Spring Survey Report: The Pluses And Minuses Of The Polar Vortex

2014 New Varieties Guide (perennial) Lobelia 'Hot Royal Blue' (Westflowers)Growers cursed the 2013-2014 winter’s Polar Vortex and its effect on the spring growing season. From late snows and icy weather that stretched into late April, plus a rainy May in some parts of the country, to hot, dry weather in others, the season got off to a record slow start.

But consumers were excited and ready for spring, and sales reflected that throughout much of the late spring and even into the comparably mild summer, according to Greenhouse Grower’s 2014 Spring Recap Survey.

Breaking Down The Survey

Overall, 88 percent of respondents deemed spring 2014 to be a sales success, despite the wicked winter, but the weather continues to be the number one concern going into 2015.
As one grower so aptly put it, after a rough spring, our industry is “in open negotiations with Mother Nature now about 2015.”

Of the 198 respondents to Greenhouse Grower’s 2014 Spring Recap Survey, 53 percent identified themselves as grower-retailers, 36 percent were wholesale growers and 11 percent said they were young plant growers.

Most responses came from the Midwest (29 percent), Southeast (20 percent) and Northeast (19 percent), but also represented the Southwest (9 percent), West (4 percent) and Northwest (3 percent). Another 15 percent came from readers located outside the U.S.

Sales Exceeded Expectations In 2014

Growers had high hopes for spring 2014 sales, and according to our survey results, they should be pleased. Spring sales actually surpassed expectations for 49 percent of those surveyed, while 35 percent said sales were about what they expected and 15 percent said sales fell short.

All said and done, spring 2014 sales were better than 2013, according to 68 percent of respondents, while 19 percent said this year’s sales were about the same as 2013. Thirteen percent said sales decreased from 2013.

Still, while 67 percent of those surveyed said they felt they grew enough to meet demand, another 33 percent said their demand was higher than supply.

Part of this was attributed to crop shortages as a result of plant-killing weather and less availability of annuals.

“Because of wide-spread plant deaths due to the 2014 winter, local wholesale growers were not prepared to meet demands on product — especially trees and shrubs,” said one grower-retailer.
Another grower agreed, “Product sold out quickly and we had to turn to other growers to meet our demands. They didn’t have enough product to meet our needs.”

The industry should look for more extreme weather to continue to push demand — and sales — back to later spring and summer, said one grower.

“Wholesale growers, I feel, are always going to have a challenge with meeting product demand. Many people I talked with said they were guaranteed product but it never showed up or they were told it was not available. We are going to see a weakening in the early spring crops to make more room for the spring/summer crops as our winter weather lasts longer. I feel more customers will go from winter plantings and containers to summer plantings and containers, skipping spring altogether. I have seen this for the last two years.”

The largest sales growth occurred at respondents’ own retail shops (30 percent). Independent garden centers offered the next highest growth in sales with 27 percent, followed by other growers and home improvement chains, both with 10 percent sales growth. Farm market sales also increased for 9 percent of those surveyed. However, these areas also showed the biggest declines: other growers (25 percent), supermarket chains (15 percent), independent garden centers (14 percent) and farm markets (12 percent).

Anecdotally, many growers said landscapers are providing big business and predict this outlet as a large growth area. However, the type of plants they ask for may change in response to climate challenges.

“We will see landscapers planting more native plant material that is hardier and will not have to be replaced as often due to the future of extreme weather,” one grower said.

“There’s Not Much We Can Do About The Weather”

Weather is always the biggest culprit for growers and this year it was exceptionally so, with 63 percent reporting weather to be the biggest challenge this spring.

“It killed 90 percent of my plants,” a grower said.

The Polar Vortex was not a big help, as 33 percent reported that the weather was moderately bad and 24 percent saying it was extremely uncooperative.

“Worse winter EVER!” one grower said.

Another said, “We were up HUGE; however, we did not have a single weekend where we had two days in a row without rain. I cannot imagine what it would have been like in the sun.”

But in some areas of the country, it wasn’t a big hindrance either, as 29 percent rated the weather moderately good and 14 percent said it was extremely cooperative.

“Our drought has uniquely positioned us as xeric growers to take advantage of the water restrictions and customers looking to lower their water use,” said a grower.

“We couldn’t have asked for better spring weather,” another said.

Overall, the consensus among growers was that the weather was both — bad in the winter and early spring, and great in late spring and early summer.

“My worst start in nine years,” a grower said. “Sales in March were down 75 percent. However, when the weather warmed up in early April, sales were average, up 15 percent in May and June and continuing into July.”

Another said, “Cold weather was a huge setback early, resulting in our worst March ever, but 11 perfect weekends in a row (including peak weeks) turned the whole ship around.”

One grower summed it up well: “In the end, the weather helped sales. Winter was long and cold, customers were buying lots and the weekend weather was good.”

Annuals And Edibles Increase For Second Straight Year

More growers said they plan to grow more annuals, edibles and perennials in 2015, based on sales results from this spring.

Annuals continue to impress, with 61 percent of growers reporting sales increases over 2013. Fifteen percent said sales remained steady while 9 percent reported a decrease in annuals sales.

Large-scale combinations and hanging baskets were hot items that growers pushed in 2014. But shortages in premium annuals caused some missed opportunities.

“We sold out of popular annuals way too soon,” one grower said.

Another said, “We simply could not keep up with demand and missed a lot of sales.”

Edibles remain a hot growth category that will continue to get bigger. Growers who produced edibles (including vegetables and herbs) reported sales increased over 2013 (48 percent), stayed the same (21 percent) or decreased (11 percent).

“The buy-local movement is big, as well as the safety concerns with what is in consumers’ food,” explained one grower.

The long, cool growing season in some parts of the country presented more opportunities to sell edibles longer.

“Edibles were big, and we grew a late crop and sold those, as well,” a grower said.

Many growers said demand for edibles was so large that, had they planted more, they would have sold, especially specialty items like pre-planted container gardens for condo and apartment dwellers.

“I find the state of the industry still encouraging,” a grower said. “It is just a matter of making sure we grow what the market wants, instead of what we are used to growing. Also, keeping a close eye to organic veggie growing and making sure we capitalize on the growing veggie market, organic or otherwise.”

For 2014 sales of container perennials and flowering potted plants, the numbers were the same, with about 44 percent reporting sales increases, 22 percent saying sales were flat over 2013 and 10 percent reporting decreases.

Bad weather and plant die-off provided an increase in demand for perennials that may continue, however.

“There was no way to anticipate the number of losses in perennials overwintered, combined with an extreme increase in demand for perennials,” said a grower.
In flowering potted plants, woody ornamentals and shrubs, foliage and houseplants and young plants, the majority of growers said there would be no change in quantity.

Capitalizing On Opportunities

Trying new things can pay off in this business, and several growers shared their successes.
“We have put a lot of energy into our social media marketing program, and it has been very effective,” said one grower.

Another said, “Working with local garden clubs and community events helped to push sales higher.”

Simply providing good customer service was key to some new business for another grower.

“People were really stressed out and were adjusting and changing orders at the last minute. We were gracious and they appreciated the understanding. We will keep those customers in the future.”

Growing and marketing plants as pollinator-friendly paid off for one grower. And just being a new business was enough for another.

“People seemed to like that we are a new company.”

Planning For Spring 2015

Weather, staffing and the economy continue to be the biggest concerns going forward into 2015, growers reported.

Staffing will be an issue for many growers as they struggle to find more help for next year. Contacting lawmakers about labor laws and immigration reform is imperative, they said.
“We could have doubled or even tripled our customer list and work projects if we could have found enough staff and workers,” one grower said.

Meanwhile, growers will continue to search for ways to streamline production.

“We did not have enough general workers to get the work that was needed to be done in our ‘normal’ working hours,” said another grower. “We are looking at different ways to do tasks using fewer people.”

Delays in transportation hindered other growers this season.

“We were unable to find drivers,” one grower said. “We eventually found a trucking company that was willing to contract their owner operators to haul our loads. We are working on finding more drivers prior to the start of shipping and developing a better relationship with trucking companies in case we need back-up again.”

Water restrictions due to drought were challenging for growers in some areas of the country. And the increases in energy prices caused cost spikes in supplies across the board, as well.

About the economy, one grower said, “It would be great for this boost in sales to continue during the historically slow periods of summer and winter to prove that the recession is truly over.”

Another said, “I think solid companies weathered this spring well and capitalized on the late spring sales. Companies that were on the edge already may not be around in 2015.”

Others said they believe the industry should build on this year’s momentum to increase profits.

“With the increase in energy costs and cost of supplies, prices must be increased for 2015. I just hope we can manage the increases wisely so customers can still afford to purchase everything they want and need,” one grower said.

Said another, “As long as growers don’t go back to over-producing and stay with a moderate 5 to 10 percent production increase for 2015, we should all be profitable. If growers over-produce, we will all be putting profits in the dumpster at the end of the season.”

Expecting similar weather this winter, a grower issued this rallying cry, “Get your prices up, folks! We will have a hell of a year if we go through the same deep cold we did this year.”

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