Hedging bets on nursery growth

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

STATEWIDE Alice Doyle has been in the nursery business long enough to pick up on a powerful trend in plants. She and her small team at 60-acre, 25-greenhouse Log House Plants in Cottage Grove have been busy since last October assembling a new line of “grab and grow” garden kits to match the palates and climates of a whole new crop of Northwest gardeners.

She came up with the concept on a hunch that the movement to eat locally will accelerate as the recession deepens, and so far her hypothesis is playing out. “We have so many pre-orders that we have basically created a monster,” she says.

Oregon’s nursery industry became the state’s first agricultural sector to top $1 billion in sales in 2008, but it will be hard-pressed to continue the growth it has enjoyed for 17 years. Hedges and ornamentals for residential landscaping are a tough sell when the housing market has stalled to a standstill.

Inventory is building, and several Oregon growers are still waiting to be paid for major orders shipped last year. “Home remodeling, residential construction and commercial development have all taken a real beating and that affects everything in our business,” says John Aguirre, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

Given that backdrop, the outlook for large-scale growers who ship their plants out of state is not good. But for seed-growers, vegetable wholesalers and fruit tree specialists, opportunity awaits.

Jack Bigej, owner of Al’s Garden Center, with five growing centers and three retail outlets in Oregon, says he isn’t expecting strong sales for pricey lawn furniture and fancy shrubs, but fruit trees, blueberries and strawberries have been moving briskly.

“With all the problems with imported food these days, people are thinking that local is better,” he says. “How much more local can you get than your own back yard? It’s edibles that are carrying the market.”

Bigej recently sold 700 blueberry plants in five days, and he has had to re-order fruit trees several times to meet demand. But even with those boosts, his tree sales are down 20%. “The industry got spoiled,” he says. “That housing boom seemed like it was going to last forever, but it’s gone.”

BEN JACKLET

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