Nurseries scramble to fill demand surge
So far, in this eventful year called 2020, the nursery business has gone from normal busy to dead quiet to off-the-charts busy in a span of a few months: That's the estimation of Scott Klittich, who helps run his family's operation in Fillmore.
"I had staff. I had plans. I bought an extra truck," Klittich said of his early-year outlook, noting record-setting business in January and February. "We were all lined up for having an amazing year—and then it got real quiet and real scary right away."
That was in mid-March. Now?
"It started to break loose probably late April," Klittich said. "We have been so busy—we're working overtime, we're bringing in extra help. Everybody is exhausted."
In addition to running his own retail shop, Klittich's nursery serves independent garden centers and landscapers, "and they have all been swamped," he said. "One comment that I heard from one nursery was that 'every day is a Saturday.'" That, he noted, leaves little time for restocking and plant maintenance.
Roses for the garden comprise two-thirds of Klittich's business, and "that has been very popular this year," he said.
"Initially, it was the vegetables that was the big thing," he said. "In March, late March, it was all vegetables. Everyone had a vegetable garden. Then it moved into fruit trees, and now it's pushed into roses."
The last time Klittich remembers being this busy was during the recession of 2008-09.
"I've talked to landscapers," he said. "They're booked out for months. People want to redo their yards and fix things up."
Don't ask Michael Frantz of Hickman for any fruit trees from his nursery. He's fresh out.
"We're now sold out of citrus, and we grow a lot of citrus," said Frantz, whose family's nursery borders the Tuolumne River. "To be sold out is incredible for us."
Cherry and pear tree inventories have been depleted as well, he added, along with blueberries, grapes, raspberries and blackberries—"all our items that we grow by the thousands," he added. "Many of them are sold out today because of the rush of demand during the month of May."
Frantz's business serves independent garden centers, chain stores and landscape contractors. He said the year started strong before the pandemic cut his sales by more than half, leaving some flowering plants without buyers.
"Some of those crops, unfortunately, bloomed out in our fields, and we were not able to ship them because there was no market for them during that narrow sell window," Frantz said. "That was unfortunate, but we were delighted to have a real resurgence of demand for our product about the middle of April."
When cabin-fever-stricken homeowners started working on their yards, he said, demand skyrocketed.
"For the last six weeks, we've been scrambling to fill orders to both independent garden centers and to chain stores, primarily around the edible category," Frantz said.
Memorial Day is about when he said his retail business slackens, with the focus shifting to commercial landscaping. There, he's in wait-and-see mode.
"Frankly, the landscape-contractor business is still very uncertain," Frantz said. "It's really tied to the economy, and no one really knows what the economy is going to look like in three weeks or three months or three years."
Everything Frantz grows has a shelf life of a few weeks to one or two years, and he tries to forecast sales and grow accordingly.
"We try to respond as we can to market shifts, but our business is very tied to the economy, and there's an exceptional amount of risk in the nursery business," Frantz said.
In Smith River, bulb grower Rob Miller is moving past a disastrous Easter to focus on the outdoor segment. Nearly 70% of his Easter lily orders were canceled two weeks before the holiday, he said.
"Easter lilies the day after Easter are worth nothing," said Miller, president of the Del Norte County Farm Bureau. "Those flowers were ready to ship at the right staging for Easter consumption by the consumer, and since they were not shipped, they were absolutely dumped."
But, he said the hydrangea business looks better.
"Anything that was being grown and consumed for outdoor consumption—in other words, outdoor nursery product to be sent and shipped for consumption after Easter—that's been perfectly fine," he said.
His hydrangeas are grown for shipment to other greenhouses as dormant plants from November to March.
"As far as I know at this moment, that's relatively consistent, but we don't know that for sure," he said.
Business might be moving toward normal, but nursery operators say it will be a new normal.
Klittich said many retail nurseries, including his own, have gone to online sales with curbside pickup.
"From this whole thing, people are learning new ways to do business," he said. "I think that's the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that the industry has always had."
Frantz said he sees signs of hope on the horizon.
"We do see some, no pun intended, green shoots emerging in this post-COVID market," he added. "It seems like new homes continue to sell at a brisk pace, and this bodes well for our business."
Given everything that's happened, "I believe that the nursery industry has a lot to be thankful for," Frantz said, singling out not only his customers, but his employees. "In all of agriculture, employees largely showed up," he said. "America owes them a debt of gratitude.
"We're farmers," Frantz said. "I think farmers are consistently optimistic. We have to be, or we go crazy."
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.