Horticultural consultants Ann Chase and Paul Pilon have visited a number of greenhouse and nursery operations in their careers, and they’ve encountered the full spectrum of challenges facing growers today. We recently asked Chase and Pilon for their perspective on the production and business areas in which growers are currently struggling most and the areas in which growers are excelling. Read on to find out how you measure up against the typical grower.
GG: In which production areas are growers struggling?
AC: The area that continues to be the most difficult for many growers is diagnosis of diseases. It appears to be so specialized that many growers are not comfortable making a guess concerning common symptoms like root rot and even botrytis in some plants. They have adopted serological methods, such as bacterial and viral identification, using dip sticks in many cases. While insect and mite control is more readily learned because the pests themselves are visible, pathogens remain very difficult.
Water management continues to challenge some producers as well due to the economics of using methods other than overhead irrigation. They are making the most of irrigation timing and frequency but physical limitations keep water management a continuing issue.
Obtaining pathogen-free seeds, plugs and cuttings is perhaps more challenging now than at any other time in the past 30 years of my experience. Introduction of new crops at a rapid rate is accompanied by introduction of new diseases. This is clearly out of the hands of the growers, even though theirs are the hands that must cope with the problems that come in on seeds, plugs and cuttings.
PP: Although each grower is different, we all have one goal in mind: to be profitable. The last five to seven years have been extremely challenging for our industry. There have been numerous factors that have played out over the last several years that have taxed our profitability. Rising energy costs, increased input costs, higher wages, immigration laws, high unemployment, fewer new homes and high foreclosure rates are several reasons many greenhouse operations are struggling. These factors, combined with low margins, are seriously eroding the profitability and viability of our industry.
Pessimism or optimism about the outcome of spring will continue to be debated until spring is well behind us and then the cycle repeats itself. Even when times are good, there is uncertainty. How growers embrace this uncertainty, position their businesses for both the short and long terms and how they make decisions on a daily basis will greatly determine their outcomes and profitability. There are still opportunities for growth and profitability. To achieve short- and long-term success, growers must continually adapt to the current economic environment and make good decisions on an ongoing basis.
GG: In which production areas are growers excelling?
AC: Disease prevention through sanitation, using new pots and potting media and cleaning flats with a disinfectant between crops are being practiced routinely in many operations across the country. I have also seen a real improvement in removing diseased crops routinely. The need to recycle irrigation water has led many producers to employ water treatment methods such as UV, ozonation, chlorination and filtration.
I also congratulate growers for embracing all the educational opportunities offered via the Internet, including diagnosis through images, webinars and database searches. As more management tools are produced, our growers will be ready and able to make use of them.
PP: Although there are a lot of things (like the weather) growers cannot control, many growers have done an excellent job controlling their production costs. Numerous greenhouses are producing the same quantity of crops, if not more, with fewer people. Some growers are using larger inputs (plugs/liners), which allow them to finish their crops in less time and provide more turns of the greenhouse space. Many operations have greatly reduced the amount of plants they are growing on speculation. This could also limit sales but protects growers from the risk of being stuck with inventory and the costs associated with growing extra plants.
These are just a few examples of how growers are adapting, becoming more efficient and controlling the costs associated with growing crops inside greenhouses.
Another area I see that has improved over the past several years is plant quality. As a whole, plant quality is hard to measure and changes constantly. Different quality attributes commonly occur between plant varieties, by seasonality and with environmental conditions. Due to the competitive nature of our industry, it is imperative that growers continue to improve plant quality to remain in the game. Growers who can maintain a high level of quality consistently over time and control the costs of production will likely have the greatest opportunities for growth and increased profits in the future.
About the consultants: Ann Chase is president and plant pathologist at Chase Horticultural Research. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul Pilon is a horticultural consultant, owner of Perennial Solutions Consulting (PerennialSolutions.com) and author of “Perennial Solutions: A Grower’s Guide to Perennial Production.” He can be reached at 616-366-8588 or e-mail at email@example.com.