Flowers, Vegetables, CSAs and Sustainability in a Challenging Economy

January 16, 2011

Connor Shaw and the state of the horticultural industry

Talking to Connor Shaw is always an adventure, and not just because he knows so much about native plants. He’s been the proprietor of Possibility Place Nursery in Monee, Illinois since 1978 and he’s one of the straightest shooters in the business. Of course, some people might call that being a loose cannon. I call it good radio.

To say it hasn’t been the best couple of years in the horticultural business is something akin to saying that the Chicago Cubs are in a bit of a World Series slump. Industry icons Park Seed and Jackson & Perkins filed for bankruptcy last year. We have seen a number of garden centers close in and around Chicago. Some are hanging on by their fingernails. One person in the industry told me that his business is off by 90% in the past two years. I don’t know, frankly, how some companies stay afloat at all.

The latest development comes from industry giant Monrovia, which is being pressured by its banks to raise $20 million in revenues by the end of this month. Monrovia put out an S.O.S. to its customers–meaning independent garden centers–urging them to step up and purchase inventory, warning that they might be forced to sell to box stores, which they have not done to this point, if they could not generate the sales. In response, a group of 75 garden retailers pledged their support and agreed to purchase more Monrovia product. That has caused people like Garden Rant‘s Amy Stewart to wonder whether it’s time to develop a new business paradigm.

This is also the week for the Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show (Mid-Am) at Navy Pier. I’m sure that, as a small business owner, and former board member of Mid-Am, Connor Shaw will have a few interesting things to say about where the horticultural industry goes from here. Hey, we might even get around to talking about native plants. You never know.

[Update: Industry friends J.R. Rizzi of Rizzi’s Flower Garden in Plainfield and Dan Kosta of Vern Goers Greenhouse in Hinsdale called to offer their opinions. Rizzi said that when everybody in the world is selling plants, the garden centers lose. That prompted Dan to write this to me:

“I think J. R. Rizzi was correct about the dilution of the
market. Back when I was a kid (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) the independant garden centers and mail order businesses were the only places to get plants. Now there are also plants at all the big box stores, many grocery stores, some hardware stores, as well as mail order and internet sources.

Let’s hope that things get better soon while there is still something left.”

Could be a rough year.]

“Living Off (and With) the Land” at the Morton Arboretum

While the idea of sustainability has taken off in the last decade, there are people who have been practicing this concept for decades. Three of those folks are Ron and Vicki Nowicki and Bill and Rebecca Wilson. Ron and Vicki have been growing ornamentals and edibles in their Downers Grove yard for thirty years, while creating landscaping businesses like The Land Office, which focuses on Landscape design and construction with an ecological conscience, and Liberty Gardens, which helps people weave sustainable, organic food into their garden designs.

In fact, Ron and Vicki have been described as “the poster children for Suburban Permaculture Design.” Who said that? Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture, an organization dedicated to supporting the transition of our society “from a culture of consumption into a culture of creation,” in their own words. Located in downstate Stelle, Illinois, Midwest Permaculture’s goals are to “teach people to grow food just about anywhere, repair environmentally damaged lands, design lovely and long lasting green-buildings, produce the power they need, run successful, people-oriented businesses doing work they love, and live meaningful and authentic lives while building genuine community.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Ron and Bill have teamed up to present a seminar called “Living Off (and With) the Land,” on Saturday, January 22 at the Morton Arboretum. The workshop takes you through the basics of permaculture and how it is applied to the home landscape.
Students will learn fundamental principles of ecological landscape design and get practical recommendations from two of the best in the business.

Megan Dunning, Manager of Community Education and Outreach at the Morton Arboretum, says that this seminar represents a new direction of sustainability education at the Arb, called the Eco-Friendly Gardening Workshop series, geared towards home gardeners.

Good Growing: Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm

We’ll get to Cedar Valley in just a moment. First, though, I want to do a follow up to Mr. Brown Thumb‘s visit to the show last week. He talked about this year’s version of One Seed Chicago, the annual vote to determine the most popular seed in town. This year’s candidates are eggplant, radish and Swiss chard, with voting going on until April 1.

As you know if you have seen my home page today, I’ve thrown the full weight of Mike Nowak LLC behind getting Swiss chard elected as “seed of the year” (or whateve they’re calling it.) For those people who think that backing Swiss chard (which isn’t from Switzerland, anyway) is anti-American, I say phhhhhhhhht!

And now onto today’s guest, Beth Osmund from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Illinois. I’ve talked in the past about CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) but mostly focused on vegetables. However, for those of us who enjoy being omnivores but who worry about how that meat is being raised and processed, there are farms like Cedar Valley. In their own words, ” We raise our and animals in ways that nurture and respect nature’s systems.” Cedar Valley is an old-fashioned family farm on the banks of Indian Creek, where Jody and Beth Osmund returned a few years ago to become sustainable farmers and raise their sons: Richard, Duncan and Jack.

Once again, my thanks to the great folks at Angelic Organics Learning Center for setting up this interview.