Those who enter the nursery business as a career change do so for a variety of reasons: dissatisfaction with a present career, the loss of a job, the need to do something less stressful, or retirement from another career. Whatever the reason for changing, financial improvement is seldom a primary consideration. After all, the nursery business is a form of farming and few farmers amass much wealth.
It is very important to decide if the nursery business is to be a sideline or a full time business, providing income for your livelihood. This choice will determine the answers to many questions about your market and the product you choose to grow.
One interesting facet about the nursery business is the friendliness of the people involved. There are very few trades or businesses where a person who is starting out can obtain advice and assistance from people with whom he will one day be competing. The nursery business is such a field, within limits. For example, I've had people visit and ask us how to do many specific things related to plant propagation and then ask for free scion wood- all to start a propagation nursery. They didn't understand why I said no.
Most nurserymen are more than willing to lend a helping hand to the novice, provided, of course, that the novice is making a substantial effort on his own behalf. But no nurseryman will allow himself to be taken advantage of.
The first decision most people make when entering the nursery business is actually a decision that should be one of the last to be made. They base a decision about what to grow upon what they like, not necessarily upon what they can sell.
For example, a person enjoys growing fruit trees in a home orchard and has even grafted different varieties onto some of his trees. So he invests in a piece of ground and lines out a number of young fruit trees, figuring that when they become large enough he will sell them and make money.
This same story can apply to just about any facet of the nursery business. Take the person who completes an extension course and through discussions with his classmates and instructor decides what he wants to grow. Unfortunately, just like the orchardist, he has put the cart before the horse.
Unless a person takes a very systematic approach to entering the nursery business, the results can be disastrous. A neglected field of poorly grown stock being choked out by weeds or a field of beautifully grown, but unsold, stock can easily result.
A number of decisions have to be made by the aspiring nurseryman. They don't necessarily have to be made in the order presented, but they do have to be made.
A person should decide if he is going to have a wholesale or retail operation. There are basic differences between the two. The wholesale nurseryman must grow a large number of plants of only a few varieties while dealing with a relatively small number of customers. He will be able to concentrate more completely upon growing and working with the plants.
The retail nurseryman handles a smaller number of plants of a wide variety and deals with a much larger customer base than the wholesaler. He must be more of a marketing expert and know the growth requirements and landscape uses of a substantial number of plants.
If a person enjoys working with many different people on a daily basis and a wide variety of plant material, then the retail plant business should be considered. If he doesn't like to spend a lot of time selling his plants and wants to concentrate on the farming aspects of the nursery business, then he should be a wholesale grower.
A newcomer to the nursery business must choose one or the other. Trying to do both retail and wholesale will usually mean that neither is done very well. There is too much dilution of effort. An experienced nurseryman can consider combining both retailing and wholesaling into one operation, but he must be careful. A wholesaler does not want to compete with his own local customers by opening a retail area. Likewise, a retailer who opens a wholesale department will find many of his retail customers expecting to make wholesale priced purchases.
Once the retail/wholesale decision is made then marketing must be studied.
A course on marketing at a local community college can be a good investment for the new nurseryman, especially since marketing involves a number of parameters. Where are the customers located? The plants must be suited to their tastes and growing conditions. Where are the competitors?
The decisions up to this point should have provided some direction about how to sell what is to be grown. Now it is time to make some specific determinations about the crops. The wholesaler may do some brokering, but he will grow the majority of what he sells. He must grow large quantities of a relatively few items. He must be a successful farmer as well as an astute businessman.
The retailer, on the other hand, will purchase much of what he sells, growing a much smaller percentage of his crop than the wholesaler. He must work with relatively small quantities of many different varieties. But even so, some growing is very beneficial since some costs can be reduced and, with a good plan, the retailer won't have to worry about shortages of choicer material.
Marketing studies will help both the retailer and the wholesaler decide what material to offer for sale. But the wholesaler should take things at least one step further. Attending a local trade show will provide much good information. Obtain catalogs from as many distributors as possible and find out what they are growing. Look for common items. Those are things that must sell well. Talk to the growers and find out what they have sold out of. Talk to other buyers and get a feel for the kind of things they want to purchase. Having open eyes and studying what others are growing will be a big help in determining what to grow. But most of what you grow may be based upon other criteria- sometimes nothing more than "gut instinct."
Don't just go to a nursery in your area and ask them what you should grow. And especially don't ask a future competitor for his own special methods of producing saleable plants.
If a person decides to be a grower, either as a wholesaler or as a retailer producing part of his own merchandise, he must obtain liners. Liners are the young, immature plants that will be grown into a saleable product.
Liners must either be purchased from a propagation nursery or propagated in-house. Unless you are willing and able to expend considerable capital in obtaining stock plants and constructing propagation facilities, purchasing is a much wiser choice. When you have so many other things to learn, learning the art of propagation could lead to a dilution of your efforts. And in many cases, in-house propagation is actually not as cost effective as purchasing liners for growing-on. The propagation nursery will also be willing to help you make some decisions about items to grow but only if you can ask about specific plants. Even then, since a propagation nursery is not a grower, there is some guesswork involved.
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