retailer.
A young plant grower in the Northeast said, “We are still up regardless of the weather, but would have had a record year had we been able to have decent Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.”
A lack of consistent, hard-working labor resources continues to plague growers of all sizes. Although Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 State of the Industry Survey and Top 100 Growers Survey showed that the majority of growers are not using H-2A, the Spring Crops Survey reveals that more growers are seeing no other way and have begun the process of applying for guestworker programs.
“Although we have one of the highest minimum wage rates in the nation, there is a limited number of workers available to fill the needs of seasonal agriculture,” said a grower-retailer from the Northwest. “Cost, limited availability, and access are the trio that are dogging us. We are using high school kids and retirees, who want plenty of flexibility, but it often leaves us with gaps, which means extra long hours for us. We just began the process of looking at other options.”
Earlier surveys also told us growers planned to implement technology to streamline production and reduce labor needs; this spring’s lack of labor across the board solidified that decision for many growers.
“California wage regulations are forcing us to grow crops that are less labor intensive, become more efficient, and look towards more mechanization,” said a Western wholesale grower.
Sales Up for All Crops
Sales were up across all major crop categories for the majority of growers this spring, including annuals, perennials, flowering potted plants, and edibles.
This spring, annuals saw the largest growth, with 45% of growers reporting year over year sales increases. This is down from 56% of growers reporting an increase in 2016, 53% in 2015, and 61% in 2014. Sales were flat for 21% of growers this spring, and decreased for 12%.
The edibles category wasn’t far behind annuals, with 44% of growers who reported increased sales. This is down slightly from 2016, when 47% of growers saw increased sales; and 48% reporting increases in 2015 over 2014. Sales remained constant in 2017 for 24% of growers, and 13% said sales were down.
Growers reported increases in flowering potted plants (38%) this spring, compared to 42% in 2016 and 48% in 2015. Blooming potted sales were flat for 23% of growers this spring, and decreased for 14% of growers.
Container perennials were up for 37% of growers in 2017, the smallest growth category for the third year in a row, though it’s not far behind the others. Sales in 2016 were up for 39% of growers and increased for 41% of growers in 2015. For 21% of growers, sales were flat over 2016, and 14% saw decreases.
Based on sales this spring, growers said they’ll change their spring 2018 production plans accordingly. In all areas, the largest percentage of growers will keep production numbers the same, but the biggest area of growth will be edibles (garden vegetables and herbs) for 44% of growers, followed by flowering potted plants (39%).
This is the second year that more growers said they’d increase edibles compared to other categories, and the first year in many that flowering potted plants have outranked annuals and perennials in production increases.
Planning for 2018 and Beyond
The spring 2017 season brought with it new production and marketing techniques for some growers that will carry their businesses forward into the coming years.
“We raised prices with bated breath, and sold more than ever,” said a grower-retailer in Canada.
Looking toward next spring, growers conceded there will always be challenges with the weather, and 36% said they think weather issues will be the biggest challenge in 2018. Labor continues to be another concern for 24% of growers, and increased labor costs in 2018 are worrying 11% of our respondents.
A Northwestern wholesale grower summed up the majority’s position on the current state of the industry nicely by saying, “We are doing business in a strong market and economy but an unstable workforce without good immigration reform plan is our single biggest challenge.”