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Sonoma County nursery wholesalers navigate challenges of pandemic, drought

Neve Bros., one of North Bay’s largest wholesaler of cut flowers, has experienced a roller coaster of supply chain challenges in managing its Petaluma business over the pandemic from its 120-acre farm.

As the coronavirus struck in March 2020, there was the immediate drop in supply as an estimated 80% of the nation’s cut flowers are imported with most coming from Columbia. But demand stayed the same as customers wanted to send them for celebrations that they couldn’t attend, said Chris Neve, who handles sales for his family-owned company.

The result: More local business for the Neves.

Sales levels returned closer-to-normal in 2021, but last summer, a nationwide rose shortage appeared just as in-person weddings were getting back into gear. That also took place amid a continuing decrease of larger wholesalers of cut flowers in the state to supply grocers and florists.

Optimistic for the new year

Neve said he is optimistic for the new year ― even though the specter of inflation is another concern ― noting his family business increased its greenhouse space where it primarily focuses growing on roses.

“Every year, we try to build up a little bit more. We feel that if your quality is good and you’re carrying a good product, business in the end will always take care of itself,” he said.

The experience Neve went through is similar to others in the local nursery wholesalers industry. They grow and sell such products as ornamentals, bedding plants, cut flowers and even Christmas trees to regional retailers and landscapers. Many of the businesses have been around decades and have been able to survive, thanks to a loyal clientele.

In 2020, the cash value of such products was $46.5 million in Sonoma County, which was a decrease of $6.5 million from 2019, according to the county agriculture department.

That figure from last year represents more than 6% of the overall dollar value of all crops within Sonoma County. California leads the nation in nursery and floriculture production at around $5.5 billion for both crops in 2019 with San Diego County at the top with 28% of the state total.

The local value for 2021 will not be available until later in 2022.

The overall decrease from 2019 to 2020 in the county was mostly the result in a decline of sale of miscellaneous nursery products for commercial, most notably grapevines, said Commissioner Andrew Smith.

The local industry has benefited during the pandemic with more people working from home and as a result, deciding to focus more on homebound activities, such as gardening and landscaping. There were 306,986 bedding plants sold to retailers in 2020 ― a 26% increase in production ― that represented $7.7 million in value.

“Those kind of production nurseries that supply a lot of bedding plants, perennials and annuals to gardens centers and retail outlets … they did a lot of sales,” Smith said.

Those sales numbers have reverted to more normal numbers in the past year as vaccination rates picked up and people decided to spend money on other pursuits, such as travel, said Arifah Jenkins, a wholesale buyer at Emerisa Nursery in Santa Rosa.

“2021 started out the same way with the idea with people working from home,” Jenkins said. “Then, travel picked up a bit.”

However, there is still interest in certain products, especially vegetable gardens, Jenkins said.

The other big trend besides more housebound customers has been the greater demand for plants that need less water to be maintained given that California is in the grip of another drought status despite recent rains.

California native plants popular

“That is something we’ve pretty much carried anyway as far as Mediterranean-style plantings, which are good for drought-tolerant (conditions),” she said. In addition, California native plants have made a comeback among Bay Area buyers, as well as succulents and drought-tolerant grasses.

Designers also are coming up with new ecologically minded landscapes.

“There has been an increase in a couple of other smaller companies locally doing living roofs,” she added.

Those can be seen locally at the Amy’s Drive-Thru in Rohnert Park, which features perennial plants on top of the roof of the restaurant along with nearby solar panels and a water tower to collect rain runoff.

Gaddis Nursery in Santa Rosa is another prominent player that’s experienced the trend toward more environmentally friendly gardening and planting.

The drought did affect sales last year, and the nursery is expecting revenue in 2022 to more resemble that of 2019, said James Gaddis, co-owner of his family’s nursery.

“When people think drought-tolerant, they think of cactus, but there is a lot of variety out there to have a beautiful, landscaped yard,” he said.

Top sellers include such bedding plants as primrose and petunias, as well as such newer entrants as New Guinea impatiens.

“I’m personally really stoked for this year and the quality we will produce this year,” Gaddis said.

The local industry also benefits from the large number of wineries in the area that want to cater to tourists, which provides another source of sales for such businesses as Sweet Lane Wholesale Nursery. The Santa Rosa nursery has found a niche in large plants and trees that are already housed in box containers.

The company pitches itself as the largest provider of colorful Japanese Maples in the Bay Area.

“Our market is really the high-end homeowner and wineries,” said Ed Grossi, owner of Sweet Lane. “They tend to ride out difficult times a little bit better.”

Sweet Lane has been in business for 21 years, which makes it one of the newer entrants in the local area. Most of the wholesalers that are still operating have established a loyal clientele built over decades, which is key to be sustainable for the long term, he said.

“You have to get into it for a long time. You can’t just get in and out. It took us years to build up our clientele. We are still building it,” Grossi said.

“The fact we are one of the newer ones, and we have been here over 20 years is pretty amazing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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