Willowbrook's John Langendoen next to a fraction of his largely idled fleet. The company's sales are down some 70 percent over last year. DAVE BURKET

COVID-19 shutdown hits producers at worst possible time

While cannabis gets all the attention for good or ill, the greenhouse industry in Pelham is anchored in 2.7 million square feet of greenhouses growing ornamental and food plants. And they have been hit hard by the current pandemic.

Most are reporting sales down by 50 to 80 percent due to the closure of garden centres which sell their plants. While they have been designated an essential industry and can remain open to plant, water, and care for their plants, they have few options to sell what they produce. Through several greenhouse organizations, they are actively lobbying the Ontario government to reopen garden centres.

How big is the greenhouse industry in Pelham? According to the Pelham Greenhouse Growers Group (PGGG) which represents 11 of the biggest operations, greenhouses and field nurseries are a major economic driver, with $42.5 million in sales and a payroll of $10.5 million. What hurts them hurts everyone in Pelham. They employ 135 full-time workers (64 of whom live in Pelham) and 205 part-time and offshore workers.

John Langendoen, of Willowbrook Nursery on Victoria Ave., estimates his business is down about 70 percent from normal springtime sales. His workers were given the option of staying at home or continuing to come in to work, and several staff who are vulnerable or who have family members with compromising conditions chose to stay home, leaving the workforce at about two thirds of normal, with half of the company’s normal intake of some 100 offshore workers.

Willowbrook grows wholesale shrubs and evergreens for stores like Canadian Tire, Home Depot, and Sobeys, with customers across Canada and some business in the U.S. Langendoen points out that garden centres in almost every other province have been allowed to open, and says he is on conference calls every day with his counterparts to lobby the Ontario government to place garden centres on the “essential” list.

On a much smaller scale, Jason Wierenga, of Fern Fascination on Balfour St., estimates his business is down 40 percent for this time of year, but acknowledges he is lucky since his business is not dependent on the two biggest days of the year for plant producers: Easter and Mother’s Day. Still, most of his business is concentrated in May and June, and garden centres like Canadian Tire are his main customers, so he has tried to cut back and open up new, non-traditional outlets for his ferns. Some local businesses that have remained open like DeVries Fruit Farm in Fenwick have agreed to sell Wierenga’s hanging baskets, but they can’t move the volumes that his business depends on.

Elbert Groeneveld, of Greenfield Gardens, says that he has to make daily decisions about whether or not to plant his bedding plants.

“Do I plant today and hope to sell in two weeks? Do I invest the time and labour and materials now and then throw it all away if I can’t move it? It’s cheaper not to plant at all!”

Do I plant today and hope to sell in two weeks? Do I invest the time and labour and materials now and then throw it all away if I can’t move it? It’s cheaper not to plant at all!

Selling a perishable product like bedding plants puts Groeneveld under pressure, especially during May and June when he does 80 percent of his business. At present, he has seven offshore workers and is actually trying to hire some local labour (he had four interviews set up last week and not one candidate showed up) but admits that he may have to lay them off within weeks if retail garden centres remain closed during his busiest period. In the meantime, he has a wagon at the front of his Balfour Street operation selling flowers curbside.

Ed Slappendel, of Slappendel Greenhouses on Maple Street, estimates that he is doing about 30 percent of the business he did last year at this time. Selling mostly tropical plants, which are in demand year-round, he still notes that about half of his business takes place in the spring. He has tried to cut back his bedding plant operation and has reduced his staff by half, but still has had to plant a large volume in the hope that garden centres will reopen—yet, like Elbert Groeneveld, Slappendel may have to simply dump the plants if they can’t be sold.

With 95 percent of his gerbera production going to wholesalers who sell to the U.S. and Canadian garden centres, Will Van Vliet is scrambling to find new outlets for his products.

“I’m beating Facebook and Instagram to death,” he says, and trying to sell the gerberas and his strawberries out the door of his Highway 20 greenhouse. Diversification has paid off for Van Vliet since he began selling year-round greenhouse-grown strawberries several years ago. Strawberry sales are up at grocery stores like Pupo’s and specialty retailers in Toronto, though they can’t compensate for the devastating decline in his staple gerberas…and Mother’s Day produces his biggest sales.

United Floral Distributors is another major player in the local greenhouse industry, their trucks taking the produce from local producers to markets across North America. Owner Al Elmers estimates their business is down about 65 percent and they have reduced their employees from a peak of about 150 to half that. Some took voluntary leave, while others were uncomfortable continuing to come in to work so were laid off. Elmers says that any who want to return when normal business resumes will be welcomed back.

With his finger on the pulse of the process of shipping plants to market, Elmers has noticed that it is the potted plant growers who are hardest hit, since about 80 percent of their product goes to the U.S. Still, he notes that there are areas far worse hit than Niagara. Most carnations and roses are imported from growers in South America and their business has completely dried up— some have already closed permanently.

Elmers has praise for Canada’s politicians.

“They have never been in this position before. It’s 101 for them and they are doing everything they can,” and notes that the spirit of cooperation between provincial and federal governments is a welcome change.

John Langendoen of Willowbrook Nursery advocates for his industry at the local and provincial level. He maintains that “staying at home to stop the community spread of COVID-19 is showing to be effective. However staying at home does not equate to having to stay inside. Getting outside, into your own yard and gardening can be done safely without interactions with others from outside your home.”

He points out that gardening is proven to be an effective activity to lessen mental stress, and gardening not only beautifies the home but can provide home produced food.

“Ontario nurseries not only grow trees and shrubs,” he says, “but also many of the starter plants, vegetable plants, fruit bushes that contribute to an aesthetic and functional food-based garden.”

Langendoen says that he has been through tough times before, especially in 2008 and 2009, so to some extent his Willowbrook Nursery was better prepared for the current crisis and able to act quickly by cancelling orders and reducing production.

“I am a person of faith,” he says, “And that is what is carrying me through these unprecedented times. Doesn’t mean I don’t have stress and I don’t always get a good night’s sleep, but it does give me encouragement to keep on plugging away during this crisis.”

Meanwhile, the owner of the business is pitching in by mopping floors and taking out the garbage.