The Top Young Plant Growers, And Four Critical Challenges Facing Them

2016 RankYoung Plant Growers2015 RankUnits Prepared To Sell In 2016Units vs. 2015State
1Speedling112 billionUpFL
2Tagawa Greenhouses1450 millionSameCO
3Metrolina Greenhousesn/a300 millionn/aNC
4tVan de Wetering3260 millionDownNY
4tGreen Circle Growers4260 millionSameOH
6Greenheart Farms5250 million*n/aAZ
7C. Raker & Sons6150 to 160 millionSameMI
8Floral Plant Growers9t152 millionUpWI
9Knox Nursery4150 millionSameFL
10Bob’s Market & Greenhouses9t148 millionUpWV
11Plug Connection10135-140 millionSameCA
12Aris Horticulture11120-130 millionSameOH
13Foremost Co.12120 million*SameFL
14Hanor Farms14100-101 million*n/aMO
15Kube-Pak15100 millionSameNJ
16tJolly Farmer16t90-100 millionSameCanada
16tPlainview Growers16t90-100 million*SameNJ
18Wagner Greenhouses775-100 millionDownMN
19Cal Seedling Co.1870 million*SameCA
20Pacific Plug & Liner2035-40 millionDownCA
t = tie; *estimate

Young plant growers are often some of the most progressive producers in the industry, due to their high level of efficiency, implementation of technology and automation, and early adoption of new production methods and research. Some also shoulder a large responsibility as rooting stations for breeders to provide a seamless supply of genetics to finished growers.

Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Young Plant Growers Survey measured some of the successes and challenges for these innovative growers, showing that it’s not easy to be such an important link in the supply chain The 20 largest young plant growing operations, ranked by units prepared to sell in 2016, is shown in the table above. Here’s what some of these growers had to say.

Young Plant Growers…On Energy And Labor Costs

In many ways, young plant growers absorb winter energy costs for finished grower customers. For those in colder climates, this can be a significant expense, but young plant producers are working to defray costs by switching to more efficient fuels, investing in new boiler systems and energy curtains, and looking into alternative energy solutions.

“We have heat curtains that we close at night to conserve heat. We also move the plants to a cooler area as soon as they are rooted and reserve the area with more heat for the next laydown,” says Debbie Farrell at Fessler Nursery.

For all growers, labor is a major pain point, and young plant producers are feeling this, as well.

“Our single largest cost is labor, so managing labor throughout the year is critical to our success,” says Dan Webber of Roseville Farms. “Four-day work weeks during the slower months have become the norm rather than the exception they once were.”

Additional labor solutions growers are investigating include offering wage increases, bonuses, and piece rate, and incorporating mechanization where possible.

…On Plant Quality

New varieties don’t always match their description, so young plant growers often have to run interference on that front.

“We are in constant communication with the labs through our quality reports to help guide them as to the status of the crops,” says Patrick Prussing of Sunshine Horticulture.

pie-chart-1Young plant growers are also managing high expectations for plant quality — from breeders, brokers, and finished growers — so feedback from customers is always important, and critical to share.

“Reach out for help before it is too late, i.e. the crop is beyond the point of saving, or we learn about a crop problem well after the season it was produced, so we cannot troubleshoot problems,” says April Herring-Murray of Pacific Plug & Liner.

Farrell says, “Let us know which varieties they like and why, so we can encourage the breeders to work toward improving all varieties.”

Getting orders in earlier and being more flexible were other common requests.

Some ways growers say they are improving on service include investing in software systems and online, real-time availability portals.

“We work as best as we can with customers to get information on earliest delivery dates for fast decision-making. Also, using our Liner-Bility tool to allow customers to see all possible available items [has helped],” Herring-Murray says.

Stephanie Whitehouse-Barlow of Peace Tree Farms says, “We transitioned to using SBI Software this spring, which has allowed us to successfully manage our inventory and orders in real-time. This allows us to know what inventory is on hand for last-minute orders, and prevents us from over-booking sold material. Posting our availability to our brokers helped increase our liner sales this spring.”

Growing young plants isn’t the only function of these growers. In addition to the responsibility of supplying other growers with plugs and liners, 37% of these growers also produce prefinished plants and 87% grow finished crops.

…On Crop Protection Application

In recent years, as growers have shifted away from using neonicotinoids, young plant growers have also had to phase out this class of chemistry in favor of using integrated pest management and biocontrols. According to the survey respondents, 69% of young plant growers said they use biocontrols in an IPM program that also includes chemical controls, 20% said they now use biocontrols exclusively, and 11% said they do not use biocontrols to produce young plants.

pie-chart-2Overall, many growers said not having neonicotinoids available to them has not been an issue, but some aren’t happy about it.

“We are able to avoid neonics, although we do not believe it is the right thing to be forced to do so,” says Doug Cole of D.S. Cole Growers.

Others have seen positive growth in their young plant business since the shift away from neonicotinoid application.

“If anything, the neonics craze has increased our business, as Peace Tree Farm is certified organic and prohibited from using any synthetic or other non-OMRI-approved chemicals,” Whitehouse-Barlow says. “Customers and consumers know they can trust [our plants] to be chemical- and GMO-free.”

Growers who want to be assured of how plants are produced and what products have been applied will likely need to ask, as most provide that information only upon request.

…About Shipping Your Plants

A sore point for many finished growers is the soaring cost of shipping. Young plant growers say they continue to have good luck working with shipping providers like FedEx and UPS to reduce costs. But they’re also finding some limitations when it comes to other methods.

“For truck shipments, in particular, we have had to raise minimum box orders, but customers can mix and match products to meet the total,” says Christine Kelleher of Aris Horticulture.

Cole says, “Shipping costs have driven our program to be more regional, where customers can utilize our grower truck.”

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