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Features - Conference recap

Attendees of the 2022 Nursery Management Conference shared their triumphs and struggles with their peers and went home with a few good ideas.

November 4, 2022

Kelli Rodda and Richard May
Christie’s Photographic Solutions

The 2022 Nursery Management Conference took place Sept. 26-28 in Fort Worth, Texas. The event kicked off with a discussion on market relevance led by Lloyd Traven, who founded Peace Tree Farm with his wife Candy in 1983.

In his talk, Traven shared his frank observations about the green industry’s need to stay relevant in order to maintain the success of the past two years.

For years, there has been a discussion about a national marketing campaign for horticulture – something along the lines of “got milk?” or “the incredible edible egg.” Much time was spent on this issue, but the industry could never agree on a plan and never pulled the trigger. Traven said the whole issue was moot as none of those national plans ever truly worked. They did not increase the sales of the targeted products. And when we weren’t even trying, a new 16 million gardeners showed up ready to buy.

“Consumers have never been listening,” he said. “We never needed to have that message sent out, because when COVID hit and we all thought life as we knew it was over, the consumer found us. It wasn’t our brilliance that got them into the stores. It had nothing to do with us. They came to us in spite of us.”

Now that consumers have arrived, the conversation has shifted to what the industry can do to keep that interest. How do the industry stay relevant?

The old mission statement was “Differentiate or die,” Traven said. But he considers this mantra not good enough anymore. Relevance is the key word, and that’s the starting point for growers.

For many businesses, they start with the question, “What’s new?” But Traven thinks we can improve that.

“‘What’s better’ is better,” he said. “Or ‘What’s different?’”

Those are the questions you should aim to answer with your own marketing.

Three vital questions the consumer asks are: What does it do for me? How does it make me feel? How easy is it to find? The new, improved mission statement he suggests: leverage passion.

Growers and retailers need to help the consumer overcome their fear of failure and meet their definition of success – the only definition that counts. And we have to do it on their terms. Whether it’s text messages or online shopping, we have to be willing to adapt if we want their business.

“We have the product they want,” Traven said. “We just have to listen to how they want to find us. Because I want your business, so text, online, you tell me. How do you want to engage?”

Alicia Rihn, assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at The University of Tennessee, has been studying consumer behavior in regard to horticultural products for several years. She explained her findings to NMC attendees in the next session. Our industry needs to understand the minds of these 16-18 million new gardeners that entered the marketplace in 2020. Rihn said they are inexperienced, but seeking hands-on experience with plants. Roundtable discussion after her session explored ways to improve marketing messaging and add value to your products.

After a delicious lunch featuring authentic Tex-Mex, editorial director Kelli Rodda led a panel discussion on supply chain relationships in 2022. Richard and Ashley May from May Nursery shared their experiences, and Ed Tavender from Fossil Creek Tree Farm, and Todd Sankey from EarthWorks provided the landscape contractor perspective.

After a networking and refreshment break, the attendees reconvened for a economic outlook session. Emily Perlmeter, senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and Jeff Burch, commercial agribusiness market manager for Bank of the West covered the state of small business and answered audience questions on pricing, lending and more. John Soukup of Southwest Perennials joined them to provide a grower perspective on the discussion.

On Day 2, the educational sessions and roundtable discussions continued. In the post-pandemic lessons panel, three growers shared how they handled the unique challenges of the past few years. For all three, however, it came down to people: how you find the right ones, how you develop them into star members of the team and how you treat them to keep them around. Robert Saunders, general manager of Saunders Brothers, went in-depth on his family operation’s efforts to recruit great people, allow them to build momentum and find their passion, then retain them. Second-generation family business leader Brandi Marek, currently a business advisor at Ferguson Alliance LLC, shared how the pandemic affected Magnolia Gardens Nursery. Traven joined the panel to add his thoughts, as well.

Finally, for the final session of the conference, retired extension specialist James Robbins and Joe Mari Maja, research sensor engineer at Clemson University, provided an informative workshop on drone use for nursery production. Attendees learned about flight regulations, types of platforms and sensors, and received a detailed list of recommended drone hardware and data processing software.

Watch for an announcement regarding the next Nursery Management Conference.