Celebrating the Past, Present and Future By Jasmina Dolce

Charlie Hall, ellison chair in International Floriculture, Texas A&M University, Department of Horticultural Sciences: The last 25 years in the green industry have brought unprecedented structural changes. While we have remained fragmented as an industry, we have progressed to the mature stage in the industry life cycle, and realized the consolidation and shakeout periods indicative of such conditions. Hyper-competitive conditions now exist in the industry and margins are certainly not what they used to be, meaning that new key success factors are now required to remain profitable. Value, relevancy and authenticity are now the three-pronged key to success. That being said, we have relied for far too long on a value proposition centering on the aesthetics and beauty our products offer the end consumer. As consumers of tomorrow become more eco-centric, a new value proposition is required based on the environmental benefits (ecosystems services), health and well-being benefits, and economic benefits of our products and services.

Interestingly, the future demand for plants (which may be referred to as green infrastructure) may be spurred by overarching societal needs such as the mitigation of stormwater runoff, air and water filtration, reduced heating and cooling loads on buildings, improved attention deficit and illness recovery (i.e. Alzheimer's and dementia), reduced stress and enhanced memory retention, and other well-being benefits. These plant-related benefits obviously represent significant economic contributions, which, if estimated properly, will enable us to monetize the true value of landscapes and be reflected in an increased willingness to pay on the part of end consumers. This will play very well to Millennials and Generation Z consumers who will control most of the wealth by the time we are writing this column 25 years from now.

Dan Heims, president, Terra Nova Nurseries: When Mariah Carey was rockin' the charts, the perennial side of horticulture was just awakening. Sales would be strong, very strong, for years.

I was holding hands with B&B Laboratories in 1990, taking them kicking and screaming into this new world of faxes and computers. In 1992, when Terra Nova started with a 10×40-foot greenhouse and a 'Garage-Lab,' both Ken Brown and I were working two jobs to support our fledgling nursery. We had frost alarms, but nothing like the comprehensive environmental control systems we have today. I've seen advances in lighting, pesticides, heating efficiency, coverings, fertilizer formulation and automation. Spacing robots were a dream back then. As the recession grew, nurseries small and large failed, shows diminished and assimilation of companies began by the big-players. Thank God we are climbing out of that hole, smarter and leaner, but still holding on to the principles of creating the best must-have plants in the perennial and annual realm.

Fast forward 25 years. More companies will be acquired and strategically combined. The mega-unions will no longer sell shrubs and perennials but 'plants' of every type. As minimum wages increase, we'll watch automation increase as well, just as it has in Europe. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Star Trek-type tricorder for soil and plant analysis. GE plants? They're already here, but breeding improvements will continue, micro-grafting will be automated, greenhouses will have to 'think' more if a new generation won't take up the trade. Advances in laboratory techniques may bring new plants into the circle of tissue culture. A new generation of LEDs will prove more efficient and brighter. Battery technology will ascend to new heights (see what Tesla is doing for homes now). Distribution and delivery will become more streamlined and efficient. Food crops will be analyzed by drones for watering and fertilization. Labor will always be a problem to have the numbers during the rush periods. Need a pipe fitting? 3-D printing will provide essential parts without needing mailing or pickup costs. One hopes there will still be bastions of creativity, as we see with Terra Nova and other breeding companies… Happy future!

Bill Swanekamp, manager, Kube-Pak: The past 25 years in the horticultural industry could almost be described as revolutionary. Our understanding of the why and how plants grow has been exponential. I remember taking a two-day class in 1991 taught by Dr. Roger Styer and Dr. Dave Koranski that explained the interrelationship between water, fertilizer and media, which was like an awakening. Finally, the knowledge was revealed that allowed us to understand how and why plants acted the way they did. It changed forever how we grew plants. I often say this class showed the science of growing versus the art of growing. In the past, someone who was a successful grower was referred to as having a 'green thumb.' Now the mystery behind the green thumb concept has been unveiled by the science of growing. Because of this, repeatable success can be accomplished rather than hoped for.

Where will the next 25 years take us? Not sure anyone knows the answer to this question, but there are a few areas of progress that seem apparent to me.

1. First, we will continue to see an increased use of biologicals for insect and disease control. As our knowledge and experience in this area improves so will our success.

2. There will be constant improvements in varieties through genetic improvements and breeding.

3. Consolidation of the market will continue and accelerate as the larger growers get bigger and the smaller ones fade away.

4. Energy will become a major issue again, as demand will outstrip supply as it shrinks due to low prices.

5. Alternative energy will become attractive again once fossil fuel costs go up.

Ken Altman, president, Altman Plants: What strikes me as I think back 25 years is the degree to which consistently high-quality plants have come to be the norm now. Likewise the merchandising in big box stores has become consistent and generally pretty good. Back in the day, plant quality really varied by grower, and bad plants were tolerated on store shelves. No longer.

I think that over the next 25 years we will see the Millennials become homeowners and plant lovers. They will have the same feel for plants and animals as the boomers, but their take on it will be with greater interest in sustainability and plants that are proper for the environment. Growers will continue to make strides in plant quality with post-harvest performance becoming the price of admission.

Lisa Ambrosio, owner, Wenke Greenhouses: Twenty-five years ago, nobody expected you to know a little about everything. Today, I get over 100 emails a day and people think this makes me aware. I expect that in the future I'll get a summary email from my computer telling me the highlights.

Twenty-five years ago, we could ship broccoli for begonias because they both started with a "B" and we had extra.

Today, we have an accurate inventory and only ship what the customer ordered because it is selling through. In the future, I expect that we will grow plants for specific, advance orders or find a way to quickly repackage them at the time of shipping into the format that the consumers want to purchase. As long as people enjoy having flowers in their world, we will figure out a way to provide them!

Michael Geary, president & CEO, AmericanHort: The last 25 years saw amazing growth for our industry and then a severe setback due to the Great Recession. But one thing remained the same: our industry perseveres. We are literally an integral part of the environment, and no matter the economic and political conditions, we continue to enhance the world in which we live. From the beginning of time, horticulture has lead the way on how we live, work and play. The future will see more of the same as we fully understand and then embrace how plants, trees and flowers contribute to our well being. We may not need Apple Watches, but we cannot survive without the products and services the hard-working people of our industry provide. This is timeless.

A.R Chase, plant pathologist, Chase Agricultural Consulting: When I started working at the University of Florida in 1979, it was a different world than we have today. We did not have fax machines or even a PC. You were lucky to catch someone on the phone or wait to get a written response. Looking at where we are today with the worldwide web, Apple watches and social media, we have become an information-on-demand society. This has had impact on our horticultural industry but perhaps not as much as one would think. Growers still prefer personal attention with customized solutions. The biggest difference now is speed — the answers need to be immediate! What can be supplied in an impersonal manner is by necessity not customized and cannot do what the human brain can do in problem solving yet.

One thing that has not changed is what diseases we face on a daily or at least annual basis. The same old diseases like Tobacco Mosaic Virus, crown gall and downy mildew have assumed new proportions with our ability to ship plants (and their diseases) almost overnight to anywhere in the world. The damage is global in some of these outbreaks. One thing that has not maintained the technological pace is disease diagnosis. We really cannot tell when something is free of a disease. We can only say there are no signs of disease and the lab diagnoses are negative. This does not eliminate the chance that the plants are infected but at such a low level that our tests cannot detect it. We see this when contaminated unrooted cuttings, seeds and liners are moved rapidly and across a wide geographic zone.

Another critical factor is how we produce our crops. We still use an abundance of overhead irrigation making disease control no more effective than it was 35 years ago. We have newer tools in more effective products from biopesticides to reduced risk products. They are far more environmentally friendly than our industry standards even 25 years ago.

The future will see some of these things change. We will have to stop using overhead irrigation to save a dwindling resource that will cost more and more as the years go by. We will also see legislation that will mandate how we do things — this has started already. The result will be a more valuable product that our marketing efforts will relate to the consumer. Change is always difficult but also inevitable.

Stay tuned next month as we continue the celebration and include additional industry commentary.

Jasmina Dolce is managing editor of GPN magazine. She can be reached at jdolce@greatamericanpublish.com.

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GPN recognizes 40 industry professionals under the age of 40 who are helping to determine the future of the horticulture industry. These individuals are today’s movers and shakers who are already setting the pace for tomorrow.