Nursery business may be growing
Central Valley Business Journal
March 1, 2012

Mike Dunn of Westurf Nursery in Modesto believes things are looking up for nurseries in the Central Valley. Business Journal photo by Bill Kratt Sometimes it seems like the only things growing in the Central Valley are foreclosures and unemployment.

But a few area nurseries think that plant sales are finally growing, too.

"Business has been turning around since fall 2010," said Ron Hoffmann, owner of Morris Nursery in Riverbank.

Even in January, typically the slowest month, plant sales were up significantly compared to last year, Hoffmann said.

"Considering how 2012 is starting, I'm optimistic that the upward trend will continue," he said.

Hoffmann thinks that people who have not been spending are tired of holding back, while others who are not moving have become inspired to fix up their landscapes.

Mike Dunn, landscape designer at Westurf Nursery in Modesto, agrees that things are looking up.

"Now that many houses have sat vacant for a while, new owners and house flippers are shopping for plants to fix their yards up," Dunn said. "I think that 2012 looks promising."

The housing market has not affected Modesto's Burchell Nursery at all, because it sells fruit and nut trees to orchard farmers all over the country. In fact, last year was one of the wholesale grower's highest sales years in the 70 years it has been in business, said president Tom Burchell.

"As demand for certain commodities has slowed, demand for other commodities has increased," Burchell said. "Our challenge has been to change with the demands fast enough to provide products in the increasing markets. For example, farmers who have grown fresh fruit like peaches and nectarines in the past have seen their market decrease, while the citrus market increased. Many of the stone fruit growers in the Fresno area have switched from growing peaches and nectarines to citrus."

Business is fair at M&M Builders Supply and Nursery Sales in Tracy, said manager Shawn Kelley.

"Although we feel like there's a little more demand, it's too early to tell what's going to happen in 2012."

At Port Stockton Nursery, owner Jeff Nelson said sales have not recovered since the housing market crashed.

"We've been here a long time and we've seen a couple of recessions, but nothing like this one," he said. "I don't think things will improve for a number of years."

Local nurseries have used a variety of tactics to get through the lean times.

"We've always grown most of our plants and now we do more of it," said Nelson, who propagates 320 different types of perennials, roses and vegetables throughout the year. "It's a labor intensive process, but you make a little more when you grow them yourself."

Morris has diversified, offered new and unusual plants, connected with customers via the Internet, and bolstered income with sales from its Christmas shop.

Westurf has lowered prices and focused on customer service, a common strategy used by most independent nurseries.

"Usually the nursery industry is fairly recession-proof because when people cut back on vacations they stay home and work in their yards," Dunn said. "During the current recession, customers are more price conscious and we have had to adjust accordingly. We also do more custom ordering rather than run the risk of being overstocked."

Kelley said that M&M has also reduced staffing.

"We try to be more efficient and will take on business for less of a margin," Kelley said.
Nurseries have also noted shopping trends.

"Customers want instant gratification and they're buying more mature plants," Dunn said. "Many want to see what a finished yard may look like, so we've set up more display gardens. Service is always key. Let's face it: customers can go to box stores and buy some products an independent nursery carries, but they do not get the service and knowledge that we can offer."

Dunn said that being a one-stop shop is also important, because consumers do not want to drive to 10 different places to get everything they need.

"Nurseries need to be always changing and not stay rooted in the way they have done things in the past," Dunn said. "We have added outdoor products like wood fired pizza ovens, outdoor fireplace units, Basalite landscaping material and natural stone to our inventory. Also we are increasing the number of gardening classes that we offer and trying to schedule something every weekend through the spring and at least two to three times a month in the off season."

"Growing things is making a big comeback," predicted Hoffmann, who has noticed increased attendance in his how-to classes. "Sales of bedding plants, vegetables and fruits have been huge in the last few years. People realize that fruits you grow yourself taste a lot better and they're better for you."

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