Poinsettia growers try to gauge an uncertain market

Issue Date: June 24, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
As they begin to grow poinsettias for the holiday season, nursery operators have to weigh how the pandemic may affect sales several months from now.
Photo/Fred Greaves

With six months to go until Christmas, nursery growers are looking at a world much different from the one in which they placed their orders for poinsettia cuttings.

"That's why people in the nursery industry don't go to the casinos a lot," producer Bill Eisley of Auburn said. "We gamble every day."

The COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in shelter-in-place orders in mid-March was nowhere on Eisley's radar when he placed his annual order for poinsettia cuttings in January.

"We don't know what's going to happen," he said. "The poinsettias are ordered. I'm still going to plant them."

One Central Valley grower has already made the decision to sit out the 2020 season. Duarte Nursery in Hughson announced the news on its website in late spring.

"Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty that comes with it, we have made this decision to keep our customers and employees safe," the announcement read.

The nursery said poinsettia growing is led by its co-founder Anita Duarte, who handles variety selection and arrangements. Duarte, 85, has been staying home to protect her health, "which played a huge part in the decision to cancel poinsettias this year," the nursery said, adding that it typically receives its cuttings in May.

Allan Nishita, who runs Sacramento wholesaler Flora Fresh, said he ordered about the same number of poinsettias as last year when he made his decisions in January. Most of the poinsettias leaving his coolers are destined for florists, retailers and churches, Nishita said, noting that most production now is sold through grocery and big-box stores.

Nishita already has endured a turbulent cut-flower market this year because of the pandemic, at one point giving away flowers after the shelter-in-place directive led to cancellations of events and their flower orders.

"If they shut things down, then I'm kind of in the same boat again," he said. "It all kind of depends where this pandemic is. But I have heard some of the growers are not going to grow because of that. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

Taking an optimistic approach, one Southern California-based producer is betting the recent popularity of nursery crops will carry over into poinsettia sales during the holiday season.

"We're actually anticipating really strong sales," said Erin McCarthy, vice president of sales at Vista-based Altman Plants. "We're forecasting to fill all of our facilities to capacity."

Altman's main customers are grocery and big-box stores, she noted, and "in talking with all of them, they're forecasting a really strong sales year."

McCarthy said the pandemic's effects led to the forecast.

"There's a lot of thought that there won't be as much Christmas travel or Christmas parties or going to Christmas events, and that people will stay home and enjoy their homes more, and decorate more," she said.

At Altman Plants, poinsettia planting typically starts in January, with production in Monterey and San Diego counties, and the nursery works with customers on the scope of their programs. Final decisions for the 2020 season weren't made until late May, McCarthy said.

"Some of that had to do with the COVID, because in early March it was like, 'Well, we better not grow very many,'" McCarthy said. "By the time May came around, after they had seen the results of how sales had been going with other nursery products, it was like, 'We think that it's going to be a nice, strong season.' So we added more in, and started moving from there."

California had 51 poinsettia producers as of 2018, and together they sold just more than 7 million plants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Eisley said many of his poinsettias go to school fundraisers, and it isn't known yet whether they'll be able to reopen for the fall.

Though he supplies other efforts, the question will be "if they can have their fundraisers," Eisley said. "They might not be able to have a large gathering."

"Hopefully, they order," he said, "and instead of having their large gathering, we just drop them off and they come in and pick them up three, four people at a time."

As to the retail side, it's too early to know, Eisley said.

How that shakes out "depends on what kind of call they have for them," he said. "Hopefully, people keep supporting their local businesses so that we can stay in business."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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