Greenhouses thriving in COVID-19 era


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Eric Smith and Cori Pinchard of Majestic Farms Greenhouse saw their business grow during the pandemic, as did many greenhouses in the area and nationwide.

Cori Pinchard and Eric Smith weren’t quite sure what was going to happen with their greenhouse business, Majestic Farms Greenhouse, around this time last year. Shortly after the state issued a shut down order closing most non-essential businesses, where exactly greenhouses stood wasn’t entirely clear. 

    City Pages spoke to many of the greenhouse businesses at the time, and nearly everyone was scrambling to figure out whether they could open, and how. 

    Pinchard and Smith, who owned Majestic since 2018 when they bought the Hatley-area business that had been around for 26 years before that, weren’t sure about the landscaping side of it either. Frankly, it was pretty challenging to get good information on what was, and wasn’t, essential.

    “First we weren’t considered essential, then we were,” Smith told City Pages. “I was heading out to work on a woman’s apple orchard and I wasn’t sure if it was OK. Then that day they said arborists were OK.” 

    But what started as a lot of confusion turned into a boom for the gardening and greenhouse industry. Industry reports showed the gardening and greenhouse sector in the U.S. exploded by 8%. With so many people sheltering in place without the many activities and obligations that normally fill their lives, plenty of people had time to work on that place — and that included their gardens. 

    That was the case for Majestic, though it turned out to be a somewhat delayed reaction, according to Pinchard. “We’re kind of like a hidden gem,” Pinchard says. “We’re not really well known in the Wausau area. But a lot of other greenhouses in the area were sold out right away in the season, so we ended up getting a lot of traffic toward early and mid-May. A lot of people were saying “oh my gosh, your stuff is gorgeous, I’m coming here first next year.’” 

    That’s expected to carry over to this year. While folks are now getting vaccinated as the state plan heads into its phase that allows for anyone over the age of 16 to get vaccinated, it’ll be a bit before most of the general populace is vaccinated enough to reach herd immunity and regular activity resumes. 

    So, at least in theory, there should still be plenty of time to garden. And that should mean greenhouses will still be in hot demand this year. 

By the numbers 


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Kent Spiegel of Rib Mountain Greenhouse. His and many others thrived during the pandemic as folks wanted to get outside and beautify their home spaces.

It’s clear now that COVID-19 sparked a boom in the early months of the pandemic for gardening-related business. While many industries saw double-digit percentage losses, garden-related businesses (along with building material supplies) saw an increase of 8.6%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s monthly retail trade survey conducted last June.

That rise is one of the largest in recent history for the gardening industry. The sector had typically seen about 5% growth since 2014, so the 8.6% is a big increase for the gardening industry. Year over years sales at those retail locations increased 10.8% in May 2020 compared to that period of time the previous year.

Rib Mountain Greenhouse definitely saw that growth, says owner Kent Spiegel. “We had a really good spring,” Spiegel says. “So many people couldn’t travel, and were cooped up for safety concerns.” 

That left a lot of time for gardening. Even if they couldn’t do it in quite the same way — Rib Mountain like many started taking call-in orders — gardening seemed to many like a great activity to fill time during the pandemic lockdown. It gets someone outside, working their hands into the dirt. The previous horticulture educator at UW-Extension spoke with City Pages a couple of years ago about the role of gardening as a form of therapy. The onset of the pandemic created an even greater need for that therapy. 

Last year the pandemic’s onset not only meant new ways of doing things, but also explaining those new ways of doing things to customers. “There were a lot of phone orders, people calling ahead and asking ‘OK, how do we do this?’” Speigel says. 

Before the season, the pandemic caused a bit of a panic. Greenhouses start their processes earlier than people might think. Spiegel says that his process for opening the greenhouse starts in November, which means quite a bit of planning ahead and making forecasts for how sales will be, for instance. 

So the fact that the pandemic turned into a boon for greenhouses was a bit of relief to many owners. Many felt a little sheepish saying so, since of course no one wants to be happy about the coronavirus. 

Hsu’s Growing Supply saw a similar growth during the pandemic. Hsu’s Garden Supply Sales Manager Deb Shaw told City Pages that they saw plenty of new gardeners coming to the supply store, asking advice over the phone, and looking to get into growing. 

So what were the new gardeners most interested in growing? Food, Shaw says. Many other greenhouse owners said something similar. In the early days of the pandemic, food shortages were really common, along with supplies like toilet paper. And increased interest in self-sustainability rose as a result, and growing one’s own food is definitely one way to do that. Thoreau might have had the last laugh after all.

But it was also about improving one’s personal space, since now many folks were spending a lot of time at home, Shaw says. 

Micki Luebbe of Down to Earth Greenhouse says they saw the same run on vegetables and fruit trees. “Anything that produced any kind of fruit or vegetable was gone within a couple of weeks,” Luebbe told City Pages.

In addition, Luebbe says there was a lot of demand for house plants, and while that’s not their greenhouse’s main focus, they did order some ferns that can work inside and also doubled the order of succulents. 

Like many garden businesses, it meant Hsu’s employees retooled. They developed a walk-up window and also took many orders over the phone. But it also meant less time with customers face to face, something Hsu’s employees are looking forward to restoring one day. Many educational events Hsu’s had scheduled had to be canceled, for instance, though some of those will be returning this year. A fruit tree pruning workshop is slated for May 6, for instance. 

A possible snag 

This year could be interesting from a supply standpoint, Luebbe points out. Luebbe follows a Facebook group of southern growers and follows the markets in places such as Texas and Florida pretty closely to keep an eye on trends, since they start their season as early as January. 

    The winter storms that hit Texas recently wrought havoc on plant suppliers down there, and that led to many growers in the south looking to places up north, including Wisconsin, to fulfill their orders. That means supplies in general might be in short supply when Wisconsin gardeners are looking for them. 

    Luebbe says they grow most of their own plants on site from plugs but also go out for trees and shrub starters. They’re set for round one of the growing season, and Down to Earth Greenhouse is already open for the season. But the shortages likely mean there might not be much chance to resupply. 

    “We really planted a lot of extra vegetables this year,” Luebbe says. They’re also planning ahead by having perennials for later in the season. 

A promising season  

That’s one of the things Hsu’s staff is looking forward to this year, Shaw says. Educational events are slowly starting to come back on the schedule. That’s especially important in order to work with new gardeners, who might need advice on getting started. 

    Smith of Majestic Farms Greenhouse echoed those sentiments. The greenhouse held one event last year before COVID put the kibosh on gatherings, and it’s something Smith and Pinchard are looking forward to holding again. 

    Although person-to-person interaction is important — Pinchard told City Pages that many of their customers were just delighted to see people again — some of the changes from the pandemic will stay in place in many greenhouse businesses. Like many industries, online ordering became more prevalent as the pandemic created a need for socially distanced ordering methods. And many customers might be used to using the phone for orders instead of coming in person, and when they do arrive, picking up their items from their car rather than wandering through a greenhouse. 

    Still, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a greenhouse. Taking a brief walk through Rib Mountain Greenhouse on a Friday afternoon, the fresh verdant smell of the plants filling my nostrils, was a reminder of what an online ordering system couldn’t replace. A tactile experience of discovery, finding a new plant you hadn’t known about, or just enjoying the feeling of being surrounded by so much greenery. 

    Spiegel says he will still be encouraging masks if people want to wear them, but the large greenhouse is well ventilated and should be safe. And with many people becoming vaccinated, more people will undoubtedly feel comfortable coming to a greenhouse again. 

    That’s an advantage for Majestic Farms Greenhouse too, Smith says. Theirs is a little different than Rib Mountain Greenhouse — a series of five greenhouses adorn the rural property, with the first original adorned with a 7Up sign from the 1960s. Last year they limited each greenhouse to two customers at a time, and everyone seemed to follow it without even being told. “I’m not sure we even needed to post the sign,” Smith says. 

They’re assuming people will be similarly respectful this season.