new growthTough times, tough decsions: what the next generation thinks

We’re facing deeply troubling times. The global credit crunch, a decade of negligent economic mismanagement, cheap imports and three years of horrendously poor summer weather have brought our industry to its knees. One or two more knocks and it could be lights out for Irish horticulture.

In the absence of strong leadership – capable of innovative thinking and the ability to make tough, fair and long term decisions – we must look to ourselves, to the grass roots, to the people working on the front lines, to the next generation of Irish horticulturists. We must look to the people who still posses the energy, wit, imagination and freedom of thinking to express radical ideas and to turn them into tangible opportunities. Twenty five years ago a group of Kildare based growers had just this vision and spirit, and despite their detractors, they succeeded in establishing the Kildare Growers Group and a national horticultural trade fair. The Kildare Growers are just one example, among many, of proactive thinking during troubled times that produced positive results.

Now, facing an uncertain future, we must seek out ideas, ones that a few years ago might have been impossible to consider. To start the search, I asked a number of younger horticulturists and second generation industry members to put forward their suggestions, insights and vision for the future of Irish horticulture.

Time Rich, Cash Poor

Darragh Shaw, Sales and Production Manager at Turlough Nursery, Castlebar, Co. Mayo

The last ten years have brought huge changes in economic terms. Ireland had become one of the world’s richest countries, however the last twelve months has seen us fall from our perch. Many, successful companies have gone bankrupt, thousands of people have lost their jobs and many of our valued customers are struggling to make ends meet. The country has all but come to a complete halt and some economists tell us the worst is still to come.

Unfortunately nurseries have not escaped. Several nurseries have had to let staff go and are finding it very difficult to survive. The end product the garden centre customer wants has changed so much in the past year. Demand for large shrubs has nearly dried up completely. A few years ago we couldn’t keep them in stock! The whole nursery industry was producing plants for the ‘cash rich but time poor gardener’. A mature plant was the way to these people’s hard earned cash. But now the tables have turned they are now‘time rich but cash poor’.

As an industry I believe we can use this to our advantage. This year we started producing and trading in vegetable plants. It brought a lot of people into our place every day. Sure the money was small but for every few trays vegetables that sold a few trees and shrubs went also. This without a doubt saved our spring sales!

However I think it is more than fair to say that a lot of people who tried to grow vegetables this year greatly underestimated the amount of work involved. It is my opinion that vegetable plants will not be as big of a seller next year. In addition to this I would be very surprised if the media give it as much coverage this year.

So what are our opportunities for 2010?

In my opinion, next year it will be all about going back to basics. We are all going to have keep tight reins on our business. We all have hard decisions to make. Decisions such as advertising budgets, wages, cutting prices, dumping stock, laying off staff, taking on more work yourself, running promotions, reducing costs etc. It is so important to be realistic and focused.

I find asking myself two very simple questions helps greatly. Are we selling and are we profitable? These questions are just a method we use to generate ideas. They certainly help us gauge where we are as a business and gives us an idea of where we are going in the future. It helps us identify trends and provide simple solutions to little problems that save wastage the following season.

Are we selling?

  • Has sales fallen dramatically, is stock starting to root into mypex?

  • Is the phone ringing? Why?

  • Are we growing the right numbers of the right crops?

  • How are our prices compared to our competitors?

  • Would you buy your plants at your prices?

  • Are our customers happy?

  • How can we increase sales?

  • Are our customers getting value for money?

Are we profitable?

  • Are we making money?

  • Can we reduce our production costs to raise profits?

  • If we were organised better could we have produced more of the plants we buy in?

  • Can we avoid growing the troublesome crops?

  • Can we reduce our selling price and if we do will we sell more plants?

  • If we increased the quality or pot size of the plants could we charge more without affecting the production costs too much?

  • Are we selling loads of plants but never off the phone, on the road non-stop, but not making any money?

  • How can we reduce labour costs?

At the minute the future is very hard to predict. It is our belief that price is going to be more important than ever. We are also noticing more emphasis is been put on the quality of the plants. Taking this into account our production plans for 2009-2010 are based around cheap to produce plants, such as mixed herbaceous plants, easy shrubs like Spiraea, Escallonia, Hebe etc. We are cautious about the more expensive shrubs like Camellia, Rhododendron, Magnolia etc. By steering our production plan in this direction it will give our customers better value for money and will continue to make gardening an affordable hobby. It is our hope that providing our customers with these opinions will help us survive these difficult times.

Manifesto

Rowan Darcy, Landscape Architect with Mitchell and Associates

There are very few industries that haven’t been touched by the shift in the Irish economy in recent years. Those who are linked to the construction industry, such as ourselves have been hit especially hard since building has all but ceased in the country. I am a landscape architect and I have seen the effects of this first hand, with redundancy and companies being forced to almost be run as charity organisations to survive, becoming common place in our profession. The decision that has to be made by all of us is whether we continue to keep ourselves in the professional box that the Celtic tiger put us in or we decide to diversify our businesses into new areas that will serve us in the future. What new opportunities are out there and how we go about this is the big question.

As an island economy we have to look at ourselves in two ways. Firstly we are physically a separate entity from the rest of Europe, surrounded by an abundance of natural resources. This puts us in a strong position to try to serve all of our primary needs for food, energy and shelter. We also have a role to play in the broader European setting with regard to whether we are going to continue to try to be the economic poster boy for the rest of the states, and where Ireland sees position amongst the other members.

I would propose that we should be thinking of ourselves as a green economy which not only can provide for all of basic needs of its own people but can be a blue print for other small nations throughout the world on how a sustainable green economy can be run. In essence we could become the sustainable garden of Europe with much of the basic products we import at present being produced here in this country and exported. The Americans have already seen this opportunity and are putting vast investment into green technologies and that is exactly what our government should be lobbying for

Where do our industries fit into that? Well, when you look around Ireland we have a vast skill base in farming, forestry, horticulture, construction and design, which puts us at the cutting edge of major green issues. On a macro level, there is an opportunity for dialog between these various sectors at grass roots level to create a think tank and lobby group for green issues, combining our skills to devise a nation wide strategy for food, energy and building material production and giving the government green vision for the green future of the country.

On a micro level this could involve proposing diversity in farming could be encouraged incorporating crops for biomass, long term crops such as tree stock, micro generation or providing opportunities for tourism, such as shooting parties or outdoor pursuits. As well as increased mass food production. Forestry could begin to intersperse disused farm land with more sustainable and varied timber production rather that the masses of Sitica Spruce plantation that we currently have, increasing biodiversity and wildlife habitats. The creation of productive urban landscape, green roofing and pick you own parklands, as well as local allotments. Nurseries could be taking advantage of the huge ‘Grow Your Own’ movement by offering starter kits and advice to communities or assisting in the management of allotment projects. The culmination of the knowledge from going though these processes would then become a tangible selling point for the Irish economy.

Of course I am aware that this could not be implemented over night or that it would not involve some hefty investment but this economic situation is not going to be solved by the government or the banks. We need to be lobbying for investment policies that will encourage growth so we can be at the forefront of the green sector, pushing our elected representatives to appreciate what a vast array of skill that we have in this country. The government need to be forced to look at the long term solutions and how with a singular vision and the meeting of minds we could create an entirely new and sustainable future for ourselves.

Setting Objectives

Chris Rentes, Rentes Nursery, Moyvalley, Broadford, CO. Kildare

Having worked with my Father for a number of years now I have seen the recent radical changes within the industry that have come as a bit of a shock.

As a third generation horticulturalist I am experiencing my first “downturn” within the industry. From growth in our company year on year our sales are suddenly back to 2004 figures however there is a wider positive outlook. Years ago I remember my Father saying they were in a proper recession (early 80s) when interest was at 20% and people were paying with cheques, with the back of them containing up to 15 to 20 signatures so in my view this current economic downturn should not be viewed as a disaster.

With proper objectives set out we as a company are remaining competitive such as

1. During 2003-2007 imports from Holland direct to Garden Centres were affecting our sales somewhat however through closer working relationships with our customers and our ability to bulk buy thus keeping prices down this sales area has increased.

2. As landscaping projects decrease we in turn must bring our purchases into line with our sales. We are drastically reducing our landscape material as it is not in demand and increasing our stock of visual impact plants which has seen a dramatic jump as people are tending to their own gardens more and more.

3. This year we have implemented many special offers on a range of material to increase our sales (eg 36 Hydrangea at €7.00 – normal price €8.75). This is having a good effect and our colourful stock is selling beyond our predictions.

4. Last Autumn we offered customers credit of 6 months from Nov 2008 to May 2009. Many people within the industry questioned our approach in extending credit however we decided it had to be done as without helping our customers through the tough winters their ability to trade would have been seriously affected.

Branch Out

Colm Doyle, Landscape Architect with Doylescapes

I am currently involved in the process of trying to set up a new business – in the area plant sales / garden centre – and feel now is the time to diversify. In respect our own business the only service/product we’re not currently offering is direct plant sales.

 

One of the results of the credit crunch is that people are either buying plants and doing the planting themselves – rather than having their contractor do it – or wanting smaller locally grown plants. With respect to the latter they are also seeking, in addition to quality and value, professional advice on planting.

 

We therefore are aiming to provide a service which has been lost during the tiger years, which is to offer quality, quantity and good after sales service (planting service, maintaining service etc). We are also ensuring that customer’s details are recorded and utilised for markeing purposes and for the promotion of additional products/services. As part of our plant centre development we are also exploring the possibility of including a coffee shop, refreshments, kids play area, renting out some space for allotments and offering courses in areas such as organic gardening, growing your own, maintaining your garden and so on. This will we hope allow people to feel that they are not just buying a plant but getting value by enjoying an experience.

 

The benefit of this branching out into plant sales is that it utilises our existing horticultural / landscaping skill base and will bring business to our existing service offering.

When is a trade show not a trade show?

Andrew King, owner of Gardenworld Nurseries

 

A trade show swamped with a heckling blue rinses, fighting over who going to get first dibs on Flip Schram’s beautiful produce, while their other half trails behind surgically attached to their Zima frame with a pocket full of coppers . Seriously.

 

If our industry and current trade show are to survive they must change and the first thing to change – all due respect to the Kildare Growers – should be the name. The show should be marketed as a national event, a showcase for products and services coming to the market for the season ahead. Perhaps I’m being a little off the wall but wouldn’t it make sense to widen the remit of the show to include closely related sectors (floristry, edible crop producers, green keeping, garden centres and so on)? Increasing the exhibitor base will increase footfall and make the event more attractive to attendees.

 

Am I missing something or is there a genuine reason why the show is held mid summer. Are all our European neighbours doing something wrong and we have it right? Mid summer spells a time when it’s hard enough getting paid for a season gone by, never mind getting people to consider spending/reserving for the next year. I believe the proof of these claims; will be, over the next few weeks sitting on the comfortable leather seats of our good friend Michael O Leary.

 

Why aren’t the larger associations (ALCI, GLDA, ILI) in the industry hosting free seminars on both days of the show. A buzz needs to be created, we have to let everyone involved know when and where it’s happening. Finally, and in respect to developing the event to help secure the industry – does the current venue have sufficient indoor space to allow fir expansion.