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Nurseries report low inventories of plants

Issue Date: March 17, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman
David Van Klaveren looks over fruit trees growing at his nursery in Modesto. These trees aren’t yet ready for market, but when they are, they’re likely to be snapped up quickly. Fruit trees were among the hottest items bought by nursery customers last year as people tended to their backyards during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. One producer noted certain varieties will be in short supply until fall, due to the strong demand.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

California's nursery producers have a good problem on their hands this year—scrambling to replenish inventories reduced last year by people taking up gardening while stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Most nurseries I've talked to had an outstanding year last year, and they're looking for an even better year this year," said Scott Klittich, who runs Otto and Sons in Fillmore.

"Last year, what happened is, when March hit, a lot of nurseries kind of stopped production, stopped planting, for fear that they would just throw it away," Klittich said.

"Once middle of April got here, everyone realized that everybody was hiding at home and wanted to redo their homes and landscape and garden," he added. "All of a sudden, they wanted plant material, and there was a huge shortage in the market last year."

According to Klittich, demand reached a point "that a lot of places sold stuff that they normally would have saved for this year, but because of the coronavirus, they went ahead and sold it. Now this year, things are even shorter."

Alyssa Ratajczak of Premier Color Nursery in Fallbrook said her spring season kicked off early, with "herbs and veggies still super, super popular."

"We've increased our production due to everything last year, which has definitely been a good decision for us," she said.

Ratajczak named ranunculus as one of this year's most popular flowers.

"In the past, we've seen them trending down, but this year we're just getting into the ranunculus season and sold out very quickly," she said.

Ratajczak said her nursery also has new vegetable crops coming on every few weeks, "and we're just selling through them."

"We've adjusted as needed to what we've seen going on with the pandemic—people's lifestyle changes, people's buying habits and just communicating with our customers, what they need and when they need it," she said. "We've been able to adapt and adjust to those growing needs."

David Van Klaveren of Hollandia Nursery in Modesto said he's also playing catch-up after hotter-than-expected sales in 2020.

"April was looking kind of bleak and we were worried, but after April, we took off and went crazy," he said, noting that he also sold some of what was intended to be this year's crop last year, to meet demand.

"That leads us to this year, where there's not enough material out there. There's shortages everywhere," he said.

His nursery has plants in progress, but Van Klaveren said he needs a month or two of warm weather to encourage growth before they're ready for market.

"We're getting requests from customers for various things, like fruit trees or perennials or anything that we have on the ground," he said. "It's not ready to sell, but they just want it. They need something to stock up their retail garden centers with."

Dwarf fruit trees for the backyard, including peaches, pluots and plumcots, remain hot sellers, he said.

Nursery operators predicted some trees will be scarce for much of 2021.

"You can't find citrus and avocado for retail market right now," Klittich said, noting it will be months before that changes.

"For citrus, it'll take a year," he said. "It takes that long to get production back up and going and get things happening, especially in the larger sizes."

The demand surge has nursery producers hopeful the trend will stick in the long term.

"Hopefully, we'll gain some lifetime gardeners and plant enthusiasts from all this," Ratajczak said. "I think a lot of people have seen the benefits of gardening help them through this pandemic."

The pandemic has also led to new markets for much of her nursery's production, she added.

"With hotels and theme parks and golf courses that have been shut down, our flowers are still selling at the rate they were when we had the demand coming from other sectors," she said.

"For many homeowners and renters, their buying habits have definitely changed," Ratajczak said. "There's been an increase in not only herbs and veggies, but for color as well."

Van Klaveren also noted an increase in sales to customers who then sell to landscapers, and said he foresees more of the same.

"We were wondering where, with the shutdown and people being furloughed or out of their jobs, where that money was going to come from to spend, but it was there, somehow," he said.

"Landscape is the first thing that you walk up to see," he said, and with "the home sales market going crazy, it's definitely a worthwhile investment."

Klittich said he thinks people's interest in gardening might taper off a bit, as more people are vaccinated and the country slowly reopens. Even so, he said he's optimistic many people have found a new hobby they'll stick with.

"I can see us (having) a little bit of dip coming, probably the next nine months," Klittich said. "Next spring, we're not going to keep the gains we've had. We're going to drop down some. But I'm optimistic that it'll keep going. I'm going to plan for equal or better sales next year."

Inventory isn't the only thing nurseries are low on: For Ratajczak, boosting production meant a need for more people, and they were hard to find.

"We've had to hire more employees, and it seems like many of the other growers and landscape businesses are in the same boat," she said. "Within the horticulture industry, jobs are in high demand."

As for the nursery business as a whole, Ratajczak said she thinks the pandemic has changed it, for the better.

"I think this whole situation has specifically pressured essential businesses, business owners, employees, to really learn how to adapt quickly to different circumstances," she said. "Decision making, quick thinking—everyone's skills have had to really sharpen during this time."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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