When it comes to remaining competitive, growers could do well by diversifying their portfolios. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a lesson in financial planning. Rather, it’s a reminder that when it comes to crops, diversification continues to be important.
Taking time out from the recent AmericanHort Next Level Conference in New Orleans, Ball Horticultural Market Research Manager Marvin Miller emphasized the benefits of using otherwise empty space in the ornamental greenhouse for vegetable production. Miller pointed out that after the spring rush, the greenhouse can be pretty vacant until poinsettia season. He added that even into poinsettia season, “growers are finding there is more profit to be made in produce.”
As for a collective take on the current economy, Miller said that the overall outlook among Next Level attendees was positive, but added that attendees were reluctant to announce that. He characterized the mood as a quiet echo of hope.
“The housing markets are recovering and that is always good for horticulture,” Miller said. He then painted over this enthusiasm with a realist brush. “What I am concerned about is the drought out west. What are the long-term implications going to be of this?”
Miller said the drought may affect the industry on several levels. “The cost of water is always a concern for growers, and now that seems to be increasing at an ever-growing rate.”
And should the drought lead to a plant shortage, Miller wonders about such a scenario’s long-term impact. “I remember the drought that hit the Carolinas and Georgia about six years ago. The markets still haven’t recovered. People learned they could live without flowers.”
Perhaps that is another argument for adding vegetables to your greenhouse production lineups.
North of the border: Vineland
Meanwhile, the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a not-for-profit organization in Vineland, Ont., Canada, is pursuing its mission to “Catalyze partnerships in premium innovations that grow the horticulture industry.”
Here are some of the newest and most creative offerings from seed producers.
‘Santorange’ is an orange-grape tomato for greenhouses and features attractive, 15-20 gm. fruits that are thin-skinned and meaty. The vigorous, open plant with short leaves lends itself to dense spacing.
‘Tomimaru Muchoo’ is a smooth pink greenhouse tomato. Pink tomatoes are preferred in Asia for their sweet, less acidic flavor profile. This Japanese-style, 6- to 8-ounce slicer has great sweet flavor, and an appealing, medium-firm texture.
‘Pink Wonder’ is a ribbed, pink greenhouse tomato. The flavorful fruit is 6 to 10 ounces with soft texture borne on large flower clusters.
‘Unistars’ F1 is a spineless, seedless “cocktail” cucumber. The high-yielding snack cucumber are crunchy with excellent flavor.
‘Pareso’ red-grape tomato is meaty and sweet. The 5- to 20-gram fruits grow on long trusses and exhibit good vigor and high production potential.
‘Orange You Sweet,’ ‘Right on Red,’ and ‘Yes to Yellow’ (Hungarian cheese peppers) are flattened rounds that resemble a cheese wheel. They’re ornamental and are used for stuffing, and can be eaten fresh or baked.
‘Aspabroc’ F1 baby broccoli produces many small heads of broccoli and an attractive asparagus-like stem.
And for next year from Sakata:
‘Spicy Slice’ Pepper Jalapeño F1 produces early, extra-long fruit ideal for slicing rings. It has resistance to X campestris pv. vesicatoria (Xcv): 0-3, 7, 8 and intermediate resistance to tobacco etch virus (TEV).
‘Mosquetero’ Pepper Pablano F1 is a prolific and beautiful plant. It produces large, healthy, dark-green, two-lobed fruit for stuffing.
‘Tiger’ Collard F1 Georgia-type features attractive blue-green leaves that regrow. Leaves may be bunched or harvested individually. It has a high ratio of blade per stalk.
Valerio Primomo, a Vineland research scientist and vegetable breeder, focuses on delivering germplasm, varieties, and traits that will add commercial value to the to the vegetable industry in Canada and abroad. Primomo is currently working on cold climate varieties of sweet potatoes and ethnic crops such as Chinese eggplant and okra. Though the breeding and selection process is long, it will be worth it according to Primomo.
“Two-hundred-eighty-thousand immigrants enter Canada each year and settle in the cities,” where they buy food most familiar to them. Currently that food is being imported,” says Primomo. “We (Canada) imported $30 million in eggplants and $40 million in okra last year. Think of the potential there for local growers.”
Vineland takes an interesting three-tiered approach toward the development of vegetable seed. Its approach involves biochemistry, breeding, and consumer testing. Primomo described how it works, using tomato as an example.
“The number one complaint about greenhouse-grown tomatoes is lack of flavor.” To attack that issue Vineland “maps” out the tomato traits that customers enjoy most by identifying the volatile chemicals that produce those flavors. These chemicals are then selected for the breeding process.
As stated previously, the breeding process is not a speedy endeavor; they expect these new-age, flavor-filled greenhouse tomatoes to be released in another seven to 10 years. The average breeding process takes five to seven years. Recognizing that time is of the essence in the ever-demanding market, Primomo says they expect to introduce genomics into the breeding process, which will potentially speed development for future varieties.
High-tech and high-touch
Merle Jensen, a renowned industry expert, emphasizes the importance of crop diversification in what he calls a “high-tech and high-touch” approach to business management. Retired from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at The University of Arizona, Jensen serves as advisor to several companies and government agencies worldwide, advising them on controlled environment agriculture.
He recommends that growers have weekly face-to-face meetings with buyers to keep local appeal authentic and tangible. In order to schedule this valuable face time, he suggests growers alter their production lineups.
“Instead of driving your truck to a lot of different stops to get your product out, grow different kinds of produce and sell more to fewer buyers,” says Jensen. “I tell growers to grow no more than half an acre of tomatoes. Any more than that and they will be too busy to have a presence.”
As for ways to incorporate the high-touch and high-tech approach into the business model, Jensen says to “utilize technology that brings them together, such as Skype, touchscreen apps, and flat screens in the market.”
For example, Skype meetings could originate from the greenhouse or the field, with buyers in other locations. The produce itself could be the background for such meetings, adding an attractive and effective visual element. Also effective is the creation of videos discussing the grower and its story, as well as consumer-buying trends pertaining to produce.
Jensen firmly believes that technology makes it possible for even small growers to grab their share of the market. It’s about being present, listening to consumers, and getting creative.
Simply put, says Jensen, “It’s a lot of fun and it is exciting.”
There are many opportunities and challenges for growers to address in 2014 and beyond. The recession may have technically ended, but there is still cause for caution as well as creativity.
Growers must be cautious when it comes to water issues and identify creative ways to conserve. Growers must search out breeders who are developing flavorful produce. And growers must be willing to alter their lineups to generate profit during down times.
Beyond the greenhouse, growers must look for opportunities to increase face time (or high-touch time) with buyers. And multimedia technologies need to be employed in order to reach consumers more effectively.
Karlyn Green is a horticulturalist and landscape designer in Northeast Ohio with more than 10 years of experience in the green industry. She is a graduate of the Landscape Horticulture program at The Ohio State University and a certified Master Technician through the Ohio Certified Nursery Technician program. Currently she works as the horticulturalist for Fairlawn Country Club and is the co-owner of Sassafras Land Design LLC. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.