Wind, water & wreckage

Features - Cover Story

Greenhouse growers along the Atlantic Coast rebuild after Hurricane Matthew impeded plant production and shook their markets.

January 31, 2017

Kurt Oelschig, owner of Oelschig Nursery in Savannah, Georgia (center), relies heavily on his staff to keep the business running smoothly.
Photo: Christine Hall

Tearing off eight greenhouse roofs, damaging two structures and destroying about 2,000 poinsettias, Hurricane Matthew battered Oelschig Nursery in Savannah, Ga., in the fall of 2016.

It also felled trees and damaged flower beds in the greenhouse operation’s major markets along the Atlantic Coast, says owner Kurt Oelschig. In areas where the hurricane hit especially hard, such as Hilton Head and Beaufort, S.C., Oelschig’s regular customers will be cleaning up throughout much of 2017, and business with them will be limited.

Pummeling the area with reported winds of more than 75 miles per hour and floodwaters measuring several feet high in some places, Hurricane Matthew set back operations for greenhouse growers when it hit at the end of September into the beginning of October. As they assess the damage and make repairs, growers speculate on how the hurricane will affect their businesses and the industry at large in the months and years ahead.

Hurricane Matthew left a trail of destroyed roofs, structural damages and plant losses at Oelschig Nursery valued at about $40,000.

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Optimism in Georgia

The hurricane reduced Oelschig Nursery’s 40,000-poinsettia supply by about 5 percent. Between the onsite damage and the temporary loss of markets, Oelschig estimates the hurricane will cost the 135-year-old family business about $40,000. But he remains hopeful. “I have to say, I was pleased when I turned the corner after the storm to see the greenhouses standing, except for some roofs torn off,” he says. “I consider us very lucky.”

Looking ahead to spring, Oelschig doesn’t expect industry growth for annuals and perennials in the region, but rather predicts everything will remain stagnant. Tree and shrub growers, however, are likely to see a surge in business due to the many replacements consumers and landscapers will have to make.

Concerning damage to greenhouses in Georgia, Oelschig’s Nursery saw some of the worst, says Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Green Industry Association. Other area growers who were affected mainly grow their plants in wooded areas.

GGIA offered resources to Oelschig, but he declined, Butts says. “I talked to Kurt a couple of days afterwards and he was more worried about other people and what he could do to help them,” he says. “In fact, we had talked about a nursery that had suffered some damage, and he got off the phone with me and went there to go take them supplies.”

Oelschig’s desire to help other growers fits into a larger trend, Butts says. “The resilience and the generosity of the folks in this industry just never ceases to amaze,” he says.

High winds and rain during Hurricane Matthew resulted in damaged plants, roofs and the loss of paperwork and office supplies at Ladybug Greenhouses in North Carolina.

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Community and volunteerism in North Carolina

Volunteers also aided North Carolina greenhouse growers in the wake of the hurricane. When Matthew knocked out power at Click’s Nursery & Greenhouse in Fayetteville, N.C., the local fire department ran hoses from the trucks so the employees could water mums, says assistant manager Karen Bowman.

The hurricane tore $600 worth of plastic off of one of Click’s greenhouses, Bowman says. “We didn’t have anything in there but some pansies,” Bowman says. “Pansies are fine in the cold, so it didn’t bother anything.” The business also made it through the storm because it had a generator, which Bowman says is a “must-have” for nurseries.

Another nearby greenhouse, Ladybug Greenhouses in Hope Mills, N.C., doesn’t own a generator. The hurricane wrecked the business when it tore through, but not because of the power outage, which manager Theresa Williams says only lasted about a day.

In the 27 years Williams has operated the greenhouse with her mother, owner Johnnie Klewicki, she says she hasn’t seen damage like what Hurricane Matthew wreaked. “It ripped the plastic off of the poinsettia house, a three-bay gutter house,” she says. “We had to have the whole house recovered.”

Inside the greenhouse, the poinsettias were laying on their side. Williams didn’t lose any of them, but some were set back in size. In a way, Williams says she lucked out because in the week the greenhouse wasn’t covered, it wasn’t hit by freezing temperatures or a downpour.

But damage wasn’t relegated to the greenhouse. In the front office, an 18-inch flood ruined paperwork and office supplies. Outside, mums became waterlogged and split apart as hundreds more plants came out of their pots and, as Williams puts it, “went for a swim.” She estimates the cost of total repairs will be several thousand dollars.

Meanwhile, other North Carolina greenhouses took heavy damage. In coastal Elizabeth City, N.C., 80 mile-per-hour winds and 2 to 2.5 feet of flooding caused about $18,000 worth of damage to Central Garden Center & Nursery’s plants and structures, says owner David Pritchard.

Looking forward to the next few years, annuals and perennials production in North Carolina looks good, Pritchard says. In the event of a flood or other natural disaster, he says, greenhouse growers should move their plants to mitigate losses.

Right after the storm, Ladybug Greenhouses saw a small slump in business because customers were busy dealing with their own issues, Williams says. “The fall season wasn’t that great because of that, but then the poinsettia season has been fine,” she says. “I’m looking forward to a good spring, hopefully.”

As at other greenhouses, community members volunteered to help Ladybug recover from the hurricane. Williams says the business’ success has and will continue to lie with the local community. “I just deal locally, so I don’t know the big market,” she says. “I know what my customers want and their price range, and that’s what I concentrate on.”

While Oelschig doesn't predict growth in annuals and perennials sales this spring, he and his staff have worked hard to get the greenhouses back to normal in the time since Hurricane Matthew.

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Difficult times for fern growers

In central Florida, hurricane winds of up to 70 to 90 miles per hour devastated the cut foliage industry, says David Register, executive vice president of FernTrust, a cooperative of cut foliage growers in Seville, Fla. About 80 percent of the cut ferns distributed in the world, he says, are grown in Central Florida’s Volusia, Putnam and Lake counties, where hundreds of acres of the shade cloth growers use to cover the plants tore apart and blew away.

Approximately 75 percent of FernTrust’s greenhouses received heavy damage, Register says. The business lost a significant number of ferns, but it has been able to save many of them and repair most of its houses.

However, not everyone in the industry has been so lucky, Register says. “I know there’s some insurance money that’s available, but those people that had that are mostly waiting on cloth production now to be able to put it back up and get back in operation,” he says. “Some people, I’m sure, will probably go out of business from it because they didn’t have insurance.”

Prior to Hurricane Matthew, production of the 17-foot cloth used in cut foliage operations had been low because it was a low turnover item, says Clark Johnson, vice president of Pierson Supply in Pierson, Fla., which sells the cloth. Since the hurricane, demand for the cloth rose more than it has since hurricanes Frances and Jeanne struck in 2004.

Oelschig Nursery has weathered the storm, so to speak, and is preparing for the spring season in Georgia.
Photo: Christine Hall

Two suppliers in northern Georgia manufacture most of the cloth for the cut foliage industry, Johnson says. One of the suppliers hadn’t provided Pierson with cloth in years, but linked back up with the company to meet growers’ increased demands. The other supplier quickly provided Pierson with six looms after the hurricane hit.

In the event of another hurricane, fern growers need to cover their plants as securely as possible, Johnson says. “The people that have [their] cables and anchors all secured and maintained properly, they came through this thing pretty good, not unscathed, but pretty good,” he says. “But the ones that didn’t, with structures in poor shape, they’re the ones that really got hammered.”

While the cut foliage industry took immense damage from the hurricane, traditional greenhouse growers in Florida fared quite well, says Ben Bolusky, CEO of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association. “The outlook for Florida annuals and perennials production looking forward to the next few years is exceptionally strong,” he says.

Despite the mess Hurricane Matthew left for less fortunate East Coast growers, they expect and hope to prosper again soon, too.

Patrick is a freelance writer and regular contributor to sister publication Golf Course Industry and is based in Cleveland, Ohio.