COVID has business blooming later than usual for Oregon nurseries

Oregon

Oregon's top agricultural commodity has weathered the pandemic better than many industries

Employees potting plants at Simnitt Nursery (Hannah Ray Lambert)

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon’s nursery industry was very nervous this spring. About 75% of the state’s nursery product is sold between March 15 and June 1, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued her stay at home order one week into that busy season. Around the country, other states were closing down commerce and construction, jeopardizing the 80% of Oregon’s nursery plants usually shipped elsewhere.

It seemed like the perfect storm. Now, growers are breathing a — tentative — sigh of relief.

“Not everybody had a great year, or a good year overall,” Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN) executive director Jeff Stone said, but a spot check from Northwest Farm Credit Services showed the nursery industry was actually up 8% during the pandemic. Cattle, dairy, wine and other agricultural industries suffered 10-40% losses in the same spot check, according to Stone.

Some of the industry’s biggest concerns at the start of the pandemic never materialized, or were quickly overcome.

Early on during the spring, OAN President Jim Simnitt said they had a lot of retailers cancel orders, uncertain about how COVID-19 restrictions would impact sales.

Rhododendrons in bloom at Simnitt Nursery (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“The independent garden centers did very well and moved through a lot more material than they had thought and so we had some late re-orders,” he said. That helped even out sales.

OAN President-Elect Kyle Fessler said his nursery saw a similar effect. Originally, the situation looked dire. Woodburn Nursery & Azaleas ships a lot of flowers around Easter. Churches make up a large portion of their customers, but churches around the country were closed.

“That really hit us hard on that holiday,” Fessler said. “And you can’t just hold the crop for the next year, you know. It was grown specifically for that year and the quality really deteriorates if it doesn’t stay on its production schedule.”

But a strange thing happened. Summer sales have been higher than usual. Fessler said they typically drop off after May and early June, but this year the orders just keep coming in.

“I think people want to continue to support local businesses, small businesses,” he said, adding that a reduction in usual summer travel may also be helping. “If I’m stuck at home, I’m working on my yard, that’s for sure.”

Fessler and Simnitt still have concerns though, since their industry is one where a single bad year can break a farm.

“One of the main things that has really changed is the lack of conventions and the lack of the trade shows,” Simnitt said.

Jeff Stone walks through one of the greenhouses at Simnitt Nursery in Canby on April 22, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Nursery products are Oregon’s best-selling agricultural commodity, and OAN puts on a yearly trade show in August that draws people from across the country. But Governor Brown’s executive orders mean the show can’t go on this year.

“So the marketing portion that we’re used to, the handshakes, the making deals face-to-face, that’s not gonna happen this year,” Simnitt said. “We need to figure out a better way to get our products and information out to the customers and still have a personal relationship with them, because the nursery industry is a handshake kind of place.”

Fessler agreed, adding that many of his customers make purchasing decisions based on what they see and feel at the nursery.

“They typically come out once a year and look at what we have on the ground, look at the quality of the plants,” he said. “They don’t want to see a picture. They want to be able to walk our fields and see what the product looks like so they can make informed decisions.”

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

Moving forward, Stone said growers and retailers have learned a lot about adapting how they do business, and health and safety standards have never been higher. There’s still a big question mark looming over the next season, though, and coronavirus could still be a factor.

“I think it’s gonna be a totally different year next year, because none of us know what to expect,” Fessler said.

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