Gaining momentum

Gaining momentum

State of the Industry - Cover story

When Chris Uhland, owner of Harmony Hill Nursery, changed his focus from quantity to quality, he gained a stronger footing in the market.

Cover Photography: parikha mehta photography

Volume may have carried the nursery industry for many successful years, but a massive market shift forced one young nurseryman to make tough decisions early in his career.

Chris Uhland, CEO of Harmony Hill Nursery in Downingtown, Pa., learned that thriving in this industry meant he had to make considerable changes to his business plan.

A decade ago, he would have lined out 2,500 red maples with a focus on quantity. Prior to the Great Recession, that model made a lot of nurseries money. But once the economy turned south, Uhland knew he had to shift his efforts to stand out in a crowd of tree growers.

“We added landscape-size shrubs, and species of trees that weren’t too common in our region such as redbuds and American hornbeams,” Uhland says. “That’s the type of plant material that commands a higher price.”

His nursery is no longer solely focused on commodities, and he’s added species such as paperbark maple to accompany the tried-and-true trees like October Glory red maple. He’s also added “nativars” to the mix, including Rising Sun, Merlot and Forest Pansy redbud, as well as an indigenous blackgum.

Uhland evaluated product he was receiving from vendors, and chose to go with more robust liners that outshined some of the material he used to buy. Although that cost more upfront, a better start translated to a better finish.

He also started buying 3-gallon material and bumped it up to 5-, 7- and 10-gallons, which his crew could turn around in less than a year.

“That’s been a good business decision for us and the price margins have been good,” he says.

Uhland adopted a new production strategy this year, that he thinks will pay off in healthier and heartier plants. He trialed spot fertigation for newly lined out bareroot material and container-grown liners. He switched to an organic, microbial-based product from Holganix that’s applied in early spring, late spring to early summer, and again in late summer.

“It’s a little more labor intensive, but the fertigation gets into the root system faster than the granular product we were using before,” he explains.

He was able to see the results of the fertigation treatments after running into a problem this spring. His bareroot liners came in on time, but Uhland was in the middle of a labor crisis and didn’t have the crew needed to get them planted right away.

“We heeled in our liners, which had been fertigated, and while we were waiting to get them planted, some of the material leafed out. I was concerned about losses, but by making the fertigation applications, it actually saved a lot of material and jumpstarted it,” he says. “In a typical year we may have a 5 percent loss of new material. And without that fertigation treatment, I think it would have been worse. But with the treatment, our loss percentage remained the same.”

The price is right

Those changes prompted a better-quality product, which in turn triggered Uhland to raise prices.

He’s raised container stock prices 8 ½ percent, and increased the price of field-grown material 15 percent this year.

“I’m always nervous about a price increase, but as growers, we’ve got to get enough for our product to increase our profits,” he says. “Before any price increase, I talk to my main sales rep and get his feedback, and speak to a few key customers to get a feel for how the market will take it.”

The prices are certainly justified with the changes Uhland has made in his business during the last 15 years.

“Our product has shifted so much in 15 years, and now we’re buying higher-quality liners. When our customers come to the farm and see the improvements we’ve made – better material, better quality – they know they’re getting their money’s worth. That improved product can substantiate a better price. I’d rather apologize for a price increase than apologize for a bad product.”

Uhland and his team are growing fewer plants than in years past, but concentrating on the process has allowed them to enjoy significant sales increases each year. Since 2013, Harmony Hill has realized a 20-percent sales gain each year. And he expects another 20 or 21 percent increase by the end of this year.

Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’
Cover Photography: parikha mehta photography

Labor in limbo

As unbelievable as it may sound to many of his fellow nursery owners, this was the first year Uhland faced a labor shortage.

“We’ve always been fortunate to have many of our seasonal workers return, and we’ve always had a very strong Hispanic community here,” he says.

Also in prior years, Uhland was able to source a lot of seasonal labor from a local church.

But this year, the “regulars” didn’t show up. It was an unexpected turn of events.

“From what I understand, they went to more urbanized areas. Now we’re looking at different programs, and we’re planning to use more people from Puerto Rico next spring. But I’m not sure just yet how the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico will affect that program.”

Uhland will supply housing, pay for their transportation to the U.S., and help them get transportation once they’re here.

“This year was a scramble, and I’m hoping it will be better next year,” he says.

Market outlook

The Philadelphia area and along the “Main Line” (a region that runs northwest from downtown Philadelphia to US Route 30) is enjoying a boost in construction, including a “steady stream of residential projects,” he says. His business into New England dropped some, but that was due in part to the region’s dry summer in 2016. He expects that business to pick up again.

The industry is still facing shortages of any deciduous tree over 2 inches in caliper, he says. And this fall Harmony Hill sold out of all of its 2 1/2-inch red maples.

“I expect the shortages to continue into next spring. Some customers are paying in advance for next spring’s deliveries,” he explains.

Assuredly, the industry will continue to deal with labor shortages.

“I have liner orders with some of my larger vendors that can’t be delivered because there’s not enough labor on the West Coast,” he says. “I was cut on several product allotments this summer, so West Coast labor problems are affecting us on the East Coast. I couldn’t get any zelkova, and it was tough to find some oaks like pin, swamp, white and red.”

Although the next year may be a challenge because of labor, Uhland says there’s a bright spot with more young people getting involved in the business.

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re finally attracting more young people to the industry. It’s a lot more positive than say two years ago. And we have a new employee who’s in his 20s that has a good attitude and is excited about the work,” he adds.

Uhland and his entire staff are excited about the nursery industry. It’s an appreciation that’s hard to miss.

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