In today’s world, every business must compete for customers’ attention. People are over-stimulated and easily distracted with cluttered advertising on their digital devices on television and in print. Business owners are forced to find unique methods for capturing and maintain a customer’s attention.
Greenhouse growers typically have a short time frame to capture a customer’s attention and entice time to shop. At the end of the season, many greenhouses shut down and are absent from the customer’s mind until the next year.
One way a greenhouse grower can distinguish themselves from the competition is through extending the growing season and offering products during the “off season.” Expanding the season to include additional crops keeps your business in the public eye and top-of-mind for a longer period of time through the year.
Growing crops in the “off season” offers other benefits as well. Keeping bench spaces full spreads operating expenses over multiple months. Some expenses, such as insurance, exist regardless of whether your business is open three, six or nine months a year. Planning crops that can thrive in the “off season” also provides consistent revenue throughout the year.
“Off season” crops can also positively impact employees. Increasingly, individuals are seeking permanent employment and are unavailable for temporary or seasonal work. “A longer season allows greenhouse growers to retain employees for consistency with staff. Retaining staff reduces the need for retraining and builds loyalty,” said Steven E. Newman, Ph.D., A.A.F. greenhouse crops extension specialist at Colorado State University.
Newman provides suggestions for crops to consider in the “off season,” the challenges you need to prepare for and tips for getting started.
Crops for the off season
Mixed containers are a staple item among greenhouse growers during peak flower season. But, they can be equally important after the traditional sales window ends. Newman recommends always having a few large mixed containers ready to sell. Customers may be hosting an event at their home or at an offsite location and want to have fresh plants to decorate with.
When available later in the season, mixed containers allows customers to fill in spots around their landscape or add a new splash of color after a previously planted flower dies back. “But you have to make sure your clients know that you have them available,” he said.
Another “off season” crop to consider is a variety of herbs and greens. Mixed herbs and greens are popular with customers. “Mixed herbs or greens for “kitchen” containers for late summer barbecues can be popular as well,” he said.
Edible crops may be another alternative for growers considering “off season” crops. Increased interest in farm-fresh and local produce means this market can be strong. Greenhouse growers are well positioned to raise indoor vegetable plants. They already understand how to raise/manage plants and in many cases have experience growing field crops at one time or another. New vegetable cultivars are designed to have shallower root systems making them a good fit for greenhouse production, and vegetables are always in demand. Food crops are subject to regulations outlined in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Take the time to review and understand the regulations before going to market.
Most importantly, customers need a reason to shop at your greenhouse. Understand what competition may exist in the marketplace and think about your niche. “Customers are looking for something different and unique,” he said.
Challenges with new crops
Before adding any new crop to your greenhouse, consider the challenges that may arise. There is a good chance that the pests and diseases that impact annual flowers will be different from those pressures that affect vegetable or herb crops.
“You may experience unexpected or unique pest and disease outbreaks,” Newman said.
For example, Newman explains that late summer greenhouse conditions could be hot and dry, and ideal environment for mites. On the other hand, cool early winter greenhouses could lead to mildews a grower may not expect.
Pest and disease pressures can vary geographically. Newman suggests reading trade journals and listening to plant and pesticide suppliers for the best advice on how to prevent and manage outbreaks. “Vigilantly scout for pests and disease so you know what is going on in your greenhouse,” he said.
Manage different temperature and humidity environments may also be a learning curve. Additional fans, shade tarps or alternative ventilation is needed in warmer months. Conversely, increased heat during cooler, fall or winter months is essential.
“Learning how to deal with different challenges with heating and cooling systems is necessary,” he said.
Outside of the growing environment, competition from other growers may present challenges. Don’t limit your crop choices based on what the competition is selling, but do consider where your offering will fit into the larger picture. “Other outlets may be competing for customer spending,” he said.
Tips for getting started
Don’t be discouraged by challenges. Consider the challenges to be new opportunities that can significantly increase your revenue. For successful entry into a new crop, Newman recommends the following tips.
Start small. Rather than planting a full greenhouse with a new crop, try a smaller sampling so that it if doesn’t go over well, you significant space or financial resources aren’t’ impacted.
Interview your markets. Ask customers what types of crops they would consider purchasing from you outside of the traditional sales window. Seek out their advice on what times of year they might be looking for fresh plants and what types of plants they would buy.
Research the market. Gather information on what price the local market will bear. If you choose to raise edible crops, visit the grocery store and compare prices. Observe what other producers are charging for their crops. This doesn’t necessarily mean your prices have to be the same. If you’re using a different growing technique and can market your product with these benefits, there can be room to also charge more. For example, if you can raise them organically, those products will sell for a higher price.
Consider unique sales venues. Look for different methods to sell your product. Tap into fund raising groups to do your sales for you. Provide educational programs to bring your clientele to your business. Establish regular contracts. such as supplying product to commercial sites or offices.
There is opportunity for and profit in growing crops other than annuals outside the traditional growing season. The key to success is thinking outside the box and trying crops that are a good fit for your marketplace. Interacting with customers and asking for their input is critical in making the effort a success. And, when done well, the customers will feel valued becoming a loyal shopper at your greenhouse, ultimately boosting the bottom line.