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Published in Food/Agribusiness

Garden centers, greenhouses focus on survival amid COVID-19 shutdown

BY Sunday, April 19, 2020 03:12pm

Like most non-essential businesses in the state, many garden centers and greenhouses in West Michigan have been forced to close as part of continuing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

As the spring planting season draws nearer, tensions between the “green industry” advocates and the state have grown increasingly bitter. 

An extended executive order enacted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this month closed greenhouses, garden centers and landscaping departments until at least April 30. Demonstrators from across the state drove thousands of personal and commercial vehicles to the Capitol on Wednesday to protest the order, which is intended to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus and prevent hospitals in the state from becoming overwhelmed with patients. 

The expanded order has sowed confusion among greenhouse owners and growers, many of whom are worried their livelihoods could be at stake if the state’s shutdown continues further into the season, according to Ernie Birchmeier, manager of commodity, farm and industry relations at the Michigan Farm Bureau.

While the governor is now requiring that stores larger than 50,000 square feet block some departments that are dedicated to gardening and home improvement, these stores and smaller operations can still sell supplies online and by other means that don’t require in-person contact, according to the state.

However, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development told the Michigan Farm Bureau that the governor’s order bans the sale of all plants that are not distributed to wholesalers or shipped out of state, Birchmeier said. He said some stores have already been cited for operating outside of the law. The fines for violating the order are $1,000 and the enforcement is being handled by local authorities.

The Farm Bureau has asked the state government to clarify the rules but has not received a response, according to Birchmeier. 

Still, some operators say the order was clear that they had to shut down their businesses. 

“I didn’t have a problem figuring it out that we needed to close,” said Dale Buist, president of Allendale-based Countryside Greenhouse and Farm Market LLC

Buist shut down Countryside’s retail market, which includes 8 acres of indoor poly-covered space and 2 acres of semi-outdoor shade cloth-covered space, and stopped curbside sales and home deliveries. 

The company also canceled a $4 million expansion that had already begun and was scheduled to be completed later this year. 

A staff of about 35 employees is needed to keep operations running smoothly in the company’s two production spaces, but Countryside has already lost perishable inventory and delayed further planting — losses that will extend further into the season, Buist said. 

In a normal spring, Countryside would employ about 100 workers in April and hire more throughout the season, reaching a peak of more than 200 people running the operation. Buist is already expecting to decrease hiring to about 100 or 150 people in peak season, even if the shutdown is lifted on May 1. 

“The normal that we once knew will never exist again,” Buist said. 

Countryside, which has been operated by Buist for 38 years, usually generates about 10 percent of its total revenue in April, according to Buist. 

In Michigan, tender plants that are started inside greenhouses aren’t safe to transplant into the ground until mid-May, after the threat of frost is passed. Shutting down plant sales for the month of April is a big hit to the businesses, but the effect is small in comparison to a possible extension into May — the month in which Countryside usually makes 70 percent of its total revenues for the year, according to Buist. 

Spring is a critical time for all nurseries, greenhouses and landscape companies, according to the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA). 

The organization says more functions within the industry — including mowing, pruning, and controlling weeds and treatments that control disease-spreading pests like ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes — should be considered essential under the governor’s executive order. Any halt or delay in our services during this time of year only magnifies potential safety problems and makes greenspaces much more difficult to maintain later in the year, according to a statement. 

If growers miss this primary window to sell plant products, including many that are perishable, many businesses and employees could face an entire year without income, according to MNLA. 

The majority of the businesses are family-owned and many are multi-generational. While Buist said he can survive the challenges the year will bring, he fears many of his peers cannot. 

“It’s not going to be about profit this year,” Buist said. “We’re going to focus on surviving to live another year.” 

Countryside is preparing to reopen by focusing on what the company can do to help customers feel safe when they return, according to Buist. The aisles in the retail space, which are already 7 to 12 feet wide, have been cleared of displays to allow for social distancing. Employees will be required to wear facemasks for the foreseeable future and sanitize public spaces regularly. New plastic dividers have been installed in the check-out areas of the market. 

“You have to be willing to adapt,” Buist said. “There’s always a lesson to be learned that will make you a better person.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Friday, the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association joined lawn care companies in a federal lawsuit seeking an emergency injunction against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order.

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