Green Thumbed Growers

October 14, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although farms in Kent County got fewer and smaller than those in the rest of the state did, the county’s farmers and growers as a group did better financially over a recent five-year period than most of their counterparts did across Michigan.

About eight times better.

According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture compiled by the USDA, the total market value for crops grown in the county rose from $129 million to just under $150 million — a rise of nearly 16 percent from 1997 to 2002.

In contrast, that five-year figure grew by only 2 percent for all farms in the state.

In addition, the census showed the average market value for each farm in the county rose from $96,159 to $123,490 for a gain of more than 28 percent over those years.

The state per-farm average only inched up by 2.5 percent. (See related chart.)

The census showed that the county’s crop value was second in the state, while the total value of agricultural products sold was fifth statewide.

So what fueled the local market gains? In part, nurseries and greenhouses did.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint specifics in sales, as these reports are voluntary, Tom Dudek told the Business Journal that nurseries and greenhouses accounted for a large part, if not a significant portion, of the sales increase over the past five years.

“Actually the greenhouses make up the largest dollar industry in the county. We have some fairly big players in this industry that serve the major chains,” said Dudek, district horticulture and marketing agent with the MSU Extension Service.

The census also showed that sales made by Kent County nurseries and greenhouses in 2002 were worth $65.4 million, accounting for roughly half of the total sales figure.

Listed as a commodity group by the USDA, nurseries and greenhouses were ranked third for market value in the state and 39 the in the nation. The industry employs about 400 on a full-time basis and another 1,000 part-timers throughout the county.

Dudek said the local industry has been growing for the past two decades. It started when a small group of Dutch farmers began growing vegetables, and later blossomed into the flower business. By the early 1960s, employees left these businesses to start their own and before long many were involved in growing holiday potted flowers and selling lilies at Easter and poinsettias at Christmas.

Today, local growers still sell both in large quantities with their volume either second or third highest in the state. But now many get much of their revenue from spring garden plants. They sell to stores, like Meijer and Wal-Mart, directly to consumers, and, because of the recent construction boom, also to commercial customers.

“These are big businesses with a large volume. They became very successful at that,” said Dudek, whose territory covers five counties in West Michigan.

Most are wholesalers, but there are some small and medium-sized retailers.

A number of spin-off businesses have developed from the success that nurseries and greenhouses have had. These serve the industry with hard goods such as planting pots, furnaces, greenhouse structures, vegetative materials and rooted cuttings. Much of what is sold today comes from the rooted cutting of a plant instead of seeds.

But the industry has also been responsible for generating service businesses like storage warehouses, landscapers and lawn-care companies.

Dudek sees the future as remaining bright for the industry. Greenhouse and nursery owners will still face many of the problems that almost every manufacturer does: rising costs for fuel and natural gas and demands for price reductions from large clients.

“But the demand curve is still there,” he said.

Dudek also said that it would help sales if growers could get some better spring weather. He said growers need six to eight weeks of sunshine in April, May and early June, but they haven’t received nearly that much the past few years. In fact, the last three Mays have been among the wettest in local history.

As for other crops in 2002 across the county, the census reported that the market value of vegetables, melons, potatoes and sweet potatoes were third in the state, as were those for fruits, tree nuts and berries. Milk and other dairy products were eighth, while other animals and other animal products were ninth statewide.

The apples produced in Kent County were tops in the state, while corn was eighth.

In livestock, the county ranked fourth statewide in horses and ponies; sixth in turkeys; and seventh in cattle and calves.

In all, the 2002 census ranked county farmers and growers among the top 10 in Michigan 11 times.

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