Should The Industry Change California Spring Trials?

PP&L display_2015 CAST
PP&L’s Digiplexis display at 2015 CAST.

Every year, in the midst of the madness that is known as California Spring Trials (CAST), industry insiders debate how the event should be changed. Breeders, growers, reporters, and other attendees question if this is the most effective way to introduce new plants.

Part of this debate is sparked by exhaustion, not to mention shock from the amount of money spent.

For attendees, it’s almost a week of sprinting up or down the California coast, so you can make your appointed stops at various greenhouses, vineyards, and other breeder venues. The least fun parts of travelling are repeated over and over — packing up every morning and wrestling everyone’s luggage into the truck, and keeping alert during long drives.

For breeders, it’s thousands and thousands of dollars spent on merchandising consultants, extra staff, prepping for weeks, then keeping everything looking amazing no matter the weather or the number of grabby attendees for a week.

So why do we keep doing it?

Simple. To see what all the new plants look like (or taste like, for the increasing number of herbs, vegetables, and fruit plants).

That’s not to say that changes shouldn’t be made.

There have already been several big ones. The first is how the event switched from the Pack Trials to the California Spring Trials. In the Pack Trial days, the purpose was utilitarian: breeders could demonstrate how uniformly their plants grew, an important feature for large scale growing and shipping.

The greenhouses you visited were working greenhouses, and you walked through a sea of horizontal sameness. After all, that was the whole point of Pack Trials.

Back then, few of the stops took the effort to merchandise their plants. Goldsmith, which Syngenta bought a few years ago, was one of the first to see the value of displaying their plants’ performance beyond mere pragmatic uniformity.

That higher level of merchandising, not to mention marketing, brought a lot of success to Goldsmith, and other breeders began creating similar types of displays. Today’s spectacle stems from those early merchandising efforts.

Another big change was when everyone agreed to move the southern border of the CAST route from San Diego to Ventura. While that put more of a burden on breeders headquartered further south, it made it much easier on attendees.

However, that unwritten rule about starting trials from Ventura was broken this year by EuroAmerican. For the past few years, it held its trials near Suntory’s, on a clifftop overlooking Ventura Bay. But there are a lot of advantages to hosting a trial from your own greenhouses, such as space, labor, and the amount of time you can spend on building displays and getting ready. We’ll have to see if other Southern California breeders decide to follow EuroAmerican’s lead and decamp to the south. If they do, that will add several hours driving into an already packed schedule for the attendees.

Despite EuroAmerican’s move, there has been some discussion about shrinking the geographic area even further, so attendees can fly in and out of the same airport and perhaps even stay in the same hotel for the full week.

That’s a great concept, but which part of California gets to host this new version? Ball Horticulture and GreenFuse are located just north of Los Angeles (“central California” in CAST parlance), EuroAmerican is in Southern California, while Syngenta, Sakata, Benary, and others are located in the counties just to the south of San Jose and San Francisco.

So who has to move?

Hosting from your headquarters allows breeders to create extensive and spectacular displays that put their new plants in the best light. Will they give up their home advantage while competitors get to keep theirs?

Space isn’t the only issue. They will need to spend even more money moving plants and paying for staff off site, when they’re already shelling out a lot of money to host visitors.

One suggestion that made the rumor mill in the past couple of years was to take away home-field advantage from everyone and create a tradeshow-like event, but held outdoors or in greenhouses.

If that rumor was true and this option was considered, it didn’t get much traction [again, EuroAmerican’s move back south as an example].

Another effort to improve CAST has been to create official tours. Various organizations have tried, and most stopped after only a couple years.

Those that still exist are either single companies, like Home Depot or Lowe’s, or are for those associated with the industry but not in it. The National Garden Bureau’s Diane Blazek is leading a small group of garden writers for the second year. This group is thrilled to get a first look at plants, as well as getting a chance to see behind the curtain of plant breeding.

So should CAST be changed? That’s not an easy question to answer.

All those problems of hosting an event over several hundred miles are a real obstacle. Just about everyone is cranky and exhausted by the last day. Last year I watched Josh Schneider of Cultivaris chase a double expresso with a can of Red Bull (although he seems incapable of being cranky). CAST is an endurance test for everyone involved.

To me, the core of CAST’s success are the amazing displays of plants. The scale of the displays, and the variation of settings play into that. So CAST is overwhelming, irritatingly so sometimes, but unforgettable. It’s Disneyland for for plant nerds. Which is why we go back year after year.

If you’re on the road this week in California, let us know what you think. How would you change the CAST for the better?

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