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“The floriculture sector was hit the hardest”

COVID-19 restrictions have hobbled flower and plant sellers during their busiest season. Some Canadian flower farmers had to grapple with the unimaginable: throwing heaps of flowers and months of work away as COVID-19 restrictions leaded to an unprecedented drop in sales at a time when business should be booming.

GGarden centres are now allowed to be open in Ontario and they will try to recover from the COVID-19 impact. Ornamental horticulture is the ninth largest agriculture sector in Canada and the sixth largest in Ontario. The latest 2018 data shows that the sector generated $2.3 billion in farmgate sales across Canada and revealed that 26,423 people were directly employed in the production of ornamental products, according Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Pre-COVID-19 over 80,000 people were employed in Ontario horticulture in the private sector alone. Landscape Ontario Horticultural Trades Association represents more than 2,000 garden retailers and family-run growers, and Tony Digiovanni, the Executive Director of over 2,600-member companies of Landscape Ontario, shared some thoughts about the COVID-19 in the sector that is trying to recover with new guidelines.

Milénio Stadium: The Ontario government’s first tentative steps toward reopening the economy involved releasing a short list of largely seasonal businesses cleared to resume operations. While landscaping and lawn maintenance companies got the green light to offer full service, garden centres were cleared only to offer curbside pickup or delivery. Do you think that garden centres should have been classified as essential?

Tony Digiovanni: The entire industry has received the green light to go ahead including the Garden Centres. This was excellent news for the profession that was set to lose millions of dollars of plants that were already grown for the spring.  Had we not been able to sell the plants it would have led to the demise of many multi-generational farms.  The Garden Centre industry does most of their business in a 12 weeks period in the spring.   

Since the announcement, the profession is thrilled, elated and thankful. Many are finding it difficult to keep up with the demand. Since most people are stuck at home, they are adorning their homes with gardens and plants. It provides them with exercise and an outlet for stress.  Watching plants grow is very therapeutic and full of hope. Many are also trying vegetable gardening for the first time. The public is also thankful that garden centres are open. 

It is important to thank the garden communicators especially Mark Cullen and Frank Ferragine for their awesome work in raising awareness for the importance of gardens and gardening and the plight of growers if the profession was not allowed to operate.    

MS: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dedicated $252 million in federal aid for the agri-food industry on May, in order to help struggling producers and sustain the country’s food system during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some of stock is already wasted. Will this be enough to save the sector?

TD: The floriculture sector was hit the hardest because crops they were preparing for Easter could not be sold. The nurseries lost significant April sales. Being allowed to open has resulted in pent up demand. This coupled with the fact that homeowners are turning to gardening for exercise and mental health therapy has gone a long way in reducing the economic impact of the loss of April sales. Hopefully they will recover. This is especially true if the season lasts longer than expected.   

MS: What is the feedback that you received from members about the new health and safety guidelines for workplaces during COVID-19?

TD: Members are very thankful that they are allowed to work. They realize that many sectors are devastated, and they are not taking this privilege lightly. They are following guidelines put out by the government. The association is reinforcing the safety message on a regular basis. We are trying to get members to think of themselves as safety companies that happen to be practicing horticulture.      

MS: Some people are planting bigger gardens this year and ordering seeds in advance for next year because they’re concerned there could be a food shortage. Do the stores have stock to keep up with the increase in demand?

TD: The demand for food gardening has caused shortages of some seed and plants.   However, the industry is trying to ramp up supply as much as possible. What is needed however is knowledge. Many new time gardeners have no idea what to do with their seeds and plants.   This is where the garden communicators are doing an awesome job at teaching the public the skills they need for success. They are also providing inspiration.   

Mark Cullen a gardening expert.

Mark Cullen, a gardening expert, best-selling author  with 18 books  on gardening to his credit,  anticipate a bright future to this sector.

MS: As a Canada’s “gardening guru”, what are the benefits of having a garden in your home and do you consider that Canadians will have more gardens from now one thanks to pandemic?

Mark Cullen: With the dramatically ramped up interest in gardening and in particular food gardening it is hard to imagine this not having a long term, positive impact on our profession.

Firstly, a new gardener who experiences the success for growing their own food will enjoy a level of food security that only gardeners can. This will bring more enthusiasm and a higher level of consumer knowledge to the market in future years.

Second, the desire for information will span new opportunities for existing garden communicators and room for new ones also.

Third, if we view 2020 as the year that many Canadians tickled the hobby of gardening with a modicum of interest, the future indeed looks bright as growers and retailers ramp up to meet new demand in 2021.

Joana Leal/MS

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