January 15, 2016
Most growers, me included, have enough trouble solving day-to-day problems, or planning a couple years down the road. It’s why thinking about the horticulture industry in Ontario as a whole is not something we usually do. But it’s time for growers to collectively step back and take a real good look at what is in store for our industry, and to start working on a strategy to deal with our changing reality.

Perhaps readers will recall that a number of years ago Ontario growers got together to work out a marketing strategy. It was a move to remain competitive and sustainable, as larger factors were making the Ontario economy tough for growers. Unfortunately, few desired to implement a collective strategy.

As our industry continues to suffer, and traditional growers are shrinking and disappearing, it’s time for us to try again to get together to identify the problems and work toward solutions. It’s also time to realize that there is a time for competition and a time for co-operation.

Looking at the situation in 2015, I believe there are a few things that need to be done to move our industry forward in a profitable manner.

The simple solution to any downturn in the business cycle is to try and increase the demand by limiting the supply. If that became a reality, we would all be successful. But how do we get there?

The first step is to understand exactly to whom the ‘we’ refers. It includes more than just the growers. It’s everyone who has a stake in this industry: pot and soil companies; plug and liner producers; wholesale growers of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs; landscapers; retailers; landscape supply yards; and big box stores.

But what will it take to increase the demand? For starters, marketing. I’m not talking about the marketing that goes on now among wholesalers (all of us marketing to each other), I’m talking about collectively marketing to the end-user: the homeowner, business, corporation, city, green space provider. Of course, the marketing done by retailers is a start, but we need to do more. We need to change the narrative that our product is not just another commodity, because it isn’t. We need to be much more aggressive and coordinated in articulating this.

Think of the success of milk advertisements and its organized marketing campaign. If the dairy industry (with the help of the government) has strategically shifted the public’s imagination about how they think of this product, why can’t we do something similar with plants?

The timing is good with our new Prime Minister making big promises about reducing carbon and being environmentally conscious. This is an important moment where the good of our industry needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Plants are good for the environment. Plants consume carbon, conserve the water table, stop soil erosion, reduce pollution in cities by filtering the air, lowering the temperatures in cities, and buildup soil with compost. The list could go on.

Beyond the ecological benefits are obvious economic benefits: Plants are a great investment for any home owner. A good landscape increases property values anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent. In terms of public health, gardening is an excellent way to stay fit and healthy, both physically and mentally. What other commodity do you know that can deliver that sort of return on investment? We are sitting on the best products money can buy, and too few know about it.

We need to find a way to initiate a comprehensive marketing strategy that delivers this message to the people of Ontario. Again: just take a look at what the dairy industry has done to promote its products. They certainly discovered that marketing works. But they did not expect each farmer to go it alone. They worked collectively, co-operating for the good of all.

So how do we transfer their success to our industry? Through co-operation and money. We know that money for marketing is difficult, but I’m afraid that the co-operation required will be even more difficult for us to achieve than getting a payment structure in place. We need a strong leader under the direction of Landscape Ontario who will work to get something done with all those involved in the industry, as well as local, municipal and provincial governments.

All stakeholders need to be able to commit a small percentage of our annual sales to promote our industry. We also need to get a handle on the supply. There is a reason we have marketing boards in this country. I am not and never will be in favour of them, but they are addressing a very real problem. With today’s technology and with a very concerted effort, we could start to get a handle on not only what we are presently growing, but share with the industry what we intend to grow in the future. This can be done in an anonymous way with all the information tabulated by an independent source and distributed back to the participants.

Finally, the leaders of our association need to take a much more prominent role in understanding and implementing strategies that will benefit us all. Get the production numbers and the sales volume information tabulated and back to the growers. Let’s look at what is causing the spikes in inventory. If any country is using our market to dump their surplus, we need to be able to stop this from happening.  Get the word out to the people of Ontario and the different levels of government, that they need our industry.

I heard all kinds of talk this past election about jobs, environment, manufacturing and global warming, just to name a few of the topics that our industry addresses. Where is the voice of the horticulture industry letting the people know that we have what they need?

It’s been a tough few years for our industry, and the future looks like it will continue to be tough. But even so, healthy competition is good for business. However, competition works best when it takes place within a healthy environment—one where supplies don’t flood the market; where marketing doesn’t fail to fully explain the goods of the product; and where all concerned stakeholders are able to collectively step back and realize their common purpose. And by co-operating together, who knows, we might just be able to start creating such an environment and start turning things around.

Ted Sikkema
Maple Leaf Nurseries, Jordan Station