2004 Spring in Review By By Carrie Burns

Weather, varieties, customers — just some of this spring’s issues that growers are talking about.

We talk about it whenever we see each other at trade shows or conferences, “How was your spring?” The answers always differ; after all, there are differences among growers — whether you are a grower supplying mass merchants or independents, in the East or West, produce 4-inch annuals or 1-gal. perennials. However, there are sometimes connecting themes within our industry.

Overall, spring 2004 seemed to go pretty well for growers around the United States. A slow, but ongoing trend that seemed to make a big statement this spring was the emphasis of large mixed containers, using unusual crops. I heard growers talking about less demand for the “widely grown crops,” such as New Guinea impatiens and trailing petunias and more of a demand for marginal crops such as lavatera and even strawberries.

Some other trends I’ve seen and heard in my travels and when I talked to the people for this article are servicing and marketing. Growers emphasized the increasing requests for servicing their customers, mainly with the mass merchants. I also noticed quite a few people talking about branding, which is a touchy word when it comes to our industry. Some made a point to tell me that what they do isn’t so much “branding,” but merchandising or marketing; however, they are doing it. Whatever you call it, the important thing is that our industry is finally starting to understand the mind of the consumer.

Weather is always an issue in our industry, but it wasn’t talked about as much this year. I heard good things about the weather from just about everyone I talked to. The exception was the Midwest, which had a very wet spring that affected production and sales. It will be interesting to see what comes of the next few springs with reports surfacing from the USDA about drier weather for the entire United States in upcoming years.

So, while it’s interesting to talk about what happened, it may be just as important to talk about what we’re going to do to top 2004. Make sure to see everyone’s comments below to find out how your peers use their experiences in one spring to make the next one better.

Which crops performed better than you anticipated?

“Jumbo packs in general sold really well. Demand was pretty high. They went very well and fast, impatiens especially. Another thing that went well were baskets — solids and combos.” — Keith Francis, Kawahara Nurseries, Morgan Hill, Calif.

“One of the things we focused on is mixed containers — the 12-inch for example. On that program we want to differentiate ourselves from others, especially from the box stores. For our high-end combinations we put something of significant substance in every pot — items such as Centaurea gymnocarpa ‘Colchester White’. We have a rule that growers creating that product have to put in a banana or a cordyline, colocasia, alocasia or something along those lines, for example. It doesn’t really kill us on the price, but that way we get something more or less one in the same. We sell to independent garden centers, and they say ‘we like these; they don’t look like everybody else’s; they’re different.'”— Doug Cole, DS Cole Growers, Louden, N.H.

“We’re propagators, and lavender is our number-one seller. We’re probably one of the main suppliers of lavender on the West Coast. We have also launched the Chica and Coco lavenders.”— Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, Fresno, Calif.

Which crops performed worse than you anticipated?

“New Guineas were a little low for us in hangers…not worse, we just had to push them a little more than expected.” — Doug Cole, DS Cole Growers, Louden, N.H.

“Trailing petunias were less successful than we had anticipated. Arctotis was a dog. This is the second year we’ve done it, but it didn’t sell very well.”— Rick Brown, Riverview Flower Farms, Riverview, Fla.

“Geraniums, but I don’t think that’s because they didn’t sell very well. I think it’s because of a few shipping difficulties within a large program. So, I don’t think it’s fair to say they performed poorly. Once we got them to our own retail store they did wonderful; they just were having some difficulties.”— Lisa Wenke Ambrosio, Wenke Greenhouse, Kalamazoo, Mich.

How did the weather in your area affect production?

“It was a cool start, but once it did start in March it never stopped. We didn’t have a single rainout weekend. We had a slightly above-normal rainfall, but it never came on the weekends. We sell to The Home Depots, and they’ve had record sales — no down weeks.”— Rick Brown, Riverview Flower Farms, Riverview, Fla.

“The weather cooperated very well for us in California. This was the first year we didn’t have an energy crisis. The only problem we had was the workman’s comp rates, which jumped pretty high.”— Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, Fresno, Calif.

“We ship to a lot of Midwest stores, and the weather was awful. So everything was down. It was just a very hard year.” — Lisa Wenke Ambrosio, Wenke Greenhouse, Kalamazoo, Mich.

“2004 was better than 2003. There was significantly less rain than last year.” — Robert Milks, VanWingerden International, Fletcher, N.C.

How were your prices this year compared to last? Did they hold throughout the season?

“They were in general flat. There were some niche items we did that we were able to move up a little or bring in at a decent price. But in general, our commodity stuff, our basic, 4-inch, cutting-grown product that everyone is starting to compete with now… I don’t think we went up on that, but we held our prices. We didn’t go down, but we didn’t really gain much ground unless it was something odd. We came in with a niche. I’m not going to tell you that at the end of a crop we didn’t have to move something like everybody does, but I mean it wasn’t halfway through like we have to drop prices. It was pretty steady.”— Doug Cole, DS Cole Growers, Louden, N.H.

“They continued to inch up, they held through the season. Because Florida’s more of a year-round market we don’t have end-of-season price reductions.” — Rick Brown, Riverview Flower Farms, Riverview, Fla.

“This year we were up 10 percent. We held prices; we’re pretty much committed to price.”— Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, Fresno, Calif.

Do you have your own branding program or grow branded product? How effective was it this past season?

“With our elatior begonias, we’re trialing the whole bench tape thing we designed with John Henry. It’s a sketch from someone in-house here, so we didn’t get into photography and some of the more difficult things to portray. We just did an almost-abstract sketch of elatior begonias with a little phrase for our customers to put on their bench. Hopefully it will give them an incentive to highlight the bench, without making it a brand, but still a nice display. We haven’t gotten enough feedback yet. We got it late in the season.”— Doug Cole, DS Cole Growers, Louden, N.H.

“Our Garden Jewels line is our home line, and it did very well and continues to see growth every year. This is our third year into it, and it’s growing every year.”— Keith Francis, Kawahara Nurseries, Morgan Hill, Calif.

How were your relationships with your customers?

“We’ve taken over management of garden center supply for the vendor-managed program at The Home Depot. We’ve gotten really good at it to where we can keep the credits down and the stores stocked. This, in turn, has helped our relationships with the stores because they’ve grown to trust us, and by doing so their sales have dramatically increased. They have excellent margins.”— Rick Brown, Riverview Flower Farms, Riverview, Fla.

“What has affected our bigger customers is their ability to buy in unrooted cuttings, and that affects our business with them. But our relationships with them still remain strong.”— Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, Fresno, Calif.

What was your biggest challenge this spring?

“Combating unrooted products coming from offshore. We’re in the transition now of changing our product mix, so we’re just trying to stay ahead of all of the unrooted cuttings — making sure we don’t have the same things.”— Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, Fresno, Calif.

“Our biggest challenge was recovering from the early start, trying to hold sales because we Á had such an early start in March. We struggled a little bit to hold sales, where we normally don’t have to worry until late May and June. Those are usually pretty big months. But the early sales affected that, and production planning and trying not to have too much product was a little bit of a challenge, because it did change the dynamic of buying here.”— Keith Francis, Kawahara Nurseries, Morgan Hill, Calif.

“I think the industry is at the point where the weather has to be perfect from coast to coast in order for production to be equal to sales. If there’s a bad storm in any part of the country on any weekend, then suddenly production becomes greater than sales. So, I would say the weather was certainly the obvious thing that was a big factor this year. But, I think the underlying issue is that there’s just a lot more production than there is demand.”— Lisa Wenke Ambrosio, Wenke Greenhouse, Kalamazoo, Mich.

Based on this past year, what will you do differently next year?

“Rebalance and look through sales. Rebalance New Guinea impatiens in hangers; we’ll cut down on that a little bit. One thing I know we’ll do more of is alstromeria in 1-gal. containers. It’s an expensive item, and we don’t do tons of it, but we can do more. We’re trying to grow everything we can that other people don’t have. Why compete with everybody, so they just start talking price. We try to focus on the need to sell. Sometimes we even focus on things just because they’re harder, and we can do it and not have to get into price wars.” — Doug Cole, DS Cole Growers, Louden, N.H.

“I think we’ll probably expand our in-house marketing line. We’ll expand upon the opportunities we have there regarding other POP and marketing information, and then we will probably expand our basket production and continue to refine our product lines. We may actually drop a couple of product lines that produced small numbers where the demand just disappeared, and we’re going to try to streamline our production. Hopefully, we’ll produce more of the winners and less of losers. That’s what we all want, right.”— Keith Francis, Kawahara Nurseries, Morgan Hill, Calif.

“We will continue to fine tune the production numbers, getting rid of things that are more expensive to grow and growing those things that are more profitable. There’s a lot of opportunity there. There are so many more profitable variety choices we can make.”— Rick Brown, Riverview Flower Farms, Riverview, Fla.

“We’re moving ahead on going into different types of product lines, like more woodies and tropicals. We initiated it two years ago; it takes 3-4 years to get it going, so we’re finally getting to the stage where we’re releasing them next year.”— Danny Takao, Garden Bloomers Takao Nursery, Fresno, Calif.

“We are working on things to help our independent garden centers and our own retail sell easier. I’m working on developing theme programs — grouping the plants that will work as endcaps and can work as something the retailer can feature that would give us something unique, differentiating us.”— Lisa Wenke Ambrosio, Wenke Greenhouse, Kalamazoo, Mich.

“We’ll be doing the typical things we do every year. Focus on the pace and importance of finding something new — going out to Pack Trials, seeing what’s new, working on our own trials, keeping an eye on the Universities’ trials, all to find something that will stand out and be significant.” — Robert Milks, VanWingerden International, Fletcher, N.C.

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By Carrie Burns

Carrie Burns is managing editor of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1019 or E-mail at [email protected]

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