Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

N.J. flower, plant producers weather a tough economy

The economic forecasts may not be rosy. But James Durr wasn't complaining this week as he checked a field of dazzling yellow blossoms in Chesterfield, Burlington County.

In Chesterfield, N.J., James Durr of Wholesale Florist Inc. stands in a field of yaro. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
In Chesterfield, N.J., James Durr of Wholesale Florist Inc. stands in a field of yaro. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

The economic forecasts may not be rosy. But James Durr wasn't complaining this week as he checked a field of dazzling yellow blossoms in Chesterfield, Burlington County.

"We're a very big grower, and we're still selling our product," said the president of James Durr Wholesale Florist, the largest cut-flower producer in New Jersey. "You just have to be creative."

Across the Garden State, sales of floricultural crops - bedding and garden plants, as well as cut flowers - increased from $167 million in 2009 to $178 million last year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of operations with $10,000 or more in business.

New Jersey ranked eighth in the nation in sales last year, while Pennsylvania was 10th, with $162 million, about the same as 2009, the survey said. California, Florida, and Michigan ranked first through third, respectively.

The Philadelphia-South Jersey region is among the most active in the country for gardening, say experts.

"We have a wet spring: We're not too cold, not too hot," said Dominick Mondi, executive director of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association, a trade group with 350 members. "There's a lot of interest [in gardening]: We can tell that from the hundreds of thousands of people who attend the Philadelphia Flower Show each year."

Even in a slow economy, hobbyists and those eager to show off their property help the floriculture industry to thrive.

"The average consumer may have lost money in the stock market, but he still has a house and can afford to do a little landscaping," Mondi said.

"That's what got the floriculture market moving again after a flat 2009," he said. "We're moving in the right direction again, at a slow, steady rate."

Among operations with $100,000 or more in business, sales of bedding and garden plants rose from $107 million in 2009 to $110 million last year, while sales of cut flowers increased from $11.4 million to $12.4 million during the period.

"Individual accounts may actually shrink in a bad economy, so we take on new customers that we might not have taken on before," said Durr, North Hanover's deputy mayor, who cultivates 800 acres of flowers and 400 acres of vegetables. His cut-flower enterprise is one of the largest on the East Coast.

"You have to be willing to change all the time," he said.

This week, Durr checked inventory in huge, air-conditioned rooms filled with gigantic sunflowers, orange and yellow calendula, purple and lavender larkspur, and pink peonies. The peonies were for a graduation ceremony at Moorestown Friends School.

And in a nearby, sun-drenched field, with the temperature close to 100 degrees, he spoke glowingly of his feathery, fernlike yarrow, a special variety developed years ago. Surrounded by a sea of yellow, he saw green, as in greenbacks.

"I'm not sure where the general economy is going, but we're doing OK," said Durr, the son of a dairy farmer, who has been in the floriculture industry for 25 years.

In Monroeville, Gloucester County, Lucas Greenhouses saw its business increase about 4 percent in 2010 over 2009.

"Flowers make you feel better," said owner George Lucas. "When kids perform a concert, you give them flowers. Somebody's sick, you send flowers.

"Maybe in this economy, you don't take a $5,000 vacation," he said. "You stay home and buy $200 worth of flowers to decorate the house because you're in the yard more."

Lucas, who has 20 acres of greenhouses and 30 acres of field production, has provided the flowers that fill urns and hanging baskets in municipalities such as Moorestown and Maple Shade. The blooms "help the image of towns that want to take business back from the malls," he said.

This spring's business has been flat. "We may only see a 1 or 2 percent increase," Lucas said. "We're a little recession-proof."

In Mannington Township, Salem County, Jim Frey, owner of Sunset Farms, also has noticed that 2010's sales improvement has leveled off.

"I got a feeling that people are putting their money into the gas tank and not into bedding plants," he said.

Consumers' habits change with the economy, Frey said. They may choose annuals over the more expensive perennials, for example.

"They still want to make their property look good, and it only costs a few bucks," said Frey, who has been in business for 23 years and grows on 100 acres.

Two years ago, sales were much worse. "People weren't doing a lot of work on their homes," Mondi said. "It was one of the worst years since the early 1990s. Some said it was the worst year ever.

"It was tied to the housing-market slump," he said. "It hurt landscape contractors and garden-center retail outlets."

For farmers, the economy is one more challenge on a long list. "Everything is out to get you," Frey said. "There are weeds, insects, fungi, rust, and violent weather like hail that can destroy a crop. This is not a hobby."

Despite the hurdles, New Jersey remains a major producer of bedding plants, said State Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher, who recently visited Timothy's Center for Gardening in Robbinsville, Mercer County, to promote the floriculture industry.

"By purchasing the plants grown here in the Garden State, consumers are ensured the plants are acclimated to our climate to grow and thrive. The purchase also helps support our state's farmers."

Farms across the region grow marigolds, geraniums, pansies, petunias, impatiens, chrysanthemums, hostas, lilies, poinsettias, and a host of other flowering plants.

And though the economy does not always cooperate, those in the floriculture industry remain optimistic. "So far so good," said Durr.