I Don’t Want To Be A Chicken Farmer

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It was quite a get-together at the Southeast Color Connection show back in June in Greenville, S.C. Most growers in attendance enjoyed a good spring market and were walking the exhibits, participating in educational programs or just connecting with each other.

On the last day of the show, I participated in a forum titled “Do Brands Work?” The question to be answered was: Are brands like Proven Winners, Burpee, Wave, Simply Beautiful, Plants That Work, Athens Select and others of value to the grower, retailer and consumer?
Most of the big-name branders were in the room, along with a good number of growers, large and small. The folks involved were passionate about their brands and, perhaps at times, a wee bit too passionate.

The session was a little more than halfway over when one of the presenters got caught up in the passion of a particular brand and became a little too zealous about the benefits of said pots, labels and brand. At that point, an independent grower asked why she should use a branded product also carried by the box stores. Then another stated that it is the plant that must work–the pot and brand are well and good–but why must he pay for a plant when it’s available generically. Why must those plants be put in your pot? A number of other questions followed, all civilized. We were in the South, after all.

Growers As Brand Developers

The discussion was perhaps a little too civilized, because Carole Barton of Barton’s Greenhouse and Nursery in Alabama could not contain herself. I have known Carole a long time and I know that when she says something, everyone should listen. I certainly did.

Her first statement was that she was fascinated by the comments. Carole was pretty calm, I thought to myself. But then, in fine Bartonesque prose, she started surgically unraveling the threads.

“If I accept your brand as being important to my business, I must accept that you control what plant I must sell, how to label it, what the pot looks like and how to grow it,” she says. “I am in business because I choose the best plants, not necessarily your plants. I don’t want to be a chicken farmer working for you.”

When the panelist responded by asking why Carole thinks people wear Nike T-shirts, she nodded and said, “My point exactly.”

Carole is by no means anti-brand. In fact, she has toyed with developing her own local brand. Her point is that she was a far better judge of what plants her customers desire than the proponents of any brand, especially one that makes lots of rules on what and how she should sell those plants.

It was not a political rally. When the smoke cleared, there was no polarization or rancor. Some good points had been made on the pros and cons of branding, in a forum that allowed people to listen, to comment and to make some decisions. Brands have always been with us and as sure as day turns to night, they will be even more obvious in the future.

However, as much as this industry wants to be like Thomas Furniture or Mercedes-Benz, the plant is still king and growers like Carole will keep the industry honest.

Allan Armitage was a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia for 30 years. He recently retired and remains an active consultant, author and lecturer.

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