How Nurseries are Changing in 2014 to Keep Business Growing
Potted roses used to be popular gifts for Valentine’s and Mother’s days, but now they’re disappearing from store shelves. This year, Sunshine Growers Inc. of Lakeland, which sells potted plants to garden shops and floral departments, didn’t receive one order for a potted rose. “A lot of the holiday items have gone by the wayside,” reports Craig Roth, president of Sunshine Growers. “We don’t grow anything unless it’s pre-ordered.” [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]
The nursery, which operates in Lakeland and Fort Meade, sold about 75,000 potted roses in 2012, compared to just 30,000 in 2013. Because of new buying habits, they’re growing more vegetables. “Younger people are not buying as many of the same things,” he observes.
Florida produces more foliage and house plants than any other state. It ranks second in nursery crop production, following California. The state’s nursery industry sales topped $12 billion in 2010, according to University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) figures.
What’s Blooming for Ornamental and Other Plants?
But when the housing industry declined, the need for ornamental plants declined along with it. “If houses aren’t being built, you don’t have huge landscape projects going on,” says Scott Roth, Craig’s brother and Sunshine Growers’ vice president. “Most of the plants that have been selling have been just for replacements, small landscaping jobs, and things like that.”
Sunshine Growers, which sells some $6 million in plants annually, has expanded its territory to keep sales even. But it is encountering freight costs that are not keeping up with profits. “I think 2014 will be better than ’12 and ’13 because I see an uptrend,” Scott reports.
In the meantime, they’ve opened another business selling non-perishable items to retail stores and consumers. Garden Marketplace, which operates online at shopgardenmarketplace.com, offers hydroponics, gardening kits, coco mulch, grow bags, and other non-perishables.
Woody plant and annual growers are facing the steepest challenges to boost sales says Shawn Steed, a UF/IFAS Environmental Horticulture Production Extension Agent for Hillsborough and Polk counties. The most promising crops have been edibles such as blueberries, peaches and grapes, along with container gardens, micro-gardens and other container plantings. “Some tree growers are seeing increased sales due to the intensely steep drop of demand over the last few years,” Steed says.
The industry has grown so large that it has been harder to increase sales. “University research has shown that horticulture industries are fully mature or in the decline stage of the business cycle,” Steed explains. “Smart growers will seek to improve or streamline production or mechanize to save costs and stay competitive. They will also seek new customers using as many sources as possible to drive sales. Growers also should seek new uses for their products or venture into growing new items for new clients.
The economy will be nursery growers’ biggest challenge in 2014, says Ben Bolusky, chief executive officer of the Orlando-based Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA). “A recovery [for ornamental growers] seems to be well under way, although it is spotty and uneven,” Bolusky elaborates. “Tree sales are up. With construction recovering, tree and palm sales will continue at a healthy pace. Bold highway plantings of Florida’s icon— palm trees— will continue and help paint the quality of life that attracts new residents and businesses to Florida.”
The “wobbly economy” also was the biggest challenge of 2013. “Confusion over the employer requirements and price tags of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) cast a big shadow, so future labor costs could not be accurately gauged. Even as the economy improved through the year, continued confusion over Obamacare dampened most inclinations to grow jobs,” he added.
Bolusky expects plant buyers to favor “tried and true plant varieties.” “Homeowners are also seeking lifestyles that exude inspiration and they are craving ways to relax,” he says. “Patios, decks and porches will be transformed into outdoor backyard rooms full of containers and planters overflowing with low-maintenance and colorful plants.”
What’s Blooming for Commercial Crops?
The citrus sector of the nursery business clearly has its own challenge: Working to defeat the dreaded greening disease otherwise known as Huanglongbing (HLB). Greening is killing citrus trees and threatening Florida’s citrus industry, which has an annual impact of $9 billion.
“There are a lot of people that have some angst in the community about what their future holds,” says Bob Bogart, a nursery manager at Phillip Rucks Nursery in Frostproof. “We are working in our lab with some supplied cuttings and so forth to develop some tree that can be put into the groves for field trials.”
While the industry now has more greening-resistant rootstalks, they are working on the “silver bullet” that will save the industry. “We’re in a siege,” he says. “Nobody knows when the silver bullet is going to be developed.”
Business has been stable as larger growers replant with the newer varieties and smaller growers study alternatives. Phillip Rucks Nursery has three products besides citrus trees that cater to growers interested in alternative crops: peaches, Eucalyptus, and pongamia (a unique plant with oil in its kernels).
Low-chill peaches have been doing well; the Eucalyptus market is good for mulch but the energy market still is untapped. “What happens in the next three, four years will be interesting,” Bogart says. “We’re basically waiting for the [Eucalyptus] market to really develop.”
They also are working with a California company gauging interest in pongamia oil as a biofuel. 2014 looks like it will be challenging, but overall “very good,” Bogart predicts. “When you’re in the nursery business, it’s very challenging every day,” he explains. “When you’re growing something, it’s nature. We’re not producing widgets.”
It takes from 14 to 17 months to grow citrus from seed and deliver it to the customer. “We’re not a short crop nursery,” he says. “A lot of things can happen,” but despite all the inevitable challenges ahead for 2014, nurserymen will overcome in order to keep business growing.
story by CHERYL ROGERS