Surviving the Drought By Darhiana Mateo

The total outdoor watering ban implemented in 61 counties in northern Georgia is
forcing Charmar Flowers, based in Athens, to close its doors after 36 years.
(Photo: Charmar Flowers)

For Charmar Flowers, a grower and garden center in Athens, Ga., the new year will mark the end of a 36-year-old family business. In the face of a historic drought crippling the Southeast's horticulture industry, mounting water restrictions and seemingly no relief in sight, Charmar Flowers will be closing its doors permanently this month. And they're not alone.

According to a survey by the Urban Agriculture Council examining the economic impact of the severe drought gripping northern Georgia — along with neighboring states — 13,800 employees were laid off and the state economy lost $1.2 billion in revenue as a direct result of the drought between June and October. With Lake Lanier, the city's main water source, expected to drain in a matter of weeks, these numbers are predicted to rise.

"That's real people affected, real families just being targeted because it's the easiest way to achieve [water] conservation," says Chris Butts, general manager of Charmar Flowers.

As states in the southeast region — specifically Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee — continue to battle record-breaking droughts, growers insist they have taken the brunt of the blow. As the state puts pressure on water purveyors to limit water usage, outdoor watering has become stringently restricted. In 61 counties in northern Georgia, a complete ban on outdoor watering was implemented in September, making Georgia the only state thus far to resort to such a ban.

With consumers unable to water their gardens, the entire growing chain of supply is "feeling the pain," says Butts.

"It's all on our backs," he says. "The ultimate question that we have is, 'How is it fair to deny access to a government-provided resource like water to one industry and one industry only?' It seems like we're helpless, and to add insult to the injury, when Mother Nature turns off the water, it's very discouraging when local governments don't look elsewhere for water conservation."

The decision to close down was not an easy one. They eliminated positions, cut hours, tightened their belts in every way and watched every nickel. This fall season, their plant sales were down 90 percent to "basically nonexistent."

Georgia: "We're Not A Luxury"

And 2008 doesn't look promising for Georgia growers, landscapers and retailers, he says. The prediction is for a very dry winter, and it's likely that water bans will extend all the way into next spring. And as much as Butts and others are working to educate the public about the economic and environmental impact of the growing industry, "We have failed at getting the message through that our industry is not a luxury."

For Andy Rogers, chairman of the Georgia Green Industry Association and marketing director of McCorkle Nurseries, a wholesaler of woody ornamental shrubs with a sales territory stretching from Maryland to Texas, many smaller growers and retailers might decide to "curtail business plans, if not close their doors" if the drought continues.

Despite its wide shipping area, the majority of McCorkle's business is concentrated in a four-state area: Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, the areas hit hardest by the drought. Already, the company has undergone two rounds of layoffs and is more than $1.5 million off in sales.

"I'm concerned for the first half of '08," he adds, saying that the "visibility" of the green industry's use of water has put them in a vulnerable position. "There's been a failure from the public and legislative side to recognize the sustainable value of our industry" and its far-reaching economic impact across the nation, he says.

The water restrictions "truly shut us down," agrees Mary Kay Woodworth, vice president of the Urban Agriculture Council and executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape & Turf Association (MALTA). When homeowners can't water their plants, retailers can't sell, leaving growers with inventory in their greenhouses "just sitting there dying."

Alabama: "Praying for Rain"

Carole Barton, co-owner of Barton's Greenhouse and Nursery Inc. in Alabaster, a southern suburb of Birmingham, Ala., has stopped looking at the bottom line and turned her eyes upward. "I keep saying, 'Come on, rain; fill us up, fill us up.' My crystal ball is very cloudy. I have no idea what's going to happen."

For most of the summer, Alabama was under drought level three mandatory restrictions: no automatic irrigation, and hand-watering only two days a week (not weekends) for limited hours. The restrictions were eased a bit in September to voluntary, but the damage had already been done. June sales were half of what they should have been, says Barton, who also sits on the board of the Southeast Greenhouse Confeence and Trade Show. And people are still wary of investing in their gardens for fear that restrictions will be reinstated.

Although their sales were only down 5 percent this year, Barton's is still concerned about how to plan for next year. With the freeze during spring — traditionally a strong selling period — and the drought this summer, growers and retailers are having to "crawl our way back up" with no certainty of what 2008 will bring, she says.

North Carolina: "At Mother Nature's Mercy"

Although recent November rains have helped, "North Carolina is still suffering from the worst drought in 100 years. Many municipalities are counting the days until reservoirs are empty, and rural water users worry their wells will run dry," says Mike Walden, a professor and cooperative extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University, in a recent article.

In much of North Carolina, municipalities are also under strict water restrictions: watering lawns is prohibited, and outside watering of shrubs is limited to hand-watering twice a week. According to the National Weather Service, about 87 percent of North Caolina was ranked as being in an extreme (category D3) to exceptional (category D4) drought situation. Almost 25 percent of the Southeast is in the exceptional category.

Doug Torn, owner of Buds & Blooms, 60 acres of mostly open houses growing ericaceous plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas, says he remains optimistic amid the rising panic. Because Buds & Blooms' sales area covers a lot of ground — 17 states, many of which are not impacted by the drought — they've been a little more insulated than some other growers, Torn says.

Since the drought, Torn estimates his sales are down about 20 percent, and they've been watching payrolls closely and cutting back hours.

He says most growers are in favor of some kind of year-round restrictions and are taking steps toward more conservative water usage, but the industry shouldn't be held solely responsible. "We don't want to hurt commerce. We're part of commerce."

Even as the future looks uncertain, one thing is clear: "There's no question; being in this business is a gamble," Torn says. "So many uncontrollable variables. We're at Mother Nature's mercy right now. Our time will come. The rain will come."

Florida: "The Tough Will Hang On"

In Florida, the key word among growers seems to be caution. "It's a very tenuous situation," describes Dave Self, president of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association and owner of Wyld West Inc. in Loxahatchee, Fla.

Although most of Florida is not suffering as severe a drought as other parts of the Southeast, in certain parts of the state, residents are allowed to water their gardens only twice a week, and growers are under heavy pressure to curb their water usage.

There's a possibility that the restrictions will tighten even more — only one day a week — in early 2008, says Self. And if this happens, "annuals won't survive."

"[Annual growers] are the most vulnerable," he says. "Floriculture in [Florida] is going to be very devastated. People are going to rethink if they want to be in the industry. It's a very hard decision. I don't think people can take another hit again like they did in spring."

Last spring, Self threw away 90 percent of the crops, and this summer, he lost 50 to 60 percent in sales. But business has perked up this fall, thanks in part to downsizing and diversification of product. The drought and water bans have changed the playing field and forced growers to change their mindset, he says. By trying new plants that are more drought-tolerant, and cutting back in production of crops like impatiens, which require more water, Self is managing to remain in the game. "I sold pretty much all of my plants," he says.

But he estimates that overall sales in Florida were down as much as 50 percent this year as a result of the drought. Self has been hesitant to order anything for spring yet and says many of his competitors are also waiting to see what happens with the water restrictions come January. "It's really tough. People are going to be very careful about what they buy, when they buy. People don't know what to grow."

And while the "strong will manage to hang on," Self says growers are also going to have to do their part to change the public's perception of the industry as wasting water and instead be viewed as stewards of sustainability. That means more efficiency and a new mindset. "There's going to be a lot of changes. It's not going to be how it used to be." And in the end, this might not be such a bad thing after all.

An Uncertain Future

For many growers, the challenges may seem insurmountable, and the future remains uncertain. Most of the Southeast reports dismal fall sales, growers are downsizing winter and spring 2008 inventories, worrying about the lingering effects of the water restrictions on consumers and are looking to the new year with apprehension. What's the answer? How does the industry manage to stay afloat after so many blows? Obviously, the ultimate answer is rain, but that's only part of the solution. For Chris Butts, it will demand that growers unite their voices to educate the public abut the industry's environmental, economic and social value, and get involved "at every level" to change current water policies. "The silver lining is that maybe we'll be better positioned in the future to deal with this. Hopefully, we won't have to deal with it for another 100 years, but if we do, maybe then we'll be in a better spot."

Mary Kay Woodworth suggests that growers be resourceful and try to find alternative revenue means by "filling other needs of their customers." Jim Barrett, professor of floriculture at the University of Florida in Gainesville and consulting editor for GPN, says growers will need to take a long, hard look at their own sustainable practices and be willing to change with the times: "As society moves in the direction of thinking in sustainable terms and the drought brings the issue of irrigation to the forefront, it's going to affect what we grow and what we do in retail for several years."

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Darhiana Mateo

Darhiana Mateo is associate editor for GPN. She can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 391-1013.

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