EAST EARL, Pa. – Greenhouse operators are having trouble getting supplies as they prepare for a year that’s all about keeping their pandemic boom going.
Plants themselves seem to be plentiful enough, but pots and soil media are in tight supply because of lab and other issues, said Brian Sullivan, director of sales at Massachusetts-based Griffin Greenhouse Supplies.
Steve Garman, owner of Briar Rose Greenhouses in East Earl, has secured now of his production materials for 2022, but he’s still waiting for 6-inch and 4 1/2-inch round pots.
“Before all this, we just always called our salesperson, and the stuff just showed up. We never thought about all the things involved with getting the product to us, ”Garman said.
Garman and Sullivan spoke during a panel discussion at Penn State Extension’s Greenhouse Growers Day on Jan. 27 at Shady Maple.
Slow shipments, backorders and rising prices are hitting greenhouses at what would be an inconvenient time any year, but especially this year.
Americans, spending an increased amount of time at home, have rediscovered an interest in gardening. They’ve swelled greenhouses’ customer base by 20 million people in the past two years, Sullivan said.
But as growers gear up for the critical spring sales season, greenhouse supply companies are dealing with labor shortages and high prices for plastic resin and transportation.
Sullivan was used to calling up a distributor and getting his orders in two or three days. Now, one manufacturer has a lead time of 400 days on some products.
Prices for those items aren’t guaranteed until shipment, creating uncertainty for companies like Sullivan’s.
The tight market has also cost growers their ability to negotiate with suppliers at a price, said Tim Powell, owner of Powell’s Greenhouse in Mickleton, New Jersey.
To be prepared, Powell has already brought in all of his soil mix and pots for 2022 and has placed orders for next year.
“That’s unheard of. I mean, we’ve never done anything like that before, and now we’re just lucky to get the material, ”he said.
Adding to the complexity, Sullivan said growers of ornamentals and vegetable seedlings are competing for peat – a common potting mix ingredient – with the up-and-coming cannabis industry.
As they search for answers, greenhouse businesses have learned more than they ever expected to know about how their supplies get to them.
“Now I know which ones come from Indonesia because I’m familiar with what got hung up in Hong Kong because of the outbreak three months ago,” said Ross Strasko, vice president of Creek Hill Nursery in Leola.
Growers are even contemplating creative, last-ditch efforts to get their supplies. Garman mused that if he couldn’t get small pots, he could replace them with foam coffee cups from the local Dart Container factory.
“It might start a new trend,” he joked.
It’s not just goods that have been hard to come by. Greenhouses are also squeezed for labor, leading to sometimes steep wage growth.
Tom Ford, a Penn State Extension educator based in Cambria County, said it wasn’t that long ago that local growers were paying a little better than the minimum wage. Now they are offering $ 15 to $ 18 per hour and still can’t attract workers.
Some growers have sought out senior citizens to fill customer service jobs. Older people are a good fit because they have the experience and want flexible hours, Ford said.
Powell is paying his workers $ 2 more than he did last year. Supporters of a minimum wage increase have made $ 15 an hour a national reference point for workers, but they got business owners must think about how much value the workers are producing.
What’s more, Powell is leery of raising prices too much while customers are facing rising costs for gas and other essentials.
A normal price increase for a flat used to be 10 cents a year – any more was pushing it – but now Powell is contemplating a 6% hike, or 60 cents on a $ 10 flat.
“’22 will be a year that tells us if it worked or not,” he said.
Growers may be able to sweeten the deal for employees without breaking the bank.
Cash bonuses are an elegant solution, said Steve Bogash, territory business manager for Marrone Bio Innovations and a former greenhouse operator. A bonus makes the employee happy but, unlike a raise, it doesn’t lock the business into an increased cost in the years to come.
Sullivan has had some employees leave for higher pay, only to return because of the familial feeling of the workplace.
Some people also just like working outside, growing things and learning new skills.
“It has a satisfaction that comes with it that’s hard to reproduce,” Strasko said.
The expanding greenhouse customer base has brought some changes to buying habits.
People used to shop at greenhouses mainly on weekends in the spring. Now foot traffic is spread across the week, and shoppers are buying incrementally, making multiple trips, Sullivan said.
That influx includes a lot of people with little idea how to take care of plants.
Bogash doesn’t think consumers are any more clueless than in previous years – there’s just more of them at the moment. He suggested drawing on the copious online gardening resources to help consumers.
“Anything that you can do to educate them and move them along is always a profitable thing to do,” he said.
If greenhouses have the time to use them, plant tags can be a big help to inexperienced gardeners, Sullivan said. Today’s tags give all the basics for growing the plant.
In the past two years, Garman has seen a surge in parents with young children coming to his greenhouse. That’s a demographic that seeds to be fading before the pandemic.
To make gardening fun for them, Garman created Steve’s Nutritious Veggie Soil – a mix of mushroom soil, pine fines and topsoil – and sold it in mulch bags.
“That product just went crazy because it was related to veggies,” he said.
Indeed, vegetables have been a hot commodity at greenhouses during the pandemic, as people look to grow food for themselves. But growers risk expanding production beyond what the market will bear.
“We have this ability to overproduce ourselves out of any profitability we’ve ever seen before,” Bogash said.
Powell is well aware of the risk of having too much of a good thing. He’s sticking with his customary production levels of food plants this year.
“We always feel that veggies, ’cause there’s so many of them and it’s such a neat item, should it be better than they do,'” he said.
Still, getting product out the door at season’s end might seem a distant goal for this growing season. For some growers, just getting basic supplies could be headache enough for now.