Gazing into the Crystal Ball By Assorted Experts

Karen L. Panter

Extension horticulture specialist with the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Wyoming at Laramie.

When you can use them, e-mail and the ‘Net are wonderful things (unlike the last couple of days when a computer hiccup completely disabled my e-mail system). That’s why I’ve set up my commercial green industry distribution list via e-mail. This is the trend most U.S. industries are moving toward (actually, we’re largely already there), and this certainly includes higher education and Cooperative Extension.

Since arriving at the University of Wyoming 17 months ago, I’ve come to the conclusion that electronic communication is essential. My reasons for setting up an e-mail distribution system for greenhouse crop producers and others in Wyoming are many. First and foremost is lack of moolah! Budgets here at UW are tight; the dollars are simply not available to send out hard copies of UW-sponsored monthly newsletters to everyone who should be receiving them.

Second, the demographics and geography of Wyoming are such that the population and the industry are widely dispersed. Only about 480,000 people live in a state that covers 97,914 square miles. (We still have only one area code!) There are no large metropolitan population centers; our two largest cities, Casper and Cheyenne, each hover around 50,000 people (but they’re both growing).

Third, the green industry in Wyoming is itself quite diverse. We have a little of everything and not a lot of any one particular facet of the industry.

Fourth, more and more companies are coming on-line every day, making it much easier to communicate with them. The hardest part is getting e-mail addresses from them in the first place (enter the old standby, the telephone).

Lastly, Hort-R-Us (that’s what the sign on my door says) here at the University of Wyoming is lightly staffed: I’m it. My responsibilities are many and varied, and the university has no other horticulture faculty people. So, I must accomplish tasks quickly and easily with no muss or fuss. E-mail and the ‘Net are tremendous tools in this regard.

In a way, I hate to rely on an electronic medium that can crash anytime a hiccup or burp happens along. There’s way too much of it that’s beyond my control. But then again, the same can be said of snail mail, phone service, and most of the other technological “miracles” we’ve come to rely upon. In my 20 plus years in floriculture (my background and training are in greenhouse crop production), I’ve seen many evolutions and revolutions. Among them have been plug production technology, robotics and automation, and dramatic shifts in crop mixes, not to mention our struggles in higher education and Cooperative Extension to keep up with it all. This e-mail and ‘Net stuff, though, is the biggest thing to hit our industry since automatic seeders, bar none (to use a western phrase). Tom Cosgrove (GPN’s editor) said it best in an e-mail (how else?) message to me recently (only slightly paraphrased): “Karen, you’re using this hot new medium, the ‘Net, to bring together the community of growers in your rugged, beautiful, adopted state.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Tom.

(Editor’s note: For more info on the Wyo Grow! newsletter, which Karen promises will quickly unite the entire Wyoming floriculture industry, contact her via e-mail – how else? – [email protected])

Ed Markham

Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based horticulturist, 1999 recipient of Bedding Plant International’s International Award

As a confirmed believer in fundamental laws of all nature, I observe no major changes in any of earth’s creatures other than those brought on by our burgeoning population. The increase in human population from five billion to six billion in less than 25 years makes increased demands on nature on this finite planet.

Today’s predictions can be either frightfully dire or they can be enormously promising – but much will depend on how quickly people of all nations accept that all plants and animals, including Homo sapiens, are completely interdependent.

Very rarely have mankind’s “great” advances first considered the impact on the natural environment. But in today’s climate of increased environmental awareness, we in the floriculture industry have a unique (but challenging) opportunity.

Gardening is now being touted as America’s number-one outdoor activity. But before we start celebrating, bear in mind that once we weed out lawn mowing, patio decorating, and other marginal forms of “gardening,” we are left with a very small percentage of truly dedicated gardeners.

This core group of gardeners has supported our industry through the lean and the fat years. We may have become spoiled by the “wannabes,” the dabblers, the trend followers, who have been hopping on the band wagon fueled by Martha Stewart and the proliferation of high-end home & garden magazines (known in the publishing industry as “wish books”). What excites me is that we in the industry are ideally positioned to cultivate these new customers into truly informed and passionate gardeners.

The first thing we must do is reign in our impulse to respond to market forces by price-fighting with those growers we perceive as our competition. I’m not suggesting we stop competing – competition stimulates innovation and best serves our customers. What I’m suggesting is that competing solely on price has so consistently proven counterproductive both to individual growers and to the industry that almost every grower would agree that it is the desperate strategy of last resort. So why do so many of us continue to grit our teeth and sell our products at little or no profit? The smart strategy, I’m convinced, is to shift our focus to refining our production environment, while also making a stronger commitment to educating the gardening consumer.

In fact, streamlined, efficient production is no longer the limiting factor. Our industry’s rapid switch from “production driven” to “market driven” has not only caught many growers by surprise, it has even caught some of the industry “gurus” by surprise. The good news is the pace at which so many growers and gurus have shifted gears. (A prime example is the “revitalized” Bedding Plants International, which is rapidly becoming a major player in this new market-driven business).

I want to sum up my octogenarian’s perspective on our industry by “plugging” floriculture’s overlooked salespeople: master gardeners and garden writers.

The Garden Writers Association of America is now on the leading edge of the good gardening information being disseminated to the American gardener. Look what the books of GWAA award-winning author Lois Hole have done for northern gardening. Indeed, next time you venture into your local Barnes & Noble or Border’s, check out the shelf space devoted to gardening books. From within the ranks of GWAA you’ll also find the bulk of communicators dispensing gardening advice (and in the process often promoting products) in the newspapers, magazines, radio programs, television shows, even Web sites, that gardeners in your market area turn to for information.

As for the Master Gardener program, it is already huge and will grow even larger. Assuming you produce a quality product, you couldn’t ask for a better ambassador than a master gardener. Not only does each master gardener qualify as a “truly qualified gardener,” each also initiates numerous “wannabe” gardeners into the “truly qualified” ranks through the seminars, workshops, demonstrations and other volunteer services master gardeners so willingly donate to the noble cause of horticulture.

Marcy Peterson

Senior hort student, University of Vermont

As a student in the field of horticulture, I hope that the future brings about many positive changes. I believe a growing trend in production may be a shift toward sustainable agriculture and practices.

From my discussions with fellow hort students, both within the University of Vermont and from other programs, I’ve sensed a growing increase in environmental awareness and concern. I’ve also noticed that hort departments are incorporating a more sustainable approach to the way they teach ornamental plant production by attempting to integrate both conventional and organic production techniques.

This approach is allowing me, as a student, to learn about both sides of the coin. I hope I can use this knowledge to find viable and productive methods when I move into the industry.

I also feel that consumer awareness is changing. The consumer is beginning to demand a healthier, more environmentally sound and reasonably priced product. In fact, I believe consumers, both as purchasers of floriculture products and as advocates of conserving and properly managing our natural resources, will exert a major influence on the production side of our industry.

Paul Thomas

Associate Professor of Floriculture, University of Georgia

The year 2000 will bring our personal time-management crisis to the forefront. Most growers are running out of time. They are bone-tired, disillusioned and running by the seat of their pants. There’s no time to plan. They can’t leave the greenhouse for lack of labor or affordable management. (I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that growers are staying away from conferences and trade shows in droves.)

Mandatory or poorly planned expansion has doubled the employee management work load. Labor shortages are not expected to go away within the next five to 10 years. Profit margins are so slim the operation must now run almost continuously, and the increased paperwork is extending the work period long into the night.

I predict that this spirit-grinding, mind-bending isolation will cause 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s privately owned, mid-sized greenhouse firms to sell out or close shop within the next five years – not because of lack of income, but rather because these growers will no longer see the forest for all the problematic trees.

You must automate now, and to the greatest extent possible, no matter how painful! You can justify the cost of any upgrade to any banker by focusing all the labor savings into new management salaries. Budget for and hire an experienced person as manager at a decent income level. Fund this hire from your own personal income if you have to. An experienced grower/manager will increase profits by allowing you time to plan and implement expanded marketing and customer service needs. Make going to trade show conferences part of the new business plan. Base employee raises on conference attendance (on their own nickel – the same way you do! ).

Meanwhile, plan a couple of two-week vacations and buy the plane tickets in advance to ensure that you go. Most importantly, ask yourself if you are still having fun running your business..

There really is something to worry about in the year 2000 – your personal level of electronic savvy and involvement. This is the big one, the real Y2K terror that most small and many mid-sized growers don’t realize is gaining fast on them. I’m not talking about growers who have yet to launch a Web site; I’m talking about the thousands of growers who don’t even have Fax machines, cell phones, e-mail and greenhouse communication systems that allow an owner to receive calls from anywhere.

A key retailer/landscape buyer issue is information availability and the willingness of companies to answer questions – in real time. If you don’t have, or can’t afford, a full-time sales force fielding phone calls, you’d better have at least five ways to be contacted personally – and fast! Many landscape and garden center buyers are now calling only once. Why? Because their bosses are streamlining sales costs and putting a value on service, specifically, information service. Simply put, if you’re on the phone or out of reach when that buyer calls, you won’t get a second chance or that buyer’s order.

I predict that growers who ignore this trend will lose about 5 to 10 percent of their business every year. Did your sales decline a bit last fall, say about 10 percent? How many times has someone said to you, “I tried to call you but you were (unavailable, out, on another line) and I didn’t have your Fax number, and you don’t have e-mail, so I went elsewhere,” or words to that effect?

This technology mismatch is a slow poison that will really hurt the small growers who somehow feel they are immune to changes in technology. Look for many, many smaller growers to experience serious difficulty and greatly reduced profits this year due to a major technology disparity.

The Solution? For less than $3500 up front, and under $50 monthly, you should be able to sufficiently update your company’s communications system. Most of this equipment is one quarter the price it was three years ago! You can fully arm yourself for the looming information service war with a Fax machine, a cell phone, a computer with Internet access, greenhouse radios, and perhaps a personal beeper.

Gas deregulation, local ad-velorum taxes, removal of pesticides from the market, quarantines, import expansions – all of these can potentially limit your ability to do business profitably. Most growers stick their heads in the sand and hope it will go away. Not good! About the time we desperately need our state trade associations for our survival, most growers are turning their backs on them – because the grower doesn’t have time.

Membership is down in most state associations, and board member participation is low. Many of these associations may fold overnight if a handful of grower members opt not to renew membership. With their demise, you forfeit your one chance at having some control over your financial destiny.

OFA and SAF won’t get involved over your local ad-velorum or inventory tax debates. The same goes for other local issues – zoning laws, state gas deregulation, state quarantines, trucking regulations. But any one of these can put you out of business.

I predict that each grower in the U.S. will have at least two legislative/tax/regulatory events within the jurisdiction of his or her state that will take additional money out of his or her pocket this year and each year hereafter.

A viable, active and effective state association is often your best and only defense. Your state association supports everyone’s potential for making money, including yours. Hoping for a happier, more profitable new year? Sign up!

Steven E. Newman

Greenhouse Crops Extension Specialist, Colorado State University

By now we are past the pressures of the Y2K crisis and can now move along with the new millennium. I, for one, saw the problems associated with Y2K as mostly hype.

As for our industry, plants were and always will be Y2K compliant, but genetic engineers may change this through their attempts to insert “terminator genes” that stop growers from saving seed from one crop to the next. (Reports of terminator gene research have not gone over well in the agriculture industry, and the biotech industry has backed off, for now). Yet, anyone who has attempted to keep the seed from a modern hybrid flowering plant has learned that one can only rarely duplicate the quality of the seed-bearing parent.

What excites me about the coming year is the incredible explosion of new, unique, and re-introduced quality plant materials available to growers. Reports from pack trials, bedding plant field trials, and greenhouse poinsettia trials confirm that breeders have been working hard to bring us quality plant material that is easy to grow.

This is even more evident in the vegetative plant lines. For once, I am truly glad I’m in my ivory tower and not in the field as a broker or grower trying to keep up with all the plants available.

The abundance of available plant material is forcing companies across the board to focus more time and resources on marketing. Therefore, I’m predicting that we will see a major increase in branding in 2000. Furthermore, branding programs will follow the entire production and marketing cycles – beginning with the propagator, and flowing to the broker, the grower, and onto the retail point of purchase.

Consumer magazines, gardening television programs, and the Internet will introduce and reinforce brand name identification; in turn, consumers will request plant products by brand name at retail outlets.

Retail chain centers, which keyed into this trend some years ago, have already acquired much of their brand recognition through popular personalities (for instance Martha Stewart’s relationship with K-Mart). My prognosis would not be good for independent garden center owners who still discount brand recognition as a force to reckon with.

My fears for the coming year should come as no surprise. Greenhouse owners are devoting more time to regulatory and compliance issues than to growing plants.

Many older and established greenhouses are feeling the squeeze (strangulation?) of suburbanization. Historically, greenhouse growers have generally profited from local residential construction booms; however, greenhouses once buffered by farms or other open land from residential neighborhoods are fast becoming hemmed in by residential development. Many neighboring homeowner associations are requesting zoning changes to eliminate or reduce greenhouse expansion. Property values and tax assessment are also putting new pressures on greenhouse owners caught in the middle of suburban sprawl.

Finding affordable land with greenhouse friendly zoning is going to be a major challenge in the future. With increasing population will come an increase in legislation and regulations affecting the greenhouse industry. Most state public health agencies consider greenhouses a non-point source polluter and the regulations governing this are fairly simple: Follow best management practices. However, these issues will be changing in the future.

Water consumption as well as wastewater effluence will be more regulated. Most state agencies are concentrating today on confined animal feeding, but where will they turn next? I fear it is our industry, so we must be prepared for this scrutiny. The best means of preparing ourselves is by cleaning up our act before we are told to do so.

Other regulatory issues to brace for in the coming year include personnel management, worker compensation, unemployment insurance, and workplace injuries, including ergonomic-related injuries. (There are agencies and organizations that can help owners comply with the ever-changing regulations and the related issue of liability management.)

What can you do to better prepare yourself for the coming year? Get active, or become an activist. Contact your local state association. Join national and regional associations. The Society of American Florists is your voice in Washington. These association are your best allies; they want and need your help.

Attend national and regional forums. On almost any given month, numerous trade shows and educational seminars are held across the country. Go to learn, but most of all, to participate.

Richard K. Lindquist

Professor and associate chairperson, Dept. of Entomology, Ohio State University, Wooster, Ohio

I was asked by the editors of GPN to spend some time musing (definition: be absorbed in deep thought; to ponder) about the trends in insect and mite control in the near future. So, I did some deep thinking over the holidays – mainly when the commercials were running during episodes of “South Park” on Comedy Central.

Pesticides will remain the primary choice for insect and mite control on most greenhouse crops well into the next century (a bold prediction indeed!). However, the types of pesticides will change. Though I do not foresee the development of any new organophosphate or carbamate products (another fearless prediction), I expect a continuing shift toward reduced-risk pesticides and biopesticides – the only pesticide categories now being registered by EPA.

Most new reduced-risk products, which have a low toxicity to non-target species and to the environment, are just as effective as the pesticides they will supplant. Biopesticides are another story – their results have been more variable. At a recent IR-4 Minor Crops symposium, Dr. Pam Marrone, president of AgraQuest (a biopesticide company) pegged the market value of the following “biopesticides:”

• Azadirachtin (neem) pesticides – $20 million

• Beneficial insects, mites and nematodes – $40 million

• Pheromones – $60 million

• Microbial pesticides (i.e., products containing Bacillus thuringiensis or Beauveria bassiana) – $150 million.

Regardless of whether you agree that these categories are biopesticides, the total market value is nonetheless very small – about 1 percent of the current pesticide market. However, their growth potential is apparent when you consider that a biopesticide takes about three years and $3 million to develop (compared to conventional pesticides, which take about 10 years and $70 to $100 million to develop).

Several small companies supported by venture capital are currently developing such products, primarily fungicides. However, the possible loss of insecticides as a consequence of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) could spur development of biopesticide products for insect and mite control.

The key to the success (or failure) of biopesticides will be their ability to compete with conventional pesticides in efficacy and cost. Some growers will use biopesticides simply for the warm and fuzzy feeling of environmental correctness – but this is with the assumption that these products will work. If the products don’t work, they’re outta here!

A shift to reduced-risk and biopesticides will provide two grower benefits: these products have shorter restricted entry times (REI), and allow growers more leeway in incorporating beneficial insects and mites into their pest management programs.

My crystal ball also shows a continuing trend toward the consolidation of the pesticide industry into fewer, larger companies. No surprise here; this is the trend in nearly all industries. Most of these mega-companies will market their products for use on specialty crops (i.e., greenhouse crops) through “virtual” pesticide companies such as Griffin, Olympic Horticultural Products, SePro Corp,. and Whitmire Micro-Gen. By “virtual,” I mean that these companies market products that have been developed by other companies.

Finally, I predict massive garage sales in the coming year. You’ll find great bargains on generators, water purifiers, barbed wire, survival manuals and scads of other “better-safe-than-sorry” products purchased back in December.

Jack Williams

Product and technical services manager, Paul Ecke Ranch, Encinitas, Calif.

When looking into the crystal ball at the year 2000, the issue that stands out above all others is our industry’s struggle to recruit and retain employees. This is by no means a new problem for us; in fact, we talk about it constantly. From production workers to top management, the supply of people joining our industry is limited. University programs continue to build in size, but the number of students actually making it into the field is not keeping pace with our needs. If this deficiency of employees does not change, our businesses will not be able to grow beyond our current capacities.

This problem lends itself to no easy answers. Some companies are responding by promoting their current employees to positions of greater responsibility. It is not unusual to talk with a “new grower” whose qualification for promotion from the shipping department was the unexpected departure of the previous grower. Assuming your employees are interested and willing to learn, this is an excellent means of staffing. However, if inhouse promotions are driven by a lack of experienced outside applicants, you are put under the additional duress of investing significant training and support of newly promoted, inexperienced employees to assure that crops are managed properly and quality is not compromised.

I wonder if we shouldn’t be looking at the agricultural programs in our community high schools, technical schools and 4H clubs. The increasing number of students finding their way into these programs is actually creating a shortage in teachers. By stoking the interest of these students in commercial growing, any one of us might directly guide and introduce numerous qualified young people into our industry.

Any of these programs (Vo-Ag, 4H, technical schools) would welcome your offer to share your skills and talents. The onus is on you to initiate involvement! Seek out teachers and sponsors. Talk with them about their “crop of students” and the needs of their programs. Be prepared to extend the classroom to your own business to show students what our industry is all about.

Many teachers have limited knowledge of the crops we produce, and those that do are often limited by a shortage of resources. Who better to help teach the basics of greenhouse production or floral retailing than those of us who do it for a living? Based on comments from the agriculture teachers I have talked with, your participation would be much appreciated!

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