Chesapeake Green caps week of virtual sessions
Chesapeake Green, an annual horticulture symposium traditionally held by the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association over two days in Linthicum, Md., went virtual this year, stretching over an entire week with sessions held daily between noon and 2 p.m.
A panel of Maryland horticulture business leaders participated on Feb. 18 in a roundtable discussion on “COVID-19: How Businesses Pivoted During Uncertain Times.”
Chuck Schuster, Extension educator in Montgomery County, started the conversation.
“When the pandemic hit, all businesses were affected. Some pivoted. Some took lemons and made lemonade.”
John Marshall owns Marshalls’ Riverbank Nursery in Salisbury, a wholesaler of shrubs, perennials, groundcovers and grasses.
“We deliver most of our plants,” Marshall said. “Not a lot has changed, but we got busier in April. We applied for the PPP money. Within a month, we were busier than ever. It was our best year ever.
“We continued to do what our customers asked, and delivered even if the truck was not full.”
Marshalls’ even sold extra inventory it had on hand. “It looks like 2021 will be a good year, too,” Marshall said.
Brian Riddle is president and CEO of Homestead Gardens, one of the top independent garden centers in the nation.
For Homestead, the pandemic situation called for drastic moves to be made quickly, he said.
From the third week of March through mid-April, the legislature debated over what were essential businesses and threatened to shut down garden centers. Riddle said he worked with Vanessa Finney and the MNLGA to shore up the definition of essential. It would have been a disparity to allow big box stores to operate and not garden centers.
“We prevailed,” Riddle said. There were still lots of questions and a struggle for PPP funds. “We didn’t know if we would have a spring season in 2020. We had probably our worst April, as to sales volume, but we had had a strong March. It was scary. We did not know what the season would turn into. By the end of April, we saw a tremendous uptick.”
Homestead’s online presence had not been an area of tremendous focus and investment, he continued.
“We were not ready. But we did a robust phone order business. We found consumer support for retail surprisingly strong,” Riddle said. “The end of April and May were the strongest we’ve ever experienced.”
The Homestead staff put a lot of effort into cleaning, following the guidelines to the best of their ability, although those were not always clear.
“We were very aggressive on mask requirements — inside and outdoors,” he said. “The health department visited twice, and we got good marks.”
Riddle summed up the experience: “It’s been a great year. We couldn’t have done it without a great team of associates.”
Lisa Barton has 21 years of experience in the landscape industry. She is now grounds manager and horticulturist at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville.
Woodmont was to host the U.S. Women’s Amateur Golf Tournament in 2020, but COVID-19 brought that to a full stop, Barton said.
When the pandemic escalated, it froze all large-scale work. “We have 500 acres of property, two golf courses, tennis courts … and 11 people. All we did was mow and mow. We even had golf staff experts out mowing. When the staff was cleared to return, I was ecstatic.”
The staff of 60 reported at staggered times and worked without break facilities.
Barton provided coolers for cold drinks.
Each person had his or her own golf cart. Equipment was sanitized daily. Temperatures were taken and staff had to let superiors know if they traveled out of Maryland or were exposed.
The country club has 4,000 members who were gradually allowed back on the premises. Time limits were strictly enforced. There was no indoor dining until January.
“We couldn’t keep up with everything. Bamboo grew out of control,” Barton said. “I was working so many weekends I hired my own kids to help.”
The county finally gave permission to host the big tournament, which normally draws 6,000 people including players and vendors.
They were allowed 1,200. Everyone had to be tested for COVID-19; all were negative. Each had an ID badge that showed they had been tested.
“I found I was responsible for floral arrangements,” Barton said. “We needed more than 90 displays for the 10-day tournament.
“I turned the ballroom into a florist area and we worked very long hours. It was exhausting, yet exhilarating. I felt like I won the tournament.”
Through all the pivots required by the pandemic, Barton said, “I found it was important to be as transparent as possible.”
Craig Ruppert is CEO of Ruppert Companies, which includes Ruppert Nurseries, a 650-acre wholesale nursery in Laytonsville which grows 65,000 trees, and Ruppert Landscape Company, which does commercial landscaping from 28 offices in the Mid-Atlantic and Texas with the help of 1,700 employees.
Ruppert said, “In our nursery business, business picked up. The stay-at-home movement focused on back yards, and we sold more trees.
“The maintenance business suffered somewhat, but the snow is making up for it. Our basic contracts for mowing are the same, but the extras have been reduced.
“I expect a slowdown in new construction and new landscaping in the next two years.”
He, too, worked with MNLGA on the definition of “essential.”
Ruppert said he was really grateful for the efforts of the association. He added, “Now is the time when we really appreciate our employees, too.”
Ruppert Companies developed a COVID “playbook” for managers containing guidelines on how to handle various situations. The guidelines included limited use of vehicles, office and vehicle cleaning, reduced hours and some working from home. Some office employees are very productive and happy at home; others are anxious to return.
“We monitor anyone who’s been impacted,” Ruppert said. “One-third of our workforce was impacted — showed symptoms and left work. Of those who got tested, one-third were positive,” he said.
He added later that plans to expand corporate office space have been put on hold for now. He anticipates more work from home, more Zoom sessions and less travel.
Alan Jones was part of a trio who bought Manor View Farm, a 100-acre nursery in northern Baltimore County, in 2007.
“We learned to adjust very quickly in an uncertain world… We looked back at the Great Recession and the survival strategies of that,” Jones said.
Two years ago Manor View moved to fiber optics Internet connection, a fortunate surprise for that location. “It was just good timing,” Jones said. “Without high speed Internet, we could not have done what we did, particularly working from home.
“One of our biggest problems was the lack of information and uncertainty. Our primary concern was the health and safety of employees and customers.”
“The fear of being shut down was terrifying,” he added.
Customers and team members provided good ideas. Crews were split into smaller groups. The number of people in the office was limited. Customers were encouraged to call in orders ahead of time and to pick them up from the wholesale yard.
“We had more conference calls and Zoom meetings,” Jones said. “We found them to be more efficient. We will continued more conference calls vs. face-to-face meetings.”
With the pandemic came 10 million new gardeners, which certainly helps from the retail side, Jones observed. “Most will plant a garden again in 2021.”
Jones added, “This industry is really resilient to change and knows how to survive difficult circumstances. One main thing we have learned: always be prepared for the unknown. Have something in your back pocket to pull out.”
He quoted Brian Decker, president of Decker Nursery Inc.: “COVID is the best worst thing to affect our industry.”
Tom Watson is product brands manager at the Perennial Farm, a wholesale grower of 1,000 varieties of perennials, shrubs and vines in Glen Arm.
“Like everyone, we did not know how sales would be affected. Our answer was e-commerce and online sales. People were doing more outdoors, and we were the beneficiary of that.”
Watson said Perennial Farm ships in its own trucks year round, but 10 years ago the farm started shipping via UPS in boxes, finding that more cost-effective than trucking.
When Amazon purchased Whole Foods, Perennial Farms tracked the merger and saw there was little plant material being sold. An Amazon store was developed, and Perennial Farms became a retailer. A lot of little details, such as box sizes and the best days to ship had already been worked out before early 2020.
“When the pandemic hit, online sales boomed and everything else slowed down. Thankfully we had a lot of the infrastructure figured out. Now, how to keep up with the new demand?” Jones said. More packers had to be hired, yet spaced out.”
Jones said the goal now is to keep up the new demand of people gardening more at home.
Among questions to the panel was whether Homestead sold produce during the pandemic. Riddle said it was all they could do to keep their shelves stocked with their regular products. Homestead has surplus property in Davidsonville and, in the heart of the chicken shortage, acquired 18,000 chicken breasts to sell there. It was done more to aid the community than anything, but it caused quite a traffic jam. “We fulfilled 2,000 orders in two hours,” he said.
Barton said Woodmont is hoping to have more outdoor events such as farm markets. “Snowman-making contests might not have happened without COVID-19,” she said.
Wrapping up the Zoom session, Schuster commented, “Our panelists have made a concerted effort to show how they’ve worked through this and not let themselves be victims of circumstance. Thanks for sharing what you did to make lemons into lemonade in what potentially could have been a horrible year.”