Coronavirus hits Oregon nurseries at worst possible time

Clackamas County

Oregon joins forces with other states' nursery associations to understand restrictions

CANBY, Ore. (KOIN) — Nursery products are Oregon’s best-selling agricultural commodity, but the coronavirus response is hitting the industry during the time of year that counts the most.

“Spring is when everybody’s gardening. This is when we’re shipping a lot of our material out to garden centers and so it’s probably the worst time it probably could have happened,” said Jim Simnitt, president of the Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN).

According to OAN executive director Jeff Stone, 75% of Oregon nursery product is sold between March 15 and June 1.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s stay at home order was issued one week into that busy season.

“There’s no good time for a pandemic,” Stone said. “This couldn’t have been at a worse time.”

OAN has about 700 members across the state. A survey sent to those members showed nearly 98% have remained open since the COVID response started. However, Stone is cautiously optimistic about that number.

“Open now,” he said. “This community is resilient. They survived the great recession, but let’s not put sugarcoating on the great recession. We lost a third of the nursery operations in the state.” Lost sales this year will impact the industry for years to come, he added.

Changing restrictions cause trouble for export-heavy business

The drop in sales is due to a wide range of factors, but the fact that about 80% of Oregon’s nursery plants are shipped out of state is a major concern for growers.

Employees potting plants at Simnitt Nursery (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“There’s definitely been a kind of a nervousness with everybody kind of waiting to see what happens,” Simnitt said. He co-owns the nursery his father started in the 1980s in Canby. “There’s been a lot of orders that have been pushed off, some have been canceled.”

When Washington shut down construction, Simnitt said that had a direct impact on nurseries too.

“Anytime housing stops or construction stops it puts a damper on our business as well,” he said. “When houses go in, yards go in and so they have to plant plants.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee lifted some construction restrictions Friday. However, the constantly changing rules in all the different states has been causing headaches for the industry.

“We had one member who had a truck go all the way to his customer (in New York) only to be turned around,” Stone said.

Confusion like that prompted Stone and his counterpart in Minnesota to put together an interactive map showing the status of and resources for each state, plus the Canadian provinces. It racked up about 5,000 hits in one week.

“This is no time to hoard information,” Stone said.

A mixed bag for nursery operations

The impacts on nursery operations have not been felt equally.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Simnitt said. Nurseries that sell edible plants like vegetables and fruit trees have done very well with an increase in gardening, he said. Other nurseries might be seeing a 40-50% hit through the spring.

Agriculture is also one of those industries that can’t just shift its season.

Rhododendrons in bloom at Simnitt Nursery (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Simnitt grows hundreds of varieties of plants including rhododendrons, azaleas and daphnes. The plants are most impressive during the spring.

“When the flowers hit, people like to buy those, and so you have a short window for rhododendrons and azaleas when they’re blooming,” he said.

While the current situation is certainly concerning, both Simnitt and Stone are hopeful the industry will band together and thrive again.

“Gardening’s not canceled. It’s not even quarantined,” Simnitt said. “So we need to get out and get in our yards, garden, plant a plant and enjoy nature if we can.”

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

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