Trial By Fair

Trial By Fair

To get a pulse on consumer trends, growers read trade and consumer magazines, keep an eye on the do-it-yourself television shows and look at the latest color forecasts and displays at Target. Doug Hart of Hart’s Nursery, a wholesale grower in Jefferson, Ore., thought of a novel way to gauge customers’ likes and dislikes: He decided to ask them directly.

Hart’s Nursery has been involved with the Oregon State Fair for eight years as the only nursery supplier in the event’s Garden District. The fair receives about 400,000 visitors over a 12-day period each August, and statistics show that half of them visit Hart’s displays at the Garden District. Hart has the chance to ask 200,000 people about their gardening tastes, as well as expose them to a world of gardening possibilities.

Over the course of Hart’s involvement, the Garden District has gone from being ranked 5th behind traditional State Fair exhibits, such as livestock and carnival amusement, to become the No. 1 attraction in 2006. “I think it’s because the visitors have gotten used to something of value in the Garden District,” he reasons. “It’s become a main destination for them while they are at the fair.”

A big component of the garden’s value for fairgoers, according to Hart, is the plant trials he has run for the last three years. He says visitors enjoy going through the trials and filling out the survey, which takes a minimum of 30 minutes to complete. “I was so worried I would be troubling them,” Hart admits. “But I was, in fact, giving them an activity that they can do and that they really enjoy. I have people coming back wanting to do it again each year.”

Hart found he had brokers and plant companies telling him that their own varieties were the best. His intentions for establishing the plant trials at the State Fair were to allow the visitors to tell him what they prefer.

“Our industry does a good job selling to ourselves and asking what we want by offering pack trials and field trials,” he says. “But the consumer never gets asked to be a part of that.”

His first trials were 100 18-inch verbena baskets hanging from 25 poles in the Garden District. He has also asked visitors’ opinions on petunias, bacopas and calibrachoas.

This year, Hart’s is trialing 37 different zonal geraniums from five or six different breeders. They are planted in display beds arranged like traditional field trials and also in 14-inch pulp pots. “We’ll show them the difference between compact, medium and vigorous varieties, giving them a little more of the information we (the industry) have,” Hart says. He will also ask his visitors to comment on six recipes of mixed hanging baskets. “I’m hoping the fairgoers will pick a few they like, and those recipes will be my combos for next year,” he says.

Hart provides his visitors with a map of the trials and a list of questions. He keeps the survey simple for their convenience, asking questions about mixed or combo basket preference, favorite colors, best-looking variety and so on. Hart received about 800 completed surveys in 2006. Results are compiled a few days before the State Fair’s end, and the visitors top picks are awarded blue ribbons. “We listen to what they have to say,” he says, adding Hart’s has changed some color mixtures based on survey results. “I want the visitors to understand that I am going to listen to what they are telling me and make sure they can find at least some of their favorites in the stores I sell to.”

Consumers aren’t the only ones stopping by the Garden District. Hart’s displays and trials also receive a fair number of industry professionals who are in the area for Portland’s Farwest Show. Hart says he had representatives from five breeding companies looking over the trials in 2006, trying to pick out their own varieties. He says that in a way, the trials give him a justification for not ordering some products. The visitors didn’t vote for those varieties, so he doesn’t order them.

His initial arrangement with the State Fair was only supplying plants, and the installation and care was left to State Fair employees. After three years, Hart’s signed a contract with the State Fair making it the official nursery, and at that time Hart took operational control of the Garden District. With hundreds of thousands of visitors walking through what he considers Hart’s Nursery’s “backyard,” Hart wanted to ensure it looked its best. Three people care for the trials and the other display gardens, which includes shade, perennial and vegetable displays, among others. Planting begins in June and Hart finishes up most of the installation by the end of July.

Hart’s does receive some plant materials from brokers and breeders, and Western Pulp provides fiber pots. Hart says the event costs him some money: The State Fair puts Hart’s dollar value in goods and services at around $30,000 to $50,000. “For little ole’ me and some bedding plants, I am listed as a headlining sponsor along with multi-million dollar companies like Comcast,” he adds proudly.

His goal is to share what he does with the public, and make them aware that it doesn’t have to be that difficult. “I want them to take a look at what works for us and find out what we do to make it look that way,” he says. Hart will even show off his mistakes. One year he applied too much fertilizer to a bed and burned some leaves. Instead of replacing the plants, he placed signs next to the damaged plants indicating that it was the result of overfertilizing. He often posts education information with the displays, adding to the value the public receives from the Garden District.

Hart’s Nursery is involved at the Oregon State Fair because no other flower show can bring in such a large number of visitors and at a time of year when the gardens can really look their best. But Hart also says it’s an exposure point to reach homeowners and their children. “I’m in it for at least one generation,” he says. “I want at least one kid who receives a free plant from me to come back with his kids some day.”

Hart also believes his involvement is on behalf of the horticulture industry, as well. “Every state fair should have a representative from our industry because if we’re not there, we really can’t complain about where we are as an industry,” he says. “We have got to educate the public or we will soon find ourselves on the outside trying to stay viable.”

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