Plans to move forward with COVID
How are greenhouse operators planning for fall, Christmas and next year? Five panelists shared their thoughts.
By Greta Chiu
How does one chart a course into the unknown? Without a clear line of sight on the state of the economy and a fluid COVID situation to match, no one has all the answers but everyone needs a plan. Five owners of four greenhouse operations shared their thoughts on moving forward with COVID in a live panel discussion during Grower Day 2020 held in August.
Demand remains optimistic
As government subsidies start to end, disposable income may become an issue, though panelists were positive that the high demand from this season will carry through into the Fall. Mum sales tripled in August for one panelist, foliage sales doubled for another. “The consumer has this insatiable appetite for plants right now,” said Stan Vander Waal, owner and operator of Rainbow Greenhouses headquartered in Chilliwack, BC.
Christmas is predicted to be very, very strong. “I think all sales of Christmas goods that we can actually get out of Asia and Europe will be very, very high in sales. We can see it already starting,” said Brian Minter of Minter Country Gardens in Chilliwack, BC.
The demand for local produce has also been incredibly strong. Serving the local Ottawa, Ont. area, the Bob and Carmen Mitchell at Suntech Greenhouses have seen high demand for local this year and they’ve been hard-pressed to keep up with it.
“The consumer has this insatiable appetite for plants right now.”
Plan for the worst
For two of the panelists who employ foreign workers, they are taking every precaution to keep their employees safe from COVID-19. “It’s practically impossible to do the job without foreign workers,” said Carmen, who notes that they’ve had a hard time finding and retaining local workers. An outbreak at their greenhouse would be devastating.
…There is no silver bullet to worker safety. Every precaution must be taken.
One key area was contingency planning. For Vander Waal, he and his team were working with local governments on this issue. “How do we find a pathway [where] we can continue to operate on a basis that’s safe for the workers, but also continue running a business?” Any slowdown next March or April would directly affect their output, which means identifying high priority items ahead of time that could be accomplished with a limited staff. He stressed that there is no silver bullet to worker safety. Every precaution must be taken.
For the two garden centre operators, both started online stores and curbside pickups this year, but noted that the amount of work was not proportional to the returns. “Online is a lot of work, especially when you’re geared for a retail store which has thousands of SKUs,” said Len Ferragine of Bradford Greenhouses Garden Gallery in Ont. “It’s about a third of the business that we would normally do and it was twice the work.” The online storefront could continue to be a good fallback option for the right operation.
Factor in extra costs and risks
Expenditure on personal protective equipment and efforts to create a safe working environment have increased production costs. Another factor to consider is risk. In the event where a crop doesn’t ship, the pricing strategy should incorporate that risk but be done strategically so it is not mistaken for price gouging.
This is also a good time to re-evaluate what’s selling and what’s not, then target orders accordingly. Rather than carrying 15 different colours of the same petunia, it’s time to reduce that number to something more manageable, particularly if juggling an online presence at the same time.
In the event where a crop doesn’t ship, the pricing strategy should incorporate that risk but be done strategically so it is not mistaken for price gouging.
Garden centre owners agreed that sizing up was a good move to appeal to inexperienced consumers who are looking for larger, more “instant” items. Small fruits, vegetables and anything related to food growing saw a large uptake this season, continuing a previously established upward trend.
“This strong gardening demand did not just happen because of the pandemic. It has been building for over 15 years as the Millennial generation became engaged in growing their own food,” Minter added post-panel. “Living in smaller spaces, they have also made plants an integral part of their lifestyle and appreciate the added value plants bring to their lives and their homes. These folks are deeply concerned about the environment and sustainable living and expect companies they deal with to share these values.” He recommended reading ‘The Green Trend Report 20/21’ created by Dummen Orange, Floramedia and Royal Lemkes.
“Get your orders in now. Firm them up…. Because if you don’t have it in house, you may not get it”
Orders should be submitted and confirmed now. Shortages observed so far included nursery stock on the West coast, as well as colourful items, perennials and home furnishings in Ontario. With interruptions in transport and less available airspace, there could be slowdowns in acquiring cuttings and starter items offshore. “Get your orders in now. Firm them up…. Because if you don’t have it in house, you may not get it,” said Ferragine.
For a complete recording of the panel, register and revisit the panel recording for free at : https://www.greenhousecanada.com/ve-agenda/moving-forward-with-covid/
Thank you to the growers who took part in this panel: Bob & Carmen Mitchell (SunTech Greenhouses), Stan Vander Wall (Rainbow Greenhouses), Brian Minter (Minter Country Gardens) and Len Ferragine (Bradford Greenhouses Garden Gallery).